Most of us worry about the smallest leaks in the roofs of our homes and rush to fix the tiniest cracks in our walls. Does it make sense then that we should have screwed up our real home-- this beautiful Earth-- as badly as we have?
The evidence around us is breathtaking: greenhouse gases, global warming, radically changing weather patterns that have already wreaked havoc in parts of the world, including India and the United States.
While there's not much we can do to fix past mistakes, there's a lot we can do to change things now, both for us and for those millions and millions of beautiful creatures who played no part in creating these problems, but who pay the price for it more than we ever will.
If you read the newspapers or watch television, you know about the melting Arctic ice caps that are depriving the beautiful polar bears of their habitat. You know about the many species of animals, birds and fish that have been driven into extinction because of hunting or poaching or over-fishing. And you know, if you live and drive here in the United States, the price deer and squirrels and other wildlife pay when we choose to build McMansions and carve out highways in the woods they once called home. In fact, every time I read a story about the burgeoning deer population in the suburbs, and people complaining about the deer eating the plants in their yards or running out in front of cars on highways, as if it's the deer's fault, I want to tear my hair out and scream at their ignorance.
But in our world, no thanks to the media, going green has come to assume the sort of hip connotation that seems to naturally go with a huge price tag. Watch the green channels on television and they seem to be saying you need to buy some expensive gadget or the other to reduce your use of energy, solar panels that cost an arm and a leg to put up, and cars that are no doubt much better than your average gas-guzzler but which -- let's face it-- don't come cheap.
What no one seems to talk about, however, is how going green can actually save you money if you do it the old-fashioned way: by reducing waste and recycling everything you possibly can. The way the generations that preceded us did it. It goes without saying, of course, that the less we use, the less we strip the Earth of its resources which is a great way to help the environment.
I was raised in a family where my parents, like all other Indian middle-class folks of their day, were not particularly environment-conscious, but they were naturally frugal and conscientious about the stuff they bought and about reusing just about anything that could be reused.
Old, tattered clothes got recycled into rags for wiping the floors or windows or countertops or anything that needed wiping. The ones that were still wearable but not wanted any more were exchanged for steel pots and pans from a vendor who made his rounds ever so often.
Glass jars of jams and jellies and even metal canisters of shortening got recycled into containers to store food staples like rice and lentils and spices, and were used again and again for years.
Plastic milk bags were washed and newspapers were folded up and both sold to the raddi-wallah, raddi being the collective word for unwanted paper. The raddi-wallah would bring out a set of large weighing scales and weigh the newspapers and negotiate a price with the seller.
My mom would go to the market each evening with a sturdy and colorful woven basket. All the vegetables would go into the basket, and get sorted out once she got home. You had none of those plastic poly bags that, in later years, were to turn into lethal food for starving stray cows roaming Indian streets.
Looking back at those times, I think that even without all the awareness we possess, those folks did far better than we now do.
But we humans have this wonderful capacity to adapt and change, no matter what we already do or don't do. This is Earth Month (Earth Day's April 22), and it's a great time to reflect on the many ways we can change our lives in small ways to make the world a better place for ourselves and for everyone who shares it with us.
Here are just a few small ways to get started:
Change that light bulb. Put in an energy-efficient CFL, which costs a bit more upfront but lasts years and years and makes back several times its cost in energy savings.
Equally important, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room.
Find ways to reuse stuff. I make a lot of food from scratch, so I eliminate the use of convenience foods that are usually swaddled in tons of packaging. But when I buy those inevitable jars of peanut butter or jelly, I wash and reuse them to store stuff in my pantry. In fact, I haven't bought a piece of tupperware in more than a decade. Donate clothes that are in good shape but which you don't want any more to thrift stores, and if you have old cotton clothes that are beyond redemption, cut them up into rags. They make great recyclable substitutes for paper towels.
Carry your own grocery bags to the supermarket. The argument over which is better, paper or plastic, is moot and stupid. The only way you can really make a difference is by using canvas or cloth bags that don't have to be disposed of.
Leave that car behind. Bike, or walk, or take public transport. I love taking the train because it gives me the time to catch up on my reading, or to just look at the world and the people around me. When I am driving, on the other hand, I am easily stressed and easily provoked into losing my temper.
Compost. Desi tells me how his mom threw her vegetable scraps from each day's cooking into the tiny plot of their home in Madras where she grew some vegetables. Over time, the scraps broke down and fed the new plants. A natural cycle of life. You don't need expensive bins to compost. Most counties here in the United States offer free composting bins into which you can throw all of your grass clippings, dry leaves and food scraps. You can even compost in a hole in your backyard. It takes the barest minimum of maintenance, but at the end of it all you have organic compost that's going to make great food for your vegetable garden. You can find tons of information on composting on the Web, and here's a great resource.
If you have more ideas on going green without burning a hole in your pocket, do share them here. We're all in this together. Let's make sure we protect our home as best as we can.