What are Americans made of? True grit? Sparkle and spunk? A hope and a prayer?
Corn and denial. We don’t want to know the ingredients of our food, or anything else-like our houses, cars, furniture, or clothing. We like processed food products made with lots of high-fructose corn syrup better than we like raw foodstuffs. And we like plenty of plastic around, although we may not know that it’s plastic, and 72 percent of us don’t know what plastic is made of anyway.* (It’s made of petroleum.)
Actually, we don’t know what anything is made of, and, furthermore, we don’t want to know. We’re too chicken to ask. Ours is a nation that loves freedom from information. The comfort, speed, and sheer bigness of American life depend on a tacit pact between leaders and voters and between manufacturers and consumers. We, the voters/consumers, promise not to get too curious, if you, the leaders/suppliers, just keep the good stuff coming fast and cheap.
We can’t enjoy our high standard of living if it’s delivered with back stories. Information wrecks everything because it’s never particularly happy or pretty. It turns out that the yummiest foods are made with gross chemicals in ugly plants. Everything else is made with noisy machines by foreign people (who look awfully unhappy in photos) inside the monster factories of dirty cities.
Ignorance is bliss in all corners of American life. Our homes could never be so affordably huge without all the mystery materials posing as something other than what they are. Our roofs may look like cedar or slate, but they’re mostly cellulose mats soaked with asphalt, the cruddy black residue of crude oil. New houses are sided with synthetic stucco or vinyl siding, or cellulose fiber cement board posing as wood. Inside, "laminated flooring" made of melamine resins passes for oak; "solid surfacing," also made of resin, looks like marble; kitchen cabinetry and furniture made of particleboard are laminated with foils to look like hardwood. Cars are even more confusing. Inside and out, whatever looks like steel or leather is probably a thermoplastic olefin, polycarbonate, polyester, polypropylene, polyamide, or polyurethane.
While our houses and cars are built of artificial materials treated to look like natural ones, our supermarkets are stocked with products that are just the opposite. They’re made of natural ingredients processed and molded into edible playthings: cookies, chips, hot dogs, pizzas.
Admit it. American life was way more fun before this whole organic sustainability thing got going. Now every time you eat something or buy something, you have to ask yourself, "What is it made of, where did it come from, and who made it?" Bummer.
How far should you go? If you took all the petroleum and petroleum-based products out of your life, where would you be? Living in a canvas tent with a few bars of artisan-crafted soy soap, that’s where. Take away the benefits of cheap agricultural and textile labor and that leaves you with all soap, no tent.
The fact is, we’re not ready to be green. We’ve got too much to learn too fast. There’s too much to lose with no speedy reward. Unless we come right out and talk about our deep, dark American lack of motivation in this do-gooding realm, greenness will remain a fad and never a way of life here.
The hardest thing we can do is wonder what things are made of and teach that curiosity to our kids. We boosted curiosity about food (see the "Nutrition Facts" box on food items); now we can do it for everything else. We can ask manufacturers to help us by explaining their products on websites and labels. The more we know about materials and methods, the better we can understand how industrial processes can be significantly improved, and the better we can welcome advances that are semi-green. Not all natural stuff is good. Not all synthetic stuff is evil. It’s not that simple.
Next, let’s promise to never call anything green ever again, as in, "We’re building a green beach house!" Calculating sustainability involves complex measurements of costs and emotion over time and distance. Dumbing things down, or simplifying them for profit or fashion, does not help. The greenest thing you can do is probably nothing at all, or much less of it. (Sit still, and try not to exhale too much carbon dioxide.)
But before we do all this, we can start off with the much simpler task of greening ourselves. After all, how green can we ever be if we’re made of corn? We’re already yellow enough.
* From a recent survey by Insight Express, on behalf of the Metabolix company, as reported on Treehugger.com
Barbara Flanagan is a contributing editor at I.D.