Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book review: The missing manual – Living Green

(Posted on Desicritics)

Over the past few years “sustainable living” has suddenly grown in importance in the more developed and affluent countries of the world, and most people are at least curious about it. Yet it isn’t always easy for people to know if their lifestyles are green or not. An easily readable yet comprehensive and enjoyable resource for green living would be of great value to everyone, from the die hard eco-warrior to the gently curious citizen. Nancy Conner’s Living Green is just that much required reference to fill that void.

A well written book that can be read as a serious reference or a quick pointer for specific questions, this book (from O’reilly’s missing manual series) addresses most questions anyone could have about living green, and what all it involves. Living green isn’t just about replacing a few light bulbs or occasionally bicycling to work, but is about a comprehensive lifestyle change where the consequences of all our actions are considered from an earth perspective. The book also does well in suggesting that we do have choices, and by living green we do not have to abandon all the comforts we have become accustomed to.

This book is organized in chapters that deal with changes we can make in our homes, all the way through green business and getting involved towards sustaining a greener planet. If you are just starting with small changes in your life, and want to see what little things you can easily do around the house, the first section addresses these questions. You will easily be surprised by the number of toxins you are exposed to routinely, from harsh detergents to cleaners and solutions commonly used in bathrooms or kitchens. Importantly, the book provides low cost, simple alternatives that are far less harmful to our own health as well as the health of the planet. Taking just one example, it was most useful to hear that the ultimate all purpose natural cleaner is white vinegar and boric acid powder, which can be used to scour sinks, clean bathtubs, wipe countertops and clean floors. With a few modifications, it can also be used as a garden pesticide. The book then builds towards reducing unnecessary consumption (going for quality over inexpensive quantity is an easy first step), and reusing and recycling. It then goes a level higher, and provides outstanding resources and ideas towards building houses that are green as well as energy saving, talking about everything from simple design solutions to LEED certification for buildings.

The next section talks about a complete lifestyle change, from raising a green family (ever thought about how many landfills a baby’s diapers could fill up?), green eating and cooking, raising kids who are sensitive towards the environment, through responsible shopping, and another big cause of pollution to the earth, daily transportation. The book provides a handy reminder of the different transportation options (from walking and biking to car pooling) to the costs of air travel or hotel stay, and how easy it can be to offset these effects for little or no extra cost. There are excellent resources for example on hotels or automobiles that take their environmental costs seriously, and are trying hard to improve energy efficiency and environmental stewardship. So, given a choice between two hotels or two cars of similar quality, this book makes it easy to choose the one that does a better job in protecting the environment.

The final section goes in depth into green business, and how it is possible to actually make a profit or create substantial savings by actually being green. Much of it is just simple improvements in efficiency. Using less paper or office recycling programs are low cost efforts that result in big “green” savings. There are significant energy savings offices can obtain by simply allowing more natural light in, or opening windows (as opposed to cranking up the air conditioners all the time). There are choices that can be made for the source of energy (and the differences between renewable and non-renewable energy choices, as well as how one can buy and use more renewable energy resources). Finally, the book goes into different ways by which one can be involved, from activism to socially responsible investing.

There is little doubt that the book is comprehensive, and provides information to someone curious about green living at every level. Yet, there are some caveats or limitations in this book.

For one, it is certainly true that many people have tried various eco-friendly/green choices around the house, and it just didn’t “work as well” as the regular choice. This book, while providing excellent choices for green options around the house, does not acknowledge that there can be some limitations with green products. From my own personal example, we’ve tried just about every single green dishwashing solution out there. But none of them work as well as conventional dishwashing gels (which do have phosphates in them) while cleaning dishes that have been used for spicy, sometimes greasy, and often heavily cooked Indian or Thai food, though they do work satisfactorily for more standard “American” cooking. So, after much trial and error, we had to go back to conventional dishwasher detergents, after experimenting with a dozen natural ones that claimed to be just as “hard on dirt” but gentle on the environment. On the other hand, many other green products work satisfactorily (green laundry detergent with a little bit of hydrogen peroxide added to it works fine for lightly soiled clothes, but perhaps not as well for the rare, heavily soiled garment). Future editions of the book would do well to acknowledge some limitations of green products, and perhaps compare the two, saying where the green product is perfectly adequate, but where it might fall short. Acknowledging some limitations of green products is not necessarily a weakness, and makes it easier for the average person to make better choices while stepping towards green living.

Then, there is an extensive (and overall good) chapter on food, which oversimplifies the “organic is good” mantra, unequivocally casting all fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified food as the great evil. However, the argument is far from that simple, since it is a very complex area that is grey and not black or white. Yes, pesticides can be harmful, and overuse of fertilizers has ruined land. But it is also true that careful and controlled use of fertilizer (along with suitable crop rotation and mixed cropping) can yield more food (at no nutritional disadvantage) than simple organic mono-cropping alone. Nor are all genetically modified foods dangerous. It remains a fact that every single food crop we eat today has been modified, over years of crossing and creating “hybrids”, except that the methods used have been different. There certainly are issues with proprietary seeds and over aggressive patents, but casting all genetically modified food as bad is simplistic at best and false at worst. There is no doubt that sustainable (including organic) food practices are excellent for the earth, but by avoiding nuance, this book might put away some people who aren’t blindly gung ho yet about everything green.

The book has been written from the perspective of a person living green. So, perhaps, the tone does not fully reach out to people across the aisle. Living in Texas has taught me that direct confrontation (about lifestyle) rarely works. In a place where say people often leave their lawn sprinklers on during three hour thunderstorms, or where cities still don’t have recycling programs (and where one has to collect and cart recyclables to a recycling center oneself), finding middle ground is a starting first step. Perhaps this book can do more to address that.

However, overall the book is superbly written, and provides a single stop for the reader to find out anything about living green. A more than useful manual, it should be the book of choice should one want any reference towards green living. It is a worthy addition to any household, and lets you start making those small steps towards green living.

Living Green: the missing manual