I trace my seafoam-green environmentalism back to 1989. It was the 19th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22) and I had just taken up backpacking. My chief concern was in protecting the great outdoors from development, so that I’d always have a forest in which to pitch my tent. I was particularly concerned about our shrinking rain forests. In fact, I was so worried about seeing one before they all disappeared that I took what was then a relatively new thing: an “eco-tour.” A friend and I flew to Costa Rica and visited coffee plantations, still-active volcanoes, and yes, the rain forests. We saw toucans, monkeys, and snakes—and lived to tell the tale of the fish that would like nothing more than to swim up your urethra.
My friend and I, along with about 10 other eco-tourists, hiked in gym shoes and bathing suits for about a mile up a large stream, our only way to reach a waterfall deep inside a jungle gorge. With water up to our chests, our guide decided that was the best moment to tell us about the fabled “urethra fish.” It survives by attaching itself to the gills of other fish and swimming up the urethras of humans and then lodging itself there with “spikes” before eating away at the flesh. I have never felt so exposed, so awed, and so frightened by nature. Trust me, it’s hard to hike in a fast-moving stream with a rocky bottom while your legs are pressed together so tightly you could smash an atom.
Emotionally and physically worn out from the hike, I longed for sleep. When I walked into my open-air hut that night, I found a giant cockroach on my pillow. It’s hard to sleep when there are bugs bigger than your head crawling around, bugs that, in a band of four, could carry you away. I slept with my jeans on, just in case some impatient urethra fish evolved into an amphibian that night to flip and flop his way into my hut.
LOOKING FOR A more activist role to demonstrate my new-found love of Mother Earth, I joined the Cincinnati chapter of the Sierra Club, the environmental group founded more than 100 years ago by famed naturalist John Muir. I started attending meetings, signing petitions, even planting trees. I also put on several pounds and gave myself a few cavities. One of the club’s members sold “Rainforest Crunch,” and I ate it like a ravenous dog let loose inside an Arby’s. This addicting peanut brittle-like treat was made, in part, with nuts harvested by rain forest natives. Simply by eating Rainforest Crunch, I was helping employ an Amazonian tribe, and in so doing, protect their lush habitat—the lungs of the world—and their primitive way of life. I used to fantasize about these simple people untouched by modernity. I imagined them stepping gently through the forest, collecting nuts to satisfy us granola chompers, while also hunting their own dinner with their poisoned blow darts. After consuming my body weight in Rainforest Crunch, the roof of my mouth was so raw that even chewing bread felt like someone was shooting me with poisoned darts. I realized soon enough that I wouldn’t be able to eat us out of our eco-messes. Thankfully, bingeing on Rainforest Crunch wasn’t mandatory for membership in green groups. Evidently, neither was sanity.
The Sierra Club attracts a wide range of “tree huggers,” from suburban soccer moms who want a cleaner world for their kids to hard-core eco-freaks who choose not to have kids so they can wash their hands of any environmental problems caused by over-population. These hard-core types are way too eager to boast that they warm their home entirely with wood or that they use only one square of toilet paper per bathroom trip. One former hippie and current eco-freak, I’ll call him Nick, was also an “eco-one-upper.” Whatever you did for Mother Earth, Nick did more, and he did it better.
“How did you get here tonight?” Nick asked me one evening while we waited for the monthly meeting to begin.
“I drove; didn’t you?” I said.
“No, I rode my bike.”
“Oh, good for you.”
“Winter will be here before you know it, have you checked your insulation at home?”
“Not yet, maybe tomorrow,” I said. I had no intention of checking it. Ever.
“Mine’s fine,” Nick said. “Last year, I added a good foot of high-density stuff to my attic, it should reduce my energy needs by at least 20 percent.”
“That’s great, Nick, just great. I’m, uh, happy for you.”
I often wondered if Nick were a member of Earth First!, the clandestine group of “eco-warriors” that used to intimidate (some would say terrorize) loggers by sabotaging equipment and hammering metal spikes into trees, which could ruin chainsaws and maim the people operating them. I examined some Earth First! propaganda, mostly poorly photocopied newsletters full of fuzzy pictures of equipment that had been sabotaged, as well as defiant, malnourished tree-sitters who had taken residence in the forest canopy to keep the spotted owls company. For a span of about 20 minutes, I contemplated joining the group and taking up arms, as it were, against those who sought to clear-cut every forest. But I’ve never been very good with a hammer, and I would go stir-crazy sitting in a tree for longer than, oh I don’t know, 20 minutes. Besides, violence in the name of justice never did quite add up for me. And neither did eco-one-upper Nick.
For no sane reason that I could think of, Nick, right in the middle of our little chat, reached into his pocket and pulled out a spoon. It looked as if he had just eaten some refried beans.
“I carry this wherever I go so I don’t need to use plastic to eat,” Nick said.
“Hmm,” I said. “What if you need to cut something?”
“I use this,” he said, pulling out a Swiss Army knife. “It even has a reusable toothpick. See?”
I didn’t want to know what else Nick had in his pockets, so I excused myself and took another seat—on the other side of the auditorium.
To be fair, Nick was an aberration. Most of the Sierra Club’s members were “normal” folk doing the best they could to care for our planet. So I hung in there, even getting involved with club activities at the national level for a short while. I attended training sessions in San Francisco, where the club is headquartered, and in Washington, D.C. At one such session, I was among a group of about 50 treated to a one-hour personal audience with then–Vice President Al Gore. He basically shared what would evolve into the script for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. I remember being taken aback with just how relaxed, conversational, and funny Gore was, despite the robotic persona rap that hung over him like the smog in L.A. I left that training session pumped up and energized, ready to help Al save the world. But then I got home and my willpower was sapped by watching too many sitcoms, and making too many trips to the neighborhood pub.
I haven’t attended a Sierra Club meeting in about 10 years or so, but I remain a member. These days, my contributions to a cleaner, greener world are relatively small. I take quick showers to conserve energy; I take two full recycling bins to the curb each week on trash day; and I buy organic foods (every now and then) to cut down on petro-chemicals. But my lite green lifestyle may have more to do with what I don’t do. I don’t pour oil or chemicals down the sewer; I don’t drive a Hummer; and I don’t fly a private jet (though, truth be told, I would if I could).
Unable to quit my job and take up a full-time fight for the environment, I have assuaged my guilt by buying some carbon offsets. These much heralded—and sometimes ridiculed—programs allow you to donate money that supports energy-saving, carbon-reducing technologies to “make up” for the greenhouses gasses that your car, home, and office spew into the air. At the end of the day, I suppose carbon offsets amount to little more than a global paying of Paul to rob Peter. It’s sort of like paying someone else to over-pay on their taxes, so you can rob the IRS and not feel guilty about it.
Horrific headlines about such eco-disasters as polar ice caps melting and animal species dying off in record numbers make it damn hard to stay motivated. There are days when it seems as if we may have passed the tipping point, and no amount of solar-powered chargers or Rainforest Crunch is going to save our asses, nor the urethra fishes’ either. But as a father, I can’t just roll over and bury my head in the sand, especially since rising sea levels are washing a lot of it out to sea. I remain mostly optimistic, thankful for every sunny day, and hoping I turned the lights off.
Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki / Redux
Originally published in the April 2008 issue.