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03/26/2007: "A Few Questions About The Co$t of Environmental Living"

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I recently read an article in the New York Times about Colin Beavan and his family, who are trying to balance living for a whole year in the middle of New York without generating any trash. Beavan, a writer and self-professed "guilty liberal" is chronicling the odyssey at his blog, No Impact Man. Their rules, besides generating no trash (which includes toilet paper), involve only eating food produced within 250 miles of NYC and no modern transportation. Depsite their self-induced deprivation, their upper-middle class urban professional lives continue unabated, much to the amusement of their friends and family. And of course, a documentary crew is filming everything.

After reading about the No Impact Man, my first reaction was anger at the state of the world tempered with admiration. I think his goal is an admirable one, but the article merely reinforces my belief that environmentalism is viewed as, and is only affordable for, the wealthy at this point in time. Not too far from where I grew up in Boston, there are three huge public housing towers on one side of a major railroad line. On the other side of the tracks is a shopping center with a Whole Foods Market.

I think it is great that there has been a proliferation of small independent businesses offering environmentally friendly and healthy alternatives to many mass-produced products. Unfortunately, out of economic necessity, I cannot purchase most of them. Environmentally-friendly products and organic foods are, quite simply, out of the price range of many people who would like to consume them. For a poorer family living in the aforementioned public housing, choosing whether to buy a pound of hamburger and a box of Hamburger Helper to feed several people or going to the Whole Foods with the same amount of money and purchasing much less food is not much of a choice at all.

While it is great that Mr. Beavan and his family are not using carbon-based transportation, they are lucky enough to live in a city that has a massive public transportation grid. For a poorer family who lives in an area with no public transporation, where the nearest grocery store is 10 miles away and the father's job is 50 miles away, they have no choice but to use a car every day.

I also salute Mr. Beavan having his maid switch to using more environmentally-friendly cleaning products. Unfortunately for most families who cannot afford a domestic, after spending most of their grocery budget on food, they have very little money to choose the environmentally-friendly alternative cleaning product and purchase Comet instead.

I am not trying to tear down Mr. Beavan's noble experiment, which, after all, is attempting to prove whether a city dweller can live "impact-free" in one of the biggest cities in the world. What I want to address is the fact that if it is hard for someone of Mr. Beavan's economic resources to live in this manner, it is nearly impossible at this point in America for most people. In fact, it will be nearly impossible for every American to live "impact-free" unless it is affordable for everyone to do so. Even if it is affordable for everyone to do so, are we going to mandate that everyone live this way? Do we want to live in a world where people are forced to give up at gunpoint by a Federal environmental policeman the keys to their SUV and forced to eat Annie's Macaroni and Cheese? Is there any way, short of literally witnessing the skies tuning black and the water catching on fire for those people to change their ways?

I salute Mr. Beavan choosing to live in a manner that is consistent with his beliefs and I hope that he addresses these questions in the course of his work.

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March 2007

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