The Environmental “About Right” Point

I took a trip down Hippy Lane last month staying with old friends in Ithaca, New York. This is a guy who was a mentor of sorts, though he’d bristle at that responsibility. I used to tease him about his being a descendant of pilgrims on the Mayflower – often enough that I suspect he regretted ever telling me that.

I hit it off with his wife too, but hadn’t been to visit in years, since their wedding, and their daughter is now 6. My texts from the road saying I was running late had gone unanswered, and when I got there we sat right down to dinner.

Like friends in the city, you tend to “lose” them when they have a child. You naturally get replaced by their peers in childbirth and child-rearing. They’ve entered a new economy of baby-sitting favors and pre-school fundraisers, and when you do get together it takes a lot of explaining the new reference points. Since I’d hardly had a chance to see these friends anyway, we wasted no time apologizing for being out of touch.

I’ve always taken pride in good manners, and still feel the need to excuse myself to use a cell phone, even to check a message, when I’m with real people having a real conversation. I was expecting an email and excused myself once to check it after I got there. Then I remembered to text my wife that I’d arrived. After that I figured I’d better wait and see what the local customs were regarding cell phone use.

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E-Waste processing in China.

And I waited, and waited, and the phones never came out. It was just good conversation late into the night in a house full of books – “late” with a different numerical meaning upstate, in a house with a child in it.

That’s when I realized I’d forgotten my iPhone charger. The only one on offer was the older, wide “30 pin” model, circa 2010. I said “No problem!” I’d figure something out the next day. Which I quickly realized meant buying another. I admit that I kept this to myself in a house where we composted walnut shells and wore sweaters instead of hitting the thermostat on chilly fall nights. (“Chilly” in Ithaca meaning “cold” in points south.)

The next morning on my way to make the purchase, at the local gas station of all poetic places, I thought about a private message I’d gotten back in July after posting about Apple, the company.  I’d accused Apple of the environmental crime of planned obsolescence, among other things, and a friend of mine called me out on it. Instead of pissing and moaning about having to buy a new iPhone, did I even think about buying a new battery for $29?

Answer: Well, no.

The conventional wisdom among everyone around me was that I just had to suck it up and buy a new one, and I didn’t question that.  This would not have happened if I’d just called my friends in Ithaca – on their landline.

If there’s a spectrum from environmental angel to environmental devil – with the hero being the vegetarian who carpools to work and only takes airline flights when he knows he’ll stick around for a few weeks on the one end, and the villain tossing plastic bottles one after another in the trash (or littering them! I mean, why not?) while driving a Hummer to a ribfest with outdoor air conditioning – I feel I’m more conscientious than most, closer to angel.

I also suspect that most of us would place our own position on that spectrum at the “about right” point, and it’s never a bad idea to revisit that.

When presented with a basic consumer choice I decided not to question, but to dig a little deeper in the cobalt and nickel mines for a new phone because that just sounded easier. I could blame the nice guy at the iPhone store for not saying, “You could just get a new battery,” but then I’d be holding Apple to a higher standard than any other business.

Puritanism and its effects on the American pscyhe is something I honestly think about every day. Those Pilgrims on the Mayflower, my friend’s ancestors, are still with us.


John Calvin.

On the one hand, their perverse belief in predestination – that we are already chosen or damned by God  when we’re born, and that our life is a series of signs that illustrate that choice – can make us maniacal in our pursuit of being good. As if the decision about whether or not to carry the seltzer can the extra few minutes to the recycling bin is more than a practical choice, it’s a reflection of one’s soul.

But Puritanism also gave us our faith in the perfectibility of our community or society. Without John Calvin there’d be no Billie Sunday, and no Ted Cruz, true. But without John Calvin there’d be no Karl Marx, and no Bernie Sanders either.

So here we are, the generation that has to make the biggest decisions yet, with implications for centuries to come. And we’ve got 16th Century minds to do it with. You don’t get to pick the cosmological hand you’re dealt.