For ‘EcoMoms,’ Saving Earth Begins at Home

New_york_times_logo_jpegOriginally posted Feb. 16, 2008
by Patricia Leigh Brown, The New York Times

The women gathered in the airy living room, wine poured and
pleasantries exchanged. In no time, the conversation turned lively —
not about the literary merits of Geraldine Brooks or Cormac McCarthy
but the pitfalls of antibacterial hand sanitizers and how to retool the
laundry using only cold water and biodegradable detergent during
non-prime-time energy hours (after 7 p.m.).

Move over, Tupperware. The EcoMom party has arrived, with its
ever-expanding “to do” list that includes preparing waste-free school
lunches; lobbying for green building codes; transforming oneself into a
“locovore,” eating locally grown food; and remembering not to idle the
car when picking up children from school (if one must drive). Here, the
small talk is about the volatile compounds emitted by dry-erase markers
at school.

Perhaps not since the days of “dishpan hands” has the
household been so all-consuming. But instead of gleaming floors and
sparkling dishes, the obsession is on installing compact fluorescent
light bulbs, buying in bulk and using “smart” power strips that shut
off electricity to the espresso machine, microwave, X-Box, VCR, coffee
grinder, television and laptop when not in use.

“It’s like eating
too many brownies one day and then jogging extra the next,” said
Kimberly Danek Pinkson, 38, the founder of the EcoMom Alliance,
speaking to the group of efforts to curb eco-guilt through carbon
offsets for air travel.

Part “Hints from Heloise” and part
political self-help group, the alliance, which Ms. Pinkson says has
9,000 members across the country, joins a growing subculture dedicated
to the “green mom,” with blogs and Web sites like greenandcleanmom.blogspot.com and eco-chick.com.
Web-based organizations like the Center for a New American Dream in
Takoma Park, Md., advocate reducing consumption and offer a registry
that helps brides “celebrate the less-material wedding of your dreams.”

At an EcoMom circle in Palo Alto, executive mothers whipped out
spreadsheets to tally their goals, inspired by a 10-step program that
urges using only nontoxic products for cleaning, bathing and make-up,
as well as cutting down garbage by 10 percent.

“I used to feel
anxiety,” said Kathy Miller, 49, an alliance member, recalling life
before she started investigating weather-sensitive irrigation controls
for her garden with nine growing zones. “Now I feel I’m doing
something.”

The notion of “ecoanxiety” has crept into the
culture here. It was the subject of a recent cover story in San
Francisco magazine that quotes a Berkeley mother so stressed out about
the extravagance of her nightly baths that she started to reuse her
daughter’s bath water. Where there is ecoanxiety, of course, there are
ecotherapists.

“The truth is, we’re not living very naturally,”
said Linda Buzzell, a therapist in Santa Barbara who publishes the
quarterly EcoTherapy News and often holds sessions in her backyard
permaculture food forest. “We’re in our cars, staring at the computer
screen, separated most of the day from the people we love.”

“Activism
can help counteract depression,” Ms. Buzzell added. “But if we get
caught up in trying to save the world single-handedly, we’re just going
to burn out.”

Like many young women, Ms. Pinkson’s motherhood — her son Corbin is now 6 — coincided with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the advent of treehugger.com and grist.org.
A favorite online column is “Ask Umbra,” whose author weighs in on
whether it is better to buy leather shoes or “pleather” ones that could
contain solvents.

Shaina Forsman, a 13-year-old daughter of
eco-mother Beth Forsman, said the alliance branch in San Rafael helped
her mother take action at home. Her mother turned the thermostat down
so low that Shaina sometimes wore a jacket inside, she said proudly.
She was also monitoring time spent in the shower, so as not to waste
water.

Shaina said she tried to get her mother to compost, but “we got ants.”

One of the country’s wealthiest places, Marin County, is hardly a hub
of voluntary simplicity; its global footprint, according to county
statistics, is 27 acres per person, a measure of the estimated amount
of land it takes to support each person’s lifestyle (24 is the American
average).

Members of the EcoMom Alliance “are fighting a values
battle,” said Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox
College in Galesburg, Ill., and the author of “The High Price of
Materialism.” “They are surrounded by materialism trying to figure out
how to create a life more oriented toward intrinsic values.”

Wendy Murphy, 41, a member of EcoMoms in San Anselmo, became an
activist after she noticed that the new tablecloths in her children’s
preschool contained polyvinyl chloride. She and a fellow mother,
working with the Green Schools Initiative, a nonprofit in Berkeley,
developed green guidelines for shopping, like buying chlorine-free
cleaning products, low-formaldehyde furniture and toys made of natural
materials.

The matter of toys is particularly thorny. At the EcoMom party in
San Rafael, women traded ideas about recycled toys for birthday
presents and children’s clothing swaps. Then there is the issue of the
materials used in imported toys. “It’s ‘Mom, these come from China,’ ”
Pam Nessi, 35, said of her daughters’ recent inspection of two of their
dolls. “It can be overwhelming. You don’t want them to freak out.”

At last year’s Step It Up rallies, a day of environmental
demonstrations across the country, the largest group of organizers were
“mothers concerned about the disintegrating environment for their
children,” said Bill McKibben, a founder of the event and author of “The End of Nature.”

Women have been instrumental in the environmental movement from the
start, including their involvement in campaigns a century ago to save
the Palisades along the Hudson River and sequoias in California and,
more recently, Lois Gibbs’s fight against toxic waste at Love Canal.

In
public opinion surveys, women express significantly higher levels of
environmental concern than men, said Riley Dunlap, a professor of
sociology at Oklahoma State University.

Lately “local lifestyle activism,” much of it driven by women, has been
on the rise and is likely to continue, Dr. Dunlap said. “Just belonging
to a national environmental organization, which seemed effective in the
1970s and ’80s, doesn’t work anymore, particularly in an era of
government unresponsiveness,” he said.

Ms. Pinkson and her
colleagues are well aware of “the mom demographic,” as they call it, in
which, according to surveys for the Boston Consulting Group, women say
they “influence or control” 80 percent of discretionary household
purchases. Thus far, their thrust has been more about being green
consumers than taking political action.

The eco life can occasionally spawn domestic strife.

Julie
DeFord, a 33-year-old mother in Petaluma, said the high cost of organic
produce prompted serious “conversations” between her and her husband,
Curt, a lawyer, especially after seven nights of chard.

And ecomotherhood is not always sisterly.

At
the EcoMom party recently, some guests took the hostess, Liz Held, to
task for her wall-to-wall carpeting (potential off-gassing), her
painted walls (unhealthful volatile organic compounds) and the freshly
cut flowers that she had set out for the occasion (not organic). Their
problems with the S.U.V. in the driveway were self-explanatory.

All the new eco-perfectionism did not seem to faze her. “I look around
my house and think, ‘I haven’t changed all my light bulbs,’ ” she said.
“But it doesn’t fill me with guilt. I think about all the things I’ve
done so far. I just try to focus on the positive.”

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