A man who does not consider himself a “greenie” confided to me that he actually likes those reusable cloth grocery bags because they hold more, they stand up on the kitchen counter, and the handles don’t rip and drop your jars on the driveway. He was a bit embarrassed by this confession, as if it were a sign of weakness; as if only weirdos with hemp clothing would bring their own bags to the grocery. For some, the phrase “sustainable lifestyle” means living in cold homes and driving tiny cars. I remain more optimistic. There are many eco-friendly innovations that actually improve the quality of our lives, which makes sense if you think about it. Shouldn’t living in equilibrium with our surroundings for multiple generations be more emotionally satisfying than depleting our way through one natural resource after another?
The words “green” and “environmentally friendly” are so overused that they no longer have any meaning at all. Every product, from diapers to pickup trucks, comes with a green version, often at a significantly higher price. I recently bought a cell phone that claimed to be manufactured in a sustainable fashion, but I suspect that the only thing different about it was the coarse brown box. In any case the phone didn’t work, so what good is a supposedly sustainable phone that doesn’t make phone calls? How does that help the planet? There are so many choices to make every day. Paper or plastic? Pesticide or bugs? Hybrid or Hummer? Some of these choices may be quite expensive or require some sort of personal sacrifice. Which individual choices make an actual difference to the environment and which are just greenwashing?
I moved to Georgetown in 1971 and attended Georgetown High School when it was still in the old, un-airconditioned building on University. Some friends and I started the Ecology Club, the sole purpose of which was to recycle newspapers. Back then the idea that a truck might actually drive by your house and pick up items for recycling was completely unimaginable. Our recycling efforts were not particularly successful. The boy members of the club were regularly sent home for haircuts whenever the principal determined that their hair was touching the collar of their shirts. These days you could probably search all over Georgetown High School and not find a boy who even has a collar. I too was sent home for wearing one of those long dresses with spaghetti straps, and was indignant at this bureaucratic infringement of my basic freedoms. I met my husband, Bill, in physics class. He was trying to use the Bunsen burner to stretch out a Coke bottle, which did not actually work, but seemed innovative at the time.
Eventually the city took up recycling, so I felt free to leave environmental activism and instead practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 25 years, as well as raising three children. Five of those years were spent in Zaire and Pakistan. In less developed countries people do not consider “the environment” as something that needs to be protected, but rather as a force that can quickly kill if you are not careful. Lightning strikes and snake bites are dramatic, but a more common killer is water contaminated by human sewage, in other words: pollution.
After retiring from medicine and completing a master’s degree in environmental science, I have joined Bill in building a zero energy house in historic Georgetown. The house has passive solar design features, a 4.5 kilowatt solar array, a solar hot water heater, and a 10,000 gallon rainwater tank. This is the second solar house that Bill has built himself. We like building with these technologies and try to share our enthusiasm, so both houses are for rent.
In this regular column I plan to explore the sustainability scene in Williamson County. I hope to feature people who are trying out new ideas and inventions, as well as people who are using methods from the past to deal with current problems. As we progress ever more rapidly into an uncertain future, how do we “live lightly” in our vibrant county?