December 8, 2009

This week we’ll be exploring two closely-related topics, consumerism (particularly during the holiday season) and ways we can green up our lives.

Our guest will be Mike Robbins, who is the chief editor for a new book called The Whole Green Catalog: 1000 Best Things for You and the Earth. Like the original Whole Earth Catalog, it is filled with practical tips, resources for investigation, as well as some green products for the environmentally conscious.

(In addition, we will also do a follow-up on last week’s show about the Copenhagen U.N. Climate Change conference and invite you to attend a Copenhagen Learn In and Vigil that will be taking place in Chico this coming Thursday.)

Background on Green Consumerism

In the introduction to The Whole Green Catalog (Rodale 2009), long-time environmentalist Bill McKibben writes:

New technologies are making all kinds of conservation easier. Google, for instance, has just released free technology to let you monitor how much electricity your house is using at any given moment—it’s an enormous incentive to see that when you unplug that flashing phone charger or that unwatched television set, there’s a noticeable dip in the current.

On the road there are of course hybrid cars (and soon plug-in hybrids, a really revolutionary technology).  But just as important, your iPhone now comes with applications that let you easily arrange to share a ride to the grocery story—remember, half as many car trips is the same as driving twice as efficient a vehicle.

Of course, those technologies also cost money, money to buy your iPhone, money to tap into the network, money to buy that fuel-efficient hybrid, and we have wondered about an issue raised by the title of a recent presentation at the “Sustainability Now” Conference: “Can we spend our way to sustainability?”

And the spending season is now upon us, starting with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the big box stores are opening earlier and earlier. Toys R Us now seems to hold the record, opening its doors at midnight, while places like Sears and Target had more restrained opening hours like 4 am or 5 am—get there and buy before the bargains are gone and the sun rises.

Steve recently edited the December issue of Peaceful Action, the newsletter of the Chico Peace and Justice, and want to share a few of the ideas that emerged from that:

“Be glad that you’re greedy; the national economy would collapse if you weren’t.”  writes Mignon McLaughlin.

“You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy,” said Eric Hoffer

And Ghandi observed, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

Writing for Peaceful Action, Lin Jensen, who appeared on this program just a few weeks ago, said:

What’s clear to me is that the invariable offspring of consumerism is more consumerism, that wanting engenders wanting, and that no lasting satisfaction is likely to result from getting what I want. Like greed, of which it is an expression, wanting is self-perpetuating until opposed by self-restraint. Twenty-six hundred years ago in India, the Buddha observed that the hunger to possess was a source of dissatisfaction, a characteristic condition of modern industrial societies. We’d get along quite contentedly without the latest high resolution TV if we didn’t give rise to thoughts of its possession. But we do give rise to thoughts of possession and are encouraged to do so by every conceivable marketing device available. And from this circumstance arises a chronic dissatisfaction just as the Buddha said it would. We become restless to spend and own, and once conditioned to seek satisfaction in that manner, we find no end to it.

Writing about Buddhist economics on, Barbara O’Brien notes that there are no easy ways out of the trap of consumerism, for we all live in the world and are a part of it.  Even if we want a green planet, we are also caught up in the machinery that is ungreening the planet at a frightening rate.  She observes:

Much of the world’s economy is fueled by desire and consumption. Because people buy things, things must be manufactured and marketed, which gives people jobs so they have money to buy things. If people stop buying things, there is less demand, and people are laid off their jobs. . . . Even if we are moderate in our own wants, a great many of us depend on other people buying stuff they don’t need for our jobs. Is this “right livelihood”?

Manufacturers cut the cost of products by underpaying and exploiting workers or by cutting corners needed to protect the environment. A more responsible company may not be able to compete with an irresponsible one. As consumers, what do we do about this? It’s not always an easy question to answer.

To live is to want. When we are hungry, we want food. When we are tired, we want rest. We want the company of friends and loved ones. There is even the paradox of wanting enlightenment. Buddhism doesn’t ask us to renounce companionship or the things we need to live.

The challenge is to distinguish between what is wholesome — taking care of our physical and psychological needs — and what is unwholesome….

We don’t have to run screaming from all of life’s pleasures. As practice matures, we learn to distinguish between the wholesome and the unwholesome — what supports our practice and what hinders it. ….The challenge is to live in a material culture without getting snared by it.

It isn’t easy, and we all stumble, but with practice, desire loses its power to jerk us around.

Our Conversation with Michael Robbins

Michael W. Robbins is editor of the Whole Green Catalog: 1,000 Best Things for You and the Eath. He has also been editor-in-chief of Audubon Magazine and has written for Mother Jones, Popular Science, and Discover magazines. Welcome, Michael Robbins.

Part I:   Tips for Going Green

  1. Can you begin by describing the Catalog? What does it contain? What is its purpose? (Talk about the various subsections.) Who is your target audience?
  2. To illustrate the catalog for our listeners, please describe one or several of your personal favorite entries.
  3. There are 20 or so people who contributed to the catalog. Can you tell us something about how they worked and what they did?
  4. What were your criteria for selecting entries for the catalog? (What’s the rationale for the various subjections that are included?)
  5. How do you define “greenwashing”? What did you do to avoid including products or services or suggestions that are simply re-packaging of old ideas or products that masquerade as green?
  6. What emphasis does “reduce, reuse, recycle” have in the catalog? How did you balance concerns for reduced consumerism with highlighting new products?
  7. One of the claims of the catalog is that going green doesn’t have to be expensive. Tell us about that. At the same time, some of the items in the catalog are a bit pricey—is “being green” something that is limited people in the higher income brackets?

Part II: The Whole Green Catalog

  1. There are lots of different kinds of entries in the catalog. Some are products, some are historical or scientific facts, some are tips of various sorts. Can you tell us more about the different kinds of entries?
  2. How do you imagine people using the catalog in their daily lives?
  3. With the holidays coming up, let’s do some virtual shopping for people looking for gifts.
    • We know several people who are having babies in the next few months. What tips and products are available for babies and parents?
    • We’re big travelers and we’ve begun to worry about the carbon footprint produced by travel. What suggestions does the catalog have for green travelers?
    • We’re holiday shopping for a conservative family member who thinks climate change is a bunch of hoohaa. What could we find in the catalog to slip in his stocking subversively to help him be green?

Update on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

Last week on Ecotopia we talked about the U.N. Copenhagen Climate Change conference, the most important environmental conference of this century.  We talked with Alexander Ochs of the Worldwatch Institute and have been following his briefings from Copenhagen this week.  And if you are a listener to Democracy Now on KZFR, you know that Amy Goodman has been broadcasting from Copenhagen all this week.

We’d like to invite listeners to Ecotopia to an event that will take place this Thursday in Chico that will focus on Copenhagen.  It’s called “A Learn-In and Vigil for a Real Deal at Copenhagen,” and it will start at 6 pm this Thursday at the Chico Peace and Justice Center, 526 Broadway.

We’ll begin with the “Learn In” at 6 pm where we’ll fire up the laptop and video projector and look at some of the news stories and videos that have been emanating from Copenhagen this week. What’s the news?  What’s the politics?  What are the hopes for a serious climate change treating coming from the conference?

Then at 7, we’ll go over to City Plaza for a candlelight vigil, where people will also have a chance to talk about the wishes and hopes, not only for global treaties, but for enviornmental stewardship here in the northstate.

Both these events are linked to a larger global movement sponsored by Azzaz, an international organization that aims to get the voice of the people to world leaders. There will be vigils all over the globe, and at our vigil, you’ll have a chance to sign a petition by Azzaz that will be delivered to Copenhagen delegates calling for a treaty that is that is ambitious enough to leave the planet safe for us all, fair for the poorest countries that did not cause climate change but are suffering from it, and binding, with real targets that can be legally monitored and enforced.”  You join nine million other global citizens in signing a letter to our leaders saying that “The World is Ready” for a serious climate change treaty.

So please plan to join us:  That’s Thursday evening, December 10, 6 pm, at the Peace and Justice Center, 526 Broadway.  You can also see details at the Center’s website,

Playlist for Ecotopia #63: The Whole Green Catalog

1. Shop ‘Til Ya Drop       7:34   Rockthrow    Big Hits of Big Lever Brought to You By Bosso

2. reduce, reuse, recycle         3:35   The Junkman (Donald Knaack)     Junk Music 2

3. Buy Me Stuff for Christmas 3:26  The Hellblinki Sextet     Xmas from Hellblinki (Four Years of the Hellblinki Sextet and the 12 Bands of Christmas)

4. Love Etc. 3:32   Pet Shop Boys     Yes (Bonus Track Version)

5. Recycle Reuse Reduce        2:46   Heidi Howe       Give a Hootenanny!

6. Weave Me the Sunshine      4:28   Peter, Paul And Mary     The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. The 3 R’s 2:54   Jack Johnson     Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies For The Film Curious George

8. Powerhouse      2:56   Don Byron   Bug Music

9. Working On A Dream 3:30   Bruce Springsteen   Working On A Dream

10. Salute Your Solution         3:00   The Raconteurs   Consolers Of The Lonely