You Can Go Home Again: What I'd Like To Have Been Able to Say to New York Times Readers

Sharon October 23rd, 2008

Just for one moment, I’m going to pretend that instead of a silly article diagnosing a pretend disease in the New York Times, I was given a chance to speak on the Op Ed Pages of the Times, that this is my one shot at the huge audience that the Sunday Times has.  Ignoring, for a moment, how unlikely that is, here’s what I would have said.

Last weekend my family and I appeared in the New York Times as victims (or perhaps purveyors) of a new mental illness, “carborexia.”  Apparently this is the pathological inability to produce sufficicient carbon, an environmental mania so extreme that it transforms ordinary lives into obsessive madness.  

The article began with the fact that my son Simon is deprived of the great American pasttime because it is a half-hour drive to a league that doesn’t have games on the Jewish Sabbath (poor kid, he has to play catch with his parents and pick up games with his friends and brothers – in fact, he and one of his friends actually broke one of our front windows yesterday with a particularly nice hit).  The language of the article included the term “huddle together for warmth” to describe the fact that my young kids sleep together in both warm and cold weather.  All of this operated to implicitly imply that I’m abusing my kids in my pursuit of a lower energy life.  And since even implied accusations of child abuse and mental illness are a potent weapon in this society, I wouldn’t be shocked if you did think I was crazy and a bad Mom.

My first inclination was to fire back with the accusation that instead, most Americans may be suffering from a pathology called “carbulimia” in which they gorge themselves on energy – twice as much as Europeans, who often have a similar or higher standard of living and level of happiness – and then effectively vomit up the excess, deriving no benefit and often actual harm to their health and hope for the future.  But this doesn’t quite get at the issue either – it just continues the Times’s trivializing of real eating disorders and their sufferers, and adds another dumb and uneuphonious faux-disease to the cultural lexicon.  Definitely not what is most needed.  Moreover, most of us don’t take in huge quantities of energy for its own sake, we use it because that’s how our society is structured, and how we’ve been taught to meet our needs.  We use most of our energy because we’re not sure how to do anything else.

Debating which extreme is pathological doesn’t help us find a functional way of life.  And that is what is desperately needed.  And quickly.  NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen has argued that we need to reach 350ppm very rapidly – within a decade.  We’re already past at nearly 390ppm - the arctic ice is already in the danger zone, Greenland is showing increasing melting signs and most disturbing, methane is being released from upper levels of arctic permafrost.  Meanwhile, there are signs that we may have passed the world peak in crude oil production, and the volatile price of energy has helped drive us into a recession.

Meanwhile, the governments of China, India and Russia have all announced that they have no intention of taking major steps to reduce their climate impact while wealthy Americans, Canadians and Australians consume all they want.  They argue that they are trying to bring their populace out of poverty, and that we who produce the largest per capita emissions need to make our reductions first.  We argue with them that we won’t reduce our standard of living, that “the American way of life is non-negotiable,” in part because we are frightened by the idea of changing our way of life into something unfamiliar.  And thus we enter a global game of chicken – they won’t change until we do, and we won’t change because we don’t want to be like poorer people.  Never mind that we are condemning our own children – and theirs - to greater poverty as larger and larger parts of their income will be required to mitigate unfettered climate change.  This is known as “cutting off your nose to spite your face” and it is pretty much our climate policy.

The only hope we have to make rapid changes, on the scale necessary to achieve the 350 goal, is to put every tool we have on the table.  We need to invest as much as we can in things like massive reinsulation, renewable energy and public resources.  We need to use sustainable agriculture, reforestation and the preservation of existing rainforests forests to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.  But these will not be enough – we cannot make this sort of shift in 8-10 years on renewable energy development alone.  It would be nice if we could – or if we had 50 years to do this, but we don’t have the time and resources, and there is no point in mourning the time we wasted.  We have better things to do.

What is going to be needed is a rapid shift in the American dream and the American way of life.  Without that shift, there is no hope that China, India and Russia will forswear coal or make other changes.  Unless we can look poorer nations in the eye and say we’ve met our targets, we’ll all pay the price together.  Without a model for a good, sustainable and happy American life that produces 50-90% less carbon, not from costly technologies that simply can’t be put in place in time, but from ordinary practices of daily life that can – we’re doomed.  If we believe that living a sustainable life makes us crazy, or forces us to live in misery and poverty, we face misery and poverty for future generations all over the world.

The good thing is that the good American life isn’t so very far away.  In 1945 we used 80% less energy per household than we do now.  Your parents and grandparents lived that way – they heated the rooms they used most often and closed off the other ones, wore sweaters and walked more than they drove.  They took the bus.  They ate less meat.  They grew Victory gardens and ate food grown near them.  They shared with their neighbors more and they worked together on what was then the greatest challenge facing the world – the rise of fascism.  What is most needed isn’t a move to the third world – it is a return to a familiar past.

There are plenty of Americans living right now who grew up like my kids do – instead of being driven to ball practice, they played baseball with other kids in their yard, and helped their parents weed the Victory garden.  They wore warm clothes in the winter and slept outside in the yard in a tent when it got too hot inside instead of clicking on the a/c.  Many grew up like my kids on farms, or spent their afternoons playing outside on the sidewalk or among the trees, rather than inside watching tv or playing video games.  They walked or biked places.  They mostly ate food from their family gardens or from local truck farms near their homes rather than processed foods and take out.  Maybe a few of you even remember that kind of childhood.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not a perfect Mom, and my kids don’t live in fairy land.  We too struggle to find balance between the good in our energy use and the things we can afford to discard without doing harm.  We don’t always get everything right.  But we’re trying.  The reason I agreed to allow a photographer to come to our farm was that I believe that the very first step to going forward to a sustainable life is being able to imagine ways of getting there without the fear that this means unimaginable hardship.  I hoped that they might even show that we’re having fun – and we are.

We’ve come so far away from our lower energy life that we now think that the past is uninhabitable, that we can’t go home again.  And it certainly isn’t as simple as flipping on the way-back machine.  It requires thought and practice and time, small steps and failures, experiments and discussions with friends who care about the same things.  It requires an investment of time and energy.  But the past isn’t so very far way, either.  It would be a mistake to think that a life with less energy is so distant, so unimaginable that we cannot conceive of inhabiting that space.  Instead, it is something we can get to with a bit of commitment ane energy, with allies and imagination and creativity. 

Maybe my way isn’t right, I don’t know.  I know doing it exactly my way isn’t for everyone- we need city models of the sustainable life, and suburban ons as much as we need me and my garden and our goats.  We need versions that adapted to different ethnicities, faiths and cultures.  But we need all of these, and we need them badly.  Because as much of our future depends on our creating renewable energies or reinsulating homes, it depends at least as much on ordinary people transforming their lives into something that the whole world can live with.  It is a pity that we’ve heard so much about one half of the equation (the electric cars and renewable grid) and so little about this very basic question – how will we live?  How will we go on in a way that sustains us and creates a sustainable future for our posterity?  How will we find a way home to our past and our future simultaneously?  How will we (and here I mean all of us, across the world) find an equitable way out of our terrible dilemma?

 I don’t claim to have all the answers – heck maybe I am crazy, because I truly think that this could be accomplished, and I’m enjoying the process of making it happen. I do think that there are some available here for those (and I think there are many out there) who care enough to try: www.riot4austerity.org and www.350.org.

Shalom,

Sharon

73 Responses to “You Can Go Home Again: What I'd Like To Have Been Able to Say to New York Times Readers”

  1. Devin Quince says:

    Posted on my blog hoping to make this viral :)
    Hang in there.

  2. Kay Lucas says:

    Sharon,
    Although I’ve never posted before, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time.
    I have an extensive 31 page world wide media list that I would like to send to you. It is a ms word file and I’m not sure how to do that on this blog. But here are the address for NY Times. [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
    Perhaps finding out who is the Editorial page editor would be a good place to start, in addition to the [email protected] address. And then to the managing editor, publisher, etc.

    Please email me and I will send the rest if you would like it.
    I look forward to the information and wisdom included in your posts. Thank you.
    Granny K

  3. Karen says:

    Thanks, Sharon, for such a lovely response to that piece of nastiness in the Times. (I have to say I cringed at imagining the NYT coming to my place.) I would agree with most of the comments here that it needs a rebuttal.

    AND

    I think we should take the route of Becky and Megan, and write to the NY Times ourselves. Numbers make a difference in the attention the NYT will give to an article and the more they hear against this type of reporting the more likely they are to change. It also may give Sharon’s editorial/reply more consideration if she decides to send it.

    Anyway, please keep writing! I’m off to inventory my soap before our next coop order. ;-)

    Karen

  4. NM says:

    Most newspapers explain how to submit op-ed pieces on their websites, or in the paper. Look in the editorial section.
    Reporters are just people, not members of some vast conspiracy. Some are jackasses, some are clueless idiots, some are smart, informed and concerned. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, like the vast majority of the rest of humanity.
    I’m sorry you got one of the idiots.

  5. nl says:

    Hi Sharon,

    The New York Times is from New York, of course, and we know that what matters in New York is appearances.

    For some reason, living “ecologically” has come to mean privation. Look at many college students who go through a “green” phase for example. It’s all about the hardship. Whether the hardship actually produces any results is almost irrelevant. Using one sheet of toilet paper when you poop, for example. Does this achieve anything except diaper rash? Yes, you can brag to your friends that you only use one sheet of toilet paper (Sheryl Crow). This is good for New York cocktail party conversation.

    After all, something that is earth-friendly but doesn’t create any hardship, like not having an air conditioner, is not much to talk about.

    I think you and I have a different view. It’s about living well, without the vastly wasteful systems that most people use. Walking to work is living well — sure beats 90 minutes of commuting — AND it is also earth-friendly. It’s win-win. Likewise, having local, traditionally-grown vegetables (let’s not call them organic) is also living well AND earth friendly. No hardship there.

    However, the mainstream “those green freaks are weird” people are not yet accustomed to this thought process. They are looking for the “eco-hardship” story because this is what they have become accustomed to.

  6. TM says:

    Sharon,

    Thanks for your posts and insights. I wrote about this story in my blog (www.bcandbeyond.wordpress.com) because I found the portrayal of the “carborexic” so horrifying. Interestingly, the piece I read said your son was wanting to play hockey, not baseball…..perhaps a Canadianized version for my land to the north? What a farce the mainsteam media is.

    All the best – I hope this piece makes it to the Times!

    TM

  7. Sharon, when I read the bit about your kids “huddling for warmth,” I knew that would send you ballistic. Twice I have let the press into my home and yard to see what I’m doing, and both times, even with Portland’s progressive media, they have proven themselves utterly clueless at comprehending a permacultural approach to community, and to mask their ignorance they hide behind mockery and contempt. (They wrote that a free workshop to teach an innovative building technique was hijacking community energy for personal gain, among other idiocy). So although I will still do interviews, where at least they must quote me, I won’t again let them into my home to do their interpretive dance on my personal life. When you see what the MSM does to the subjects you know about first hand, it makes you realize that almost everything they write is spin and lies. Great reply–gotta reverse spin their spin!

  8. Mari says:

    I’ve put a link to this post on my blog encouraging others to read it here in Washington, DC. You make an excellent point about the American Dream and being an example to the rest of the world. Do as I say, not as I do just doesn’t work.

  9. k says:

    I grew up simply and neglected, I know what that looks like. What has come through in your writing is that your children live simply, cherished, healthy and well educated. How anyone could look at the photo in the Times article and think otherwise is beyond me.

  10. Beth says:

    Sharon,
    The article has spread. My parents read it this morning in the Sunday edition of the Tacoma News Tribune. I was talking to my mom on the phone and she mentioned an article about a woman in NY who was too extreme about her carbon footprint. I knew immediately what it was and jumped to your defense. I explained how the article misrepresented you and that I had taken a class from you and you were not crazy like my mom had assumed from the article. I am considered the eco-nazi in my family and I’ve got nothing on you. My mom did make sure to tell me that when I move in with them, I am not allowed to turn the heat down to 52 degrees. I hope that if you do print your rebuttal it spreads to the other papers. I’ve been enjoying your book and I plan on giving a copy to my dad (more open-minded than mom) for Christmas.

    Beth

  11. Sharon,

    We have to remember that the purpose of the New York Times, like any corporate-owned media, is to sell newspapers (or online ads). It is not to inform, educate, to seek out the truth and report it. Real journalism has been pushed out of the corporate media. Their allegiance is to their advertisers, not their readers.

    And since the corporates and The Powers That Be (think Money) are totally invested in the continuation of Business as Usual — the infinite-growth economy — anything that counters that must be positioned as weird, radical and to-be-marginalized. As they attempted with you.

    As a counter — I look forward to videotaping a Peak Moment Conversation with you and tour of your place. We’ll focus on what matters to you, what you’re doing and thinking, and show the incredible and inspiring model that you and your family are. I think you’ll find that the Peak Moment audience, like your readers, will be in whole-hearted support. As am I.

    Janaia (host, peakmoment.tv)

  12. wadosy says:

    any vietnam vet who saw the truth of what was happening in vietnam was processed by mental health workers whose sole aim was to convince him he was crazy.

    welcome home from vietnam.

  13. galacticsurfer says:

    Sharon,

    Excellent to get an Op-ed on you in the NYT. Better than being ignored for sure. That shows you are above radar level. Of course they are starting up as offensive twats first time around but the point is you are getting media attention for your stand and for our PO community. It is especially good that they are against you. This means you are real. Don’t trust people who are quick and easy friends. Slowly these ideas of yours will catch on. When the crisis comes the alternative ideas of Heinberg and yourself and others will be waiting in the wings to be taken on by others as the new norm.

    Mahatma Ghandi
    “First they ignore you.
    Then they laugh at you.
    Then they fight you.
    Then you win.”

    You are now at stage 2-3. Expect the fight then win it.

    Unfortunately things that fall outside of average behaviour as defined statistically are considered a sign of mental illness which is then utilized politically to silence one(straitjackets, electroshock and meidcation). Since NYT are just average folks in general terms their attitude simply shows what people the average guy at this point in time thinks (not left or right wing politics but lifestylewise). The shift to energy and financial frugality will be as rapid as the PO plateau falls off of the cliff. Then you will be a prescient leader ofthe community and not a dysfunctional nut-case.

    Studs Terkels approach to oral history for survivors of Great Depression in terms of sustainability would be an idea, to expand on your personal experience as in your book with a collection of anecdotes from survivors of last time round as a support of your position in historical terms. since NYT are erudite this sort of thing could pull weight with the chief editors against the airheads in lifestye sections who did this hatchet job on you.

    Send free copies of your book to the various editors of the national papers and magazines for review with a copy of the NYT article and your response when it gets publishes as a rebuttal. Maybe Oprah could get you on her show or something.

    Most important of all rember “No press is bad press”. Spin is the most important thing to remember. Send the ball back with maximum speed and perfect aim they just hit to you.

    Yours

    GS

  14. Ann says:

    Sharon,
    One point you seemed to have missed: The NYT is in New York City. Have you ever been there? Do you know what the author was up against? Do you know that Wall Street and Madison Avenue are there? If sickos call you sick, you must be on to something. I guarantee that there are concerned, caring people there who heard your message. Otherwise the sickos wouldn’t have bothered with you.

  15. Robert says:

    I do not see why anybody even reads the New York Times! Especially outside of New York! I get all of the news that I need from my local paper and when I see people reading the Times I just think that they are trying to impress people. Hearing about this whole thing has inspired me to live more like Sharon so the Times failed if what they wanted to do was marginalize her and her mindset.

  16. Sharon, a follow-up. I showed your piece to my partner and he suggested that even for an Op-Ed it should be 1/3 as long. “2/3rds too long” is how he put it.

    Something to consider, but usually with newspapers, short-and-to-the-point is best.

  17. I’m just catching up on my reading here, but wanted to offer this. Contrast how your New York Times writer wished to portray you as living in Wierdo Land and how she had to create a new disorder in order to make sure no one else took our side seriously, with this article about how people are selling sentimental objects at garage sales and riding bicycles to save on gasoline bills. The best part is the bit about how one dad has his kid sit on a towel on the handlebars which had it been a detail of your story would have nailed you on the child abuse thing for sure. Much sympathy underlies this garage sale article because these people were shafted from the American Dream doing what they were supposed to do.

    This is the egregious thing about the media. They so transparently protect the mainstream idiocy, but if someone dares to project how we should be living because of a future that the mainstream refuses to accept they must be condemned to a mental ward. The curse of Cassandra again.

  18. john kurmann says:

    Hi, Sharon. I largely agree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’ve misunderstood James Hansen. As I noted in my essay “Climate On the Edge, Ordinary People Need to Get a Move On” at RethinkingtheWorld.net, Hansen was quoted as saying “we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change…no longer than a decade, at the most” a couple years ago. He also more recently wrote the following:

    “Our conclusion is that, if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, CO2 must be reduced from its present 385 ppm (parts per million) to, at most, 350 ppm.”

    To my knowledge, however, he’s never said that our goal needs to be to get CO2 down to 350 ppm within 10 years, which is why I think you’ve conflated the 2 recommendations into one. Yes, we need to make a serious start on reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the next several years, but getting atmospheric concentrations back down to 350 ppm is a longer-term goal.

  19. hugh owens says:

    Well done Sharon. You go girl!

  20. Shasha says:

    You may recall a few years ago my family was featured in Money Magazine as searching for the simple life. The picture they painted of us was horrible. We “deprived” our children of numerous store purchased gifts (instead we made them – which was not mentioned), we closed off rooms to save heat (egads), and chose used clothing (heaven forbid). The article suggested us that we start spending more money and invest in the stock market. Some of the feedback that we received was devastating and made me wish that we had never agreed to do the article.

    2 years later we look back and laugh. We did not take the advice and in fact became more frugal in our lives/choices. We are happy with our choices, and others seem to think that our lifestyle is wise. I am certainly happy that we did not purchase the stocks that were suggested.

    So, what I am trying to say is, chin up. Someone has to be the leader and the inspiration. Seeing the number of people who have commented on your blog and read your book, you should be pleased. Although the NYT may not see the validity – nay – the necessity of your choices, but others do.

    The pebble is becoming a wave.

  21. Rob says:

    Hi Sharon:
    Been a reader of your blog for a while…I really enjoy it and find what you are doing,or perhaps more to the point, how you are living, to be inspiring stuff. The NYT article was not surprising…being green is cool but you’re too far past that concept for most folks’ comfort. Let’s face it, if you can’t register economic demand as a consumer, you have sort of ceased to exist. I think what mainstream culture fears is having your outlook catch on….it’s one thing if you can be marginalized as a fringe element but if lots of folks lived like you and your family…what would become of the economy as we know it? Interestingly, I think we’re a lot closer to finding out than most would like to think. As the financial system melts down, and we run huge deficits to buy a little time, many folks will be forced into a power-down mode of existence. What I’m not clear on is whether the benefits of a low consumption/ low energy lifestyle are as apparent/ appealing if you arrive there by necessity rather than conscious choice. Your thoughts would be appreciated. Keep up the great work.
    Regards, Rob

  22. [...] This post is for Sharon…. [...]

  23. john kurmann says:

    Hi, Sharon and all. Jim Hansen has just put out a press release for his upcoming paper titled ““Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” and I think it makes clear he is not arguing that we need to get CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 ppm atwithin a decade. Quoting:

    “[The authors] find that a combination of these approaches could bring CO2 back to 350 ppm well before the end of the century.”

    The full release is here.

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