The Green Triangle

Environment, health, and money - help one, help them all

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 13
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Does living a more ecologically sound life have to pinch? Not at all, says Ernest (Chick) Callenbach, author of Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging. In fact, doing the right thing for the Earth can have multiple unexpected benefits. Callenbach lives in Berkeley, CA.

Living a sane and ecologically responsible life doesn’t mean self-sacrifice and austerity; on the contrary, it should mean a richer, more interesting, fuller, longer, and healthier life. But so far nobody has been able to dramatize this on a national level in the folksy, convincing way that Ronald Reagan and Ivan Boesky made greed respectable. Jimmy Carter may have been our only recent president to understand that an equation has two sides, but his wan demeanor on TV in a sweater, urging us to save energy, did not exactly inspire the American people. (I know, he looks better and better now, doesn’t he?)

Is it possible to talk attractive sense about a new life style for Americans? It had better be, or we can start preparing a suitable tombstone for our nation. And what we say needs to have both human verve and internal logical coherence to be memorable – more than a cafeteria menu of 50 or 750 ecological things we ought to choose among. Luckily, although we may sometimes lose the faith, on the whole it works to assume that the universe displays many reassuring regularities that we can rely on. This goes for science almost without saying, since without prediction of regularities it is impossible to devise experiments. But it is also reassuringly true of our daily lives. However chaotic they sometimes seem, they have patterns; we can actually make sense of the ways things work, and react accordingly.

One way I’ve devised of talking about some critical everyday regularities is what I call the Green Triangle. It’s a handy means of generating for ourselves ideas for personal and community and national change.

The three points of the triangle are:

The principle that relates these three points is: Anytime you do something beneficial for one of them, you will almost inevitably also do something beneficial for the other two – whether you’re hoping to or not.

For example, let’s suppose you decide to take a step to improve your health, like eating less fatty meat and dairy products. This will of course decrease your chance of circulatory disease; it may even make you stronger and give you greater endurance. But, since meat and dairy products are relatively expensive, you will save quite a bit of money; moreover, you will also help the environment – since meat production is a very land-intensive and damaging use of our farm resources.

But the interesting thing is that you can start at any point of the triangle. Thus, let’s assume you do something beneficial for the environment, like walking or bicycling instead of driving your car. You cut down pollution emissions, you reduce smog and lung damage, you decrease acid rain, and you may postpone the greenhouse effect. But you’ll help your health because you get more regular exercise, and you’ll also save money on gas, oil, and car depreciation.

Some people are skeptical about good things stemming from thrift, which is an American virtue that has gone out of style temporarily in the well-to-do layers of our society, but the third point of the triangle is actually just as potent. Anytime you do something beneficial for your pocketbook, like not buying an expensive gizmo whose manufacturing expends a lot of energy and uses a lot of raw materials, or taking an expensive trip that turns a lot of petroleum into atmospheric pollution and noise, you’re also helping the Earth. But you’re probably also doing your health a favor since you’re less stressed out to earn the money to pay off the gizmo or trip; and not pouring a lot of emotional energy into interacting with the gizmo leaves time and attention for other human beings and the kind of spontaneous improvisation and fooling around that our species evolved to be good at.

If you apply the Green Triangle to your everyday life, examples of delightful synergistic effects can be found everywhere; you come out with many delightful new perceptions. Some cases: Low- or no-cost fun with other people is almost always more ecologically and financially benign than hard work and heavy consumption; evidently evolution did not commit an ecological error in making us playful. (Making us willing to live by clocks is another story.) Exchanges outside the cash economy – trading massages, for instance – don’t have monetary ramifications you have to worry about, whereas if you pay for a massage, the money may go into a bank, and you know what they do with it. Growing or making your own is usually cheaper and healthier, as well as more ecologically benign. Fun, isn’t it? So go triangulate!

But one last word: even using the Green Triangle, we must still remember that there is no such thing as innocent purchasing, even in countries with eco-labelling programs that guide consumers to "less damaging" products. Of course it’s good to buy things that do less damage, and we ought to have an eco-labelling program in this country as soon as possible. But best of all is to buy less in general. Hard though it may be for moderns to admit, Jesus was totally correct in saying "Blessed are the poor" – because they do less ecological damage. There are a few things that we, the rich people of the North, can buy that really do positive good for the earth: photovoltaic cells and solar hot-water heaters, for instance, which move us toward a solar economy. But learning to live happily with less consumption of goods vastly outranks all the other things we might choose to do to save the earth. That’s why, in my book Ecotopia, people are appreciated for what they produce – in human relationships, in art, in community life, in science, in politics – and to call somebody a "consumer" is an insult.

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