My love affair with the environment started as a teenager. I was fascinated with marine animals. I was not vegan then; I wasn’t even a vegetarian, but I believed very strongly in the rights of animals to not be harpooned and killed and made scarce on our beautiful planet.
In junior high, I did a project on endangered animals throughout the United States. My final presentation was a map of the United States with pictures of each animal featured in the middle of each state it inhabited. Woodpeckers and manatees and bears and so many more, all endangered because of human beings invading, poisoning, collecting and killing. In addition, humans are also continuing to shoot all kinds of animals—even majestic ones like lions—for sport, as we saw just two weeks ago, with the death of Cecil the lion.
In college, I reused bags at the supermarket and was teased for it. I owned canvas shopping bags at a time when I felt shame about it; no one understood why I didn’t want to use plastic or paper.
When the Exxon Valdez crashed, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean; I wept as I watched birds dying in oil daily on the news.
When the city I lived in began recycling, I cried with joy—finally!
At various times in my life, I have been more fixated on being an environmentalist. For example, for about a year, I would turn off the water when I soaped up in the shower. I attended lectures at Ed Begley’s house, and I became familiar with the celebrities who believed in the elimination of nuclear weapons and the removal of pesticides from our food. I went to rallies and I was passionately involved in global issues of the environment.
And then I had children. And everything shifted. Ten years ago, when I was pregnant with my first son, most everyone I spoke to hadn’t heard of the concerns my close group of friends and I had. We debated shampoos and baby soaps, and I finally gave up and made my own so I knew it was free of harmful chemicals. People thought we were nuts.
In my little group of environmentally-friendly mamas, we debated sunscreens and everyone thought we were nuts to use sunscreens that were physical blockers rather than chemical blockers. Our kids looked like ghosts, the zinc concentration was so high, they said. Now, it’s generally accepted to use physical blockers and sunscreens that have zinc in them as their active ingredient.
We used cloth diapers and natural detergents. Our kids’ clothes were stained but we didn’t care. We didn’t use bleach. We didn’t use paper towels or napkins, using cloth instead. We knew how much water it took to clean our diapers, and we researched landfill statistics versus water statistics. Several of us in my group of friends took it one step further, teaching Elimination Communication, with our children out of diapers without force or rewards or punishments before they could even stand upright.
My ex and I budgeted hard to buy organic, finding the “Dirty Dozen” list (of foods that should always be bought organic) and seeking out markets where we could get those fruits and vegetables organic since we couldn’t at that time afford to buy everything organic. Our budget was designed around the purchase of pesticide-free and chemical-free products. It wasn’t a trend. It wasn’t us trying to be cool.
The environment and how we are destroying it have become political. Like him or not, Al Gore irrevocably altered our awareness of the planet. Now, people know what pollution is. Now, people know what greenhouse gas means, even in a basic way. Now people know that cows fart enough to affect the air. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals has shown us that the way we make food and store animals for food adversely affects the environment, no question about it.
I wish I could be as active an environmentalist now as I was before kids. But life is so different. Here are some things I do as a mom who is busy and trying to set a good example. I’m not perfect, but these are the things that seem to work.
- No lawn. I’d love a lawn in my backyard. But it takes water. So that’s the decision right there. Drought = no lawn. Period. And whenever they complain about it, I tell my kids, “Sorry, guys. Drought. Can’t water the lawn. Pretend it’s the surface of the moon!”
- Short showers. Seriously, people. I know people who take 20-minute showers. I take about a three-minute shower. I don’t shower every day and most people don’t need to. I know you want your hair to look perfect, but there’s a drought. So figure something else out. Do you want to look perfect or do you want a planet? It’s kind of like that. Option: bucket in the shower. Use your shower water to water your plants and your garden, if you have one. Don’t waste that water. You can also have a valve under your sink to reroute the water into a bucket to save for watering.
- Recycle. I have my boys responsible for recycling stuff in our house: they get to keep some of the money they get from taking it to the recycle center, and some we donate to charity. Bonus: it’s a good cultural lesson to go to the recycling center. You see a lot of people my kids, as middle/upper class white children, wouldn’t normally see. Some are recycling because they need that money; some are families like ours who believe strongly in recycling. No matter our reasons, we’re making a positive impact on the environment.
- Buy less. Just buy fewer things. Own fewer things. Donate things you don’t need. Downgrade. Downsize even in small ways. And repurpose or reuse things. Don’t be ashamed to wrap your kids’ friend’s birthday present in paper you got your last birthday present in. It’s not a reality show competition for who can wrap the nicest gift. It’s just life.
- Read up. Learn about cleaning products, and note how most of them have the same exact ingredients just with different scents and different labels and different prices. It doesn’t take a lot to clean your house, I promise. You don’t need all of those fancy chemicals. And while I appreciate non-toxic companies giving us options, most of those are very expensive. I prefer to use simple cleaning products and for goodness sake: you really don’t need anti-bacterial products unless you are literally working with bacteria like in raw meat.
I’m not trying to be a goody-goody here. But being kind to the planet is imperative. And it’s a good set of lessons to teach the next generation. And with all of those shorter showers and maybe shampooing your hair every other day instead of every day, you may gain a better appreciation for baseball hats.