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Eco Etiquette: How To Deal With Green Guilt

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GREEN GUILT ECO ETIQUETTE
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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I used to be excited about going green, but now I'm starting to feel like I can never do enough. I feel guilty if I sometimes forget to recycle something, or grab a [disposable] cup of coffee at a Starbucks. How can I deal? My boyfriend says I'm kind of obsessed...

-Janine

To be perfectly honest, until recently I hadn't paid much attention to the concept of green guilt. I figured we all berate ourselves from time to time for our sustainability shortcomings: None of us is perfect where the planet is concerned, after all. That's something I acknowledged in my very first Eco Etiquette column.

Whether it's the vegan wearing PVC shoes or the "eco-mom" adding three kids to an exploding world population, we all have room for improvement.

Sure, on recent occasion, I felt bad about tossing, rather than rinsing out and recycling, those tiny plastic containers filled with hot mustard and plum sauce that congealed in the refrigerator for weeks after ordering Chinese takeout. I also felt bad about ordering that Chinese takeout to begin with (all those disposable containers!).

Come to think of it, instead of ordering takeout I probably should have just put up that big pot of organic white bean stew with the farmers market kale I had in the fridge and those dried beans I bought from the bulk bin...

In all seriousness though, enough people have been talking about green guilt that it evidently has become "a thing." Case in point: An intriguing new little book with a disarmingly large title that recently arrived in my mailbox. Entitled Spit That Out! The Overly Informed Parent's Guide to Raising Children in the Age of Environmental Guilt, the paperback -- by first-time author Paige Wolf -- promises to help mothers on the verge of a "green mom nervous breakdown."

At first glance, it all seemed well, a tad self-indulgent. As someone who was raised by a Jewish mother, I actually think a touch of guilt can be a good thing. To this day, when I drive past a fast-food restaurant, I hear a phrase oft-repeated by my mom throughout my childhood. "Sweetie," she would say. "We don't eat that [pronounced with a French accent] garbage." (And I don't.)

I also think that when it comes to the environment, we do have an enormous amount to feel guilty about: We've overfished the world's oceans to near extinction. We export hazardous waste to third-world countries so we can have the latest techno-gadgets. And we keep fueling up at the pump despite a spill that dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Wouldn't connecting with that guilt help light a fire under all of us to actually take action?

The problem, outlines Wolf in her book, is that being armed with all of this knowledge can be overwhelming rather than empowering. "...We are bombarded with new and contradictory research concerning environmental toxins, long-term product effects, and the far-reaching impact of every item we purchase and decision we make," she writes. "...All this information can feel like too much burden to handle."

And being overwhelmed often leads to being paralyzed. After all, guilt, by definition, is only the awareness (and resulting anxiety) that we're doing something wrong -- it doesn't mean we're necessarily going to do anything about it.

Even well-known environmentalists aren't free from feeling paralyzing guilt: Josh Dorfman of Lazy Environmentalist fame, for instance, admitted in a New York Times article last year that he "feels hypocritical" that he and his wife use disposable diapers for their young son.

Since the birth of my daughter, I've had to make my own eco-compromises: Abandoning homemade baby food for the store-bought organic kind. Sometimes letting my daughter play with the plastic toys that well-meaning friends and relatives have sent. And (evidently diapers are a sore spot) switching to gDiapers biodegradable diaper inserts for our cloth shells until we move to a place with our own washer/dryer.

My own confessions aside, what should we actually do about all this guilt? I took that question to my "green motherhood" panelists at the Women of the Green Generation Conference I spoke at last weekend. Didn't they, like the women in Wolf's book, feel sheepish about all of the trade-offs they've had to make?

Surprisingly no, they all concurred. "I'm over the green guilt," said organic cookbook author and Pregnancy Awareness Month founder Anna Getty.

"And working with our kids to make green choices -- however small they seem -- will help the greater good more than feeling sorry for ourselves," agreed eco lifestyle consultant Caroline Howell.

Parents may be the guiltiest demographic, but that advice -- along with the tips Wolf proffers -- pertain to all those suffering a crisis of environmental conscience:

Pat yourself on the back. Remember that perfect is unachievable, so instead focus on the positive choices that you are capable of making.

Lead by example. When you're feeling frustrated, remember that "We need to be the change we wish to see in the world," as Gandhi said. Focusing on our own shortcomings will do nothing to inspire others.

Work to make a difference on a larger scale. You'll feel more empowered if you work to enact political change, say, to require testing for toxic chemicals in cosmetics rather than harassing your husband to give up his favorite deodorant.

Want more tips on how to ease that green guilt? I'd tell you to pick up a copy of Wolf's book, but it's only printed on 30 percent recycled FSC-certified paper. (Just kidding -- you can order it here.)

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