Monkey see, monkey do

Back in mid-October I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about consumer habits in terms of making green choices. Turns out  that it isn’t financial incentives or more information that motivates people to adopt greener lifestyles, yet it is something more primitive and basic – several studies have shown that people were more likely to change their habits when they were under the impression that everyone else was doing it too. Peer pressure is a powerful tool.

But of course it carries a negative connotation as we can probably all remember as youngsters being advised by watchful adults not to give in to peer pressure.  When we give in to this type of peer pressure, it can most likely  be attributed to the fact that we don’t want to be left out.  Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?  The WSJ article points out that the peer pressure in this case affects decision makers as it has become somewhat of a matter of guilt.  ‘If everyone else is being environmentally conscious then I am not only left out by not contributing, but I feel guilty for not pitching in’, thinks the culprit.

I have a hunch now that the reason why I saw many more people at the grocery store in my hometown in Madison, CT using reusable grocery bags was not because they suddenly felt that they had a personal duty to reduce the number of plastic bags that are thrown into landfills each year, but more simply because their neighbors were doing it.  I say this only because CT has not imposed a 5 cent tax on plastic bags, and even if they did the majority of the people in Madison probably wouldn’t notice, so it sure isn’t due to financial incentives.  I dare say it has actually become fashionable to carry around a reusable bag.  Madisonites, along with almost everyone else, are merely trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Natalie Portman sporting her reusable bag. "Doesn’t she look so shabby chic?"

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What’s goin’ green in DC?

Like most people, I like to keep myself busy with things that interest me.  DC, and the metro area, seems to always be buzzing with activities and events.  As the nation’s capital, many of these affairs tend to be politically charged (e.g. Glenn Beck’s Rally back in August and Rally for Sanity tomorrow).  But the city is not lacking in other areas of interest either.  The environment has become a hot topic these days (no pun intended..ha…) and so I have noticed these activities are not lacking in this department.

Stephen Leeds and Michelle Moore

I recently attended a presentation run by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) entitled “A Peak at Progress – Federal Sustainability One Year Later” which featured two speakers who play a pivotal role in the federal government’s environmental agenda – the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Environmental Executive Michelle Moore and the General Services Administration’s Senior Sustainability Officer Stephen Leeds – who provided an insight into the progress the federal government has made a year after President Obama issued Executive Order 13514 which puts the federal government at the head of the sustainability movement.  The New York Times covers this presentation in more detail.

I was happy to find out that the presentation was open to the public, though judging from the number of hands that shot up when asked who was a federal employee, it seemed like the general public was the minority in the crowd.  Nonetheless, the presentation was encouraging and hopeful.  It’s hard to say whether it was this way because it was a report on progress and not a critique on progress.  There is no doubt that we are moving forward, but the question must be asked, are we moving as fast as we need to in order to reach our goals, and more importantly, in order to avoid a future of depleted natural resources?  The presentation maintained positive energy throughout and revealed that stricter regulations will be pushed forward to ensure that the federal government not only practices what it preaches, but becomes a leader in what it preaches.  I was satisfied with the presentation but plan to keep tabs on what’s going on more now that I am a resident of this country once again.

More recently though, I attended another environmental event where the general public was definitely not the minority, and where the agenda had little to do with federal sustainability.  I went to “Green Fest” which is a renowned festival celebrating sustainability, headlining in DC and San Francisco every year.  This festival is run by Global Exchange and Green America to help promote a greener lifestyle with stalls and booths that filled up the Convention Center giving out free samples of environmentally friendly foods and products or displaying their eco-friendly designs.

Speaker at Green Fest

There were also plenty of advocate groups and speakers for enlightening the curious about poverty in developing nations, veganism, fair trade, education, human rights etc. I had my fill of free samples (eat in and take away) and walked out with over a dozen pamphlets and samples  that I rummaged through when I got home.  The festival lasted the whole weekend but left more of a lasting impression.

It was encouraging (yet again) to see so many people interested in this event because the festival focused on the general public, and the role that we play in our society.  It puts the focus on us and how we can contribute to making a difference.  Not everyone can drop everything and go work in a developing country on a whim, but some can; not everyone will stop eating meat for environmental or moral reasons, but some will.  Catch my drift?  Green Fest had something for almost anyone and looks to inspire everyone in attendance.

Green Fest Recycling/Composting

Chopin – Nocturne in f minor. Op. 55As
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Lost In Transition

Having spent the last 2 years in London, I couldn’t imagine myself in any other city.  Granted, this was the only big city…and it is a Very big city…that I had ever lived in, something about London struck home with me.

But, as the saying goes “all good things must come to an end”, my 2 year saga in London finally came to an end, and I find myself once again in “the land of the free”.  In the grand scheme of things, 2 years is only a twelfth of my entire life so far so you would probably think it wouldn’t be too hard to transition back.  But for almost 4 years now, I have spent more time living outside of my native country then I had spent living there.  My first long term venture began the 2nd  day of 2007 when I studied abroad in Grenoble, France for 5 months.  I spent the remaining 7 months  back in the states, but ventured out, yet again, to another Francophone country – Quebec, Canada, for another 4-5 months.  3 months later I found myself in a country where although everyone spoke my language, their accent was funny.  Insert 2 years in London.  During my stay, I had the good fortune of exploring Europe which really opened my eyes to a different lifestyle.

With that said, I am having more troubles transitioning to the American lifestyle than I had anticipated.  One aspect of the European lifestyle, which will never compare with the United States, is their mode of transportation.  Almost every European country has some type of public transportation, be it a light rail (tram) or an underground system.  Even Grenoble, with a modest population of roughly 160,000 people, was well equipped with a tram line and bus system, keeping the low mountain dwellers connected.

Above from left to right – London’s underground, Paris’ Metro, Amsterdam’s Tram, Prague’s Tram, and inside Berlin’s underground train.

Unfortunately for the U.S., after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill in 1956 to authorize the Interstate Highway System, America has been doomed to depend on personal transportation (i.e. cars) to get around.

Interstate Highway plans – 1955

This has become an aspect of my lifestyle which has been difficult to transition away from since moving back to the states.  As someone who considers my impact on the environment, I don’t like the idea of driving everywhere.  Not to mention it seems like roads are becoming more and more crowded, putting my personal health at risk as traffic tends to stress me out to no end.

United States Commute Patterns for Major Cities

United States Commute Patterns for Major Cities

I must admit though, the northern east coast is pretty well linked with trains and subways.  NYC has an extensive subway system not to mention two main train stations which are home to lines which venture out to as far as Vermont.  Washington DC, and the metro area, also has a pretty decent public transportation network.  However drawbacks include the cost, reliability and efficiency.  It is refreshing to learn, though that Arlington, DC’s close neighbor, has been actively maintaining its bus systems to keep the Arlingtonians connected to the metro, which has successfully kept more and more cars off the roads.  Their master plan is well worth taking a look at for fellow public transit lovers.

As you can see, I am relearning the American ways of life, but can’t say that it has been easy.  I stopped eating meat (yes, that includes seafood) while I was in London and had no problems.  I have found it more difficult in the states to support this new eating habit of mine, which is discouraging.  The UK Vegetarian society mandates the “V” label (right) on foods that are suitable for vegetarians.  This saves time reading ingredient labels when food shopping.  Even in restaurants the bright green “V” was a common element of menus to help people like me make meal choices much easier.  But I can sense that this movement is growing here, and am happy to contribute what I can to keep this momentum going.

These are only two examples of how life back “home” has felt strange and slightly foreign.  I can’t say that all of America is driving around in huge Escalades while eating double bacon cheeseburgers and this is why I am not transitioning well.  There are many places in this country that support the lifestyle I have chosen.  Burlington, VT, for one, is always a place that I can call home, having lived there for 4 years.  Burlington was rated one of the healthiest cities in the United States circa 2007 and they support a non-carnivorous, bike and public transportation friendly lifestyle.  On top of that, there are cities  that are popping up around the states to brag about how “green” they are, and with just cause as well.  So I do believe there is hope for America, but I feel like our habits are a product of our history, and as young as America is, our history doesn’t lend itself well to a very Eco-Friendly lifestyle.

While I learn to become American again, while still maintaining my beliefs and green way of life, I hope to spread the word about my experiences and how I plan to maintain this balancing act.

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