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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

It’s hard to save the world

My daughter is a superhero, at least while she’s sleeping. Ever since she was little, she had dreams in which she saved the world.

“Don’t worry,” she’d tell us in the morning. “It’s OK, I saved the world again last night.”

Exactly how she did it was a little murky, but it generally involved tapping into her power to fly. Sometimes she and some of her lunch table buddies — the five guys she sat with in the school cafeteria from fourth grade until they all graduated a year ago — were ninjas, fighting some unnamed evil together. And winning, always.

That all changed last week.

My daughter dreamed she failed to save the world.

“I don’t know what happened,” she told me. “I’m a little freaked out. I’ve never failed before.”

Again the situation was murky, although there was some flying, and an owl. But she knew she had failed.

Our daughter is 18 now, and her dad and I think her inability to save the world overnight is just a sign of a maturing brain. Her dad tends to think it’s a sign that she understands that catastrophic ruin cannot be avoided, but I think he exaggerates. I think she understands that things aren’t that simple. We do the best we can and we keep on trying.

And sometimes we wonder if all our efforts even amount to anything.

“I’m always trying to save the world,” I told my daughter. “It’s just not that easy.”

We try to live responsibly, try to keep aware of our impact on Earth, to leave as little mess behind us as possible. The trouble is, a lot of the mess we’re leaving is invisible or distant.

So we turn off lights at home, use small appliances when we can, heat and cook with wood all winter. We wash dishes by hand, and turn off the water. We grow much of our own food and some of our neighbors’ food, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We’ve convinced some other gardeners to go natural as well. We buy second hand, we recycle, reuse, repurpose.

But we still throw out garbage every week. We still use electricity and fuel oil and gasoline. We are still responsible for emissions and power generation and pesticides, because we commute and live and eat on this planet.

Are we making progress? Is the world’s population in general making progress?

I don’t know. People think “green” a lot more now, but they are also constantly recharging their laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices, which are made with toxic materials and rare earth metals mined from distant places, and which often end up in giant landfills in distant places, where children mine them for saleable parts to be reused in new electronic devices.

Americans have reduced their driving a little bit in the past decade, and mass transit options have grown a little. But then, there are constantly more of us. And the rest of the world — China, for instance — is driving a lot more, and driving bigger cars, too.

Refrigerators are larger than ever, eating more and more power by standing half empty, dispensing water and making ice overnight. And over the past 30 years, the sheer number of appliances in American houses has tripled, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Even if you use energy-efficient appliances, you’re still using more electricity.

A few weeks ago I slept over at my sister’s house, on a couch in the family room. In the middle of the night I woke up, not knowing where I was, staring at nine blue or green lights, shining like stars over a swamp. It was just the kitchen, where every appliance has a control light that stays on, round the clock. Vampires. My coffee maker has one, too.

Last weekend when the kids an I were visiting the ocean, I saw a seagull stealing a plastic bag filled with what had once been some sort of trail mix. It was too heavy for the gull, who was tugging the bag, a few inches at a time, into the water. I took it away, worrying that the gull would die swallowing the plastic bag, or that it would leave another piece of plastic garbage in an ocean that has far too much plastic in it.

But what did I really accomplish? Of all the people sitting on the beach with their kids and their picnics, many would leave behind plastic bags with food enticing to other gulls. Lots of those bags would end up in the ocean, and one might end up killing a gull.

“I took one bag out of the ocean,” I told my daughter. “I didn’t save the world.”

In my daughter’s dream, after she didn’t save the world, she found that it didn’t end, as she had thought it would. And she got to keep the owl. Somehow, she and the owl would keep on fighting.

I’m no superhero, not even in my dreams. But I’ll keep trying anyway, even if it’s just one plastic bag at a time.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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