This phrase, “The method is the message,” has been running through my head now for several weeks. I think it’s a corruption of “The medium is the message,” but I like it for the way it conveys my meaning, which is as an answer to the age-old question, “Do the ends justify the means?” To me, the means, the medium, the method ARE what is most important.
That’s why my recommendation of the children’s book Michael Recycle was somewhat tepid. A book about recycling that’s not printed on recycled paper? Something’s not connecting there. It’s like the seminar on “Greening Your Law Firm” that Michael and I attended during which three of the four panelists were drinking the bottled water provided by the facility while explaining how their firms had given up bottled water. Or the forum on protecting the SF Bay where plastic-wrapped snacks were served as the speakers bemoaned the amount of plastic pollution in the water.
So, it was with appreciation that I received my promotional copy of Sierra Club’s latest book, Hey Mr. Green: Sierra Magazine’s Answer Guy Tackles Your Toughest Green Living Questions.I requested the book be sent without plastic, and sure enough, it arrived packaged in a Jiffy Padded Mailer cushioned with recycled paper fibers rather than plastic bubble packing. Great! And the book itself? “Printed in the United States of America on Cascades Enviro 100 acid-free paper, which contains 100 percent post-consumer waste, processed chlorine free.” All right!
So the method is good. (Of course, part of the method is whether or not the book is new or used or borrowed from the library, right? That part’s up to you.) So what about the message itself?
The book is a compilation of “Hey Mr. Green” columns published in Sierra Magazine beginning in February 2005. It’s a quick read at 175 small pages and keeps the question/answer format, similar to Grist’s “Ask Umbra.” The book contains a lot of the usual tips about saving energy and reducing waste at home and on the road that many “How to be Green” books contain these days.
For my taste, some of the author’s recommendations focused on energy conservation at the expense of other environmental concerns, like toxicity. For example, Mr. Green says that in a pinch, if he’s left his reusable bags at home (which he never does) and absolutely needed to carry something home in a bag, he’d opt for plastic over paper because 1) he can reuse the bag many times, 2) the 4 million barrels of oil used per year to make plastic bags equates to only 1/10th of what SUVs require, and 3) paper bags don’t biodegrade in landfills anyway. (Pages 86-87) Um… is that even logic?
First of all, the concern about the non-biodegradation of plastic is less about what happens in landfills and more about what happens to the plastic that never makes it to the landfill. Mr. Green never mentions the plastic garbage patch in the North Pacific Gyre and or the harm to wildlife caused by escaped plastic bags. And he also doesn’t seem to realize that many paper bags these days are made from recycled paper. Neither choice is great, of course. But I still think in a purely hypothetical situation, I’d opt for the paper bag.
So, yes I just spent two paragraphs picking on his answer to one question. But part of his answer, the thing about how much more oil SUVs use than plastic bags, is kind of representative of the tone of the book. He wants us to focus on the big problems, which is great. And he seems to be worried that if people get hung up worrying about small things, like whether or not their organization reuses plastic name badges at its meetings (Pages 100-101) they will forget about the jet fuel spent to get them to that meeting. And I can understand his point. But if we can do something about the small things, in addition to the large things, shouldn’t we?
The part of the book I really found myself enjoying was the last section called, “The Big Picture: Thoughts on God, Government, and Other Dinner-Table Topics.” Here he turns part philosopher and part ethicist as he tackles such questions as whether or not religions cause overpopulation, what happens (to your body) after you die, and whether or not it’s “wrong to judge people’s eco-awareness by how many paper towels they use in a restroom.” The last part is fun to read and mull over.
That’s my report. Thanks, Sierra Club, for sending the book to me and for taking such care with the materials used to produce and ship it. Now that I’ve read it, I’ll be sharing it with my local library so other Oaklanders can glean the green goodness.
I’ve just started reading Diane MacEachern’s Big Green Purse, which is really informative but also has its problems. For one thing, the Method vs. Message issue is quite glaring to me. On page 29, MacEachern writes, “A paperboard package composed of ’50 precent recycled fiber’ is a more reliable ecobuy than one vaguely marketed as ‘made from recycled paper.’” Yet the statement inside the book itself reads, “This book is printed on acid-free recycled paper.” Kinda vague, wouldn’t you say?
05/10/08 UPDATE: I received this comment from Diane MacEachern today and wanted to share with you:
Thanks for the feedback on the recycled paper labeling for BGP. Actually, I had heard from the publisher that “printed on acid-free recycled paper made from 30% post-consumer waste” would be listed in the book, so was as surprised as you to see the more generic “acid-free recycled paper.” Just goes to show how important it is to double check in the “practice what you preach” column (but, perhaps, to also question one’s own assumptions when hunting for examples of blatant inconsistencies that turn out to be oversights). Diane MacEachern, author, Big Green Purse.
She is absolutely right about my needing to question my own assumptions. I realize that when I wrote the letter to Santa Sabina in my previous post, I bent over backwards to give them the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t do that when tossing out the comment about Big Green Purse’s recycled content, and I apologize. It was late, I was tired, which are lame excuses because it’s ALWAYS late and I’m ALWAYS tired when blogging here! So, let this be a lesson to us all, once again, to assume the best of others’ intentions and seek clarifying information before calling them on the carpet.
So anyway, I’m only on page 81 of 374 BIG pages and am enjoying parts, learning a few things, and already disagreeing with a few others. This was another promotional copy I received from the publisher, so you’ll be hearing my take on it probably next week.