Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Living Greener--and Enjoying It!

This essay is dedicated to Glenn, Howard, and Jim, my green inspirations.

Want to live greener? Try moving to a less developed country!

While living in US, I suffered from “green angst.” I worried myself sick about the planetary impact of my consuming too much of the earth’s natural resources. Over the years, I joined Zero Population Growth and the Sierra Club, donated money to Friends of the Earth et al, and volunteered at nature centers. That provided a regular bombardment of tips for easing my guilty consumerist conscience.

Recycle, reduce, and reuse! (And as Yankee friends intoned, “Make do or do without.”)

How I struggled to do all that while living in the Land of Plenty and Then Some! (Admittedly, the “do without” option received less attention.) Despite good intentions, I barely lowered my consumption of electricity, plastic, gas, food, protein, or jet fuel. (Those 10-hour flights from JFK to Buenos Aires do add up!)

Okay, we limited ourselves to two “replacement” children, never bought an SUV, and we turned off the PC and turned down the thermostat at night. Compared to neighbors, our blue bins had more, our garbage cans less, but any eco-court could convict me of breaking several commandments even before a bag of microwave popcorn could finish ka-popping.

Well, guess what! Now they'll first have to extradite me from Argentina. And I am going to plead “no longer as guilty.” Even without the Sierra Club and with scant environmental activism, it's easier to live greener in this "developing country." Sans biodegrable or “earth-friendly” products, folks are raping and poisoning the Mother Nature a lot less. Even a tourist will note that people use both sides of a sheet of paper and reuse newspapers, scraps, envelopes, plastic bags, and more. And the most common toilet paper is one-ply and unbleached. If only it were in all the public restrooms! Agreed, littering and poor public sanitation are higher here.)

Living more in harmony with nature is not necessarily by choice here. And it can be more time-consuming for a full-time resident.

First, you will find less stuff to buy here. With fewer than 38 million residents, Argentina boasts about the same population as California. I bet my native turf of Orange County (home to both Disneyland and the Crystal Cathedral) alone manufactures and imports more goods than all of Argentina’s 24 provinces combined. You won’t find umpteen models of every electronic device or a zillion kinds breakfast cereal here. Coffee comes in one flavor: espresso. Bells and whistles on products are rare. This year, for example, refrigerators with water and ice dispensers finally debuted to a lackluster audience.

Also, Argentinians buy FEWER things. People make do with what they have. The average person consumes far less fossil fuel energy and expends a lot more personal energy. The millions who don’t have cars ride motorcycles or bikes. And EVERYONE walks. A lot. Sensitive to the price of electricity more than its global implications, many have switched to energy-saving bulbs. Electrical appliances are fewer and simpler. Almost no one has a dishwasher or clothes dryer. Despite hot humid summers, people manage without air conditioning. We clean the floors with brooms, not vacuum cleaners. Overall, folks rely more on muscle power, though Roberto says he once saw an electric can opener in a restaurant. One form of solar power is popular: Argentine housewives, including me, hang clothes to dry (and drape them over the banister if it rains).

They keep what they buy longer. If things break, they get repaired. Okay, sometimes it takes weeks or months, and that is a downer. But it means less junk in landfills. My friend Graciela still drives her 1980 station wagon! So does my housekeeper, whom I admire tremendously for her salvaging abilities. When a wooden platter broke, she deftly glued it back together before I could (shame!) toss it out. Even though there is no municipal recycling, I’m leaving a lot less at the curb for the garbage truck. It helps that packaging is nonexistent or minimal.

Another point: Argentines buy SMALLER things. Smaller houses (1,200 square feet on average). Smaller refrigerators (like grandma had). Smaller cars. (Think sub-subcompact). Skirts are smaller too, but that’s another story. Kids don’t have giant playrooms overfilled with toys that don’t get used. Bikes have 3-speeds (and no reflectors!).

So, First Worlders! Get your electricity-free, petroleum-free, wrapper-free fun right here in the land of tango and malbec. You won’t see anyone accumulating frequent flyer points flying around the country, large as it is. Families will be expecting you at home on the weekends, as they don’t pile into the minivan for a mini-break at the mountains or shore. They don’t even drive much, and tons of folks have switched to using natural gas to power cars. You won’t be bothered by jet skis or cigarette boats or ATVs either if you do want to experience nature, all though that’s not a common pastime. People here relax with family and friends, savoring barbecues and wine. The kids too. Teens, who rarely have cars, hang around with the family on Saturdays until midnight, and then walk to the nearest disco where they expend a lot of personal energy dancing until 4 or 5 a.m. If I were 18, I’d go too!

Meanwhile, I take comfort in knowing that I have at last succeeded in reducing dramatically my consumption of scarce natural resources with a lot less effort. I’m living green at last—and enjoying it.

If only it came with a good house salad!


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