Green Thinking

Earlier this year I was invited to submit some ideas for the New York Times Magazine‘s first-ever green issue (on newsstands today in New York; tomorrow elsewhere in the country). Here are the three results. Did you know there was such a thing as a “green burial”? Or that you could get a Masters Degree in green design? I didn’t either.

MAJORING IN GREEN: Time was, environmental-studies majors ran campus recycling programs. Now they run national campaigns. In 2004, the former student activists Kassie Rohrbach (Connecticut College), Liz Veazey (University of North Carolina,Chapel Hill), Billy Parrish (Yale) and Arthur Coulston (University of California, Santa Cruz) helped form the Energy Action Coalition, which swelled quickly and now has tens of thousands of members. Eighteen months ago, the E.A.C. started its first major initiative: the Campus Climate Challenge, which aims to persuade 1,000 campuses (including elementary and high schools) to go carbon neutral, or at least commit to using 100 percent clean energy. For those interested in pursuing a green-friendly career, Boston Architectural College now offers a green-design certificate that can be completed online; Carnegie Mellon and the University of Texas at Austin offer master’s degrees in sustainable design. At the University of Texas, students can take classes like Topics on Sustainable Development, in which the teacher, Steven Moore, brings together architecture, law, engineering and business students to tackle environmental problems. College students who want to blend the old (beer drinking) with the green should look up a group of students and their professor at M.I.T. Their solar-powered bottle sorter should do the trick. CHRISTIAN DEBENEDETTI

NATURAL DEATH: Last summer a crematorium in Bath, England, announced that it would try to reduce harmful emissions by stockpiling the deceased until company burners could be filled enough to justify the 2.5 hour operation — “to minimize gas usage as an environmental issue,” an official wrote. (According to recent estimates, the cremation of a human body releases about 100 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.) But with the new measures, the officials cautioned, some bodies would need to remain uncremated for a day or so. The reaction? Horror and dismay, despite the good intentions. In the United States, activists have been taking on mainstream burial rites for environmental reasons, too. According to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe, N.M., the “death care” industry uses, in a single year, “more steel (in coffins alone) than was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge” and enough reinforced concrete to “construct a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.” Steel and concrete have immense carbon footprints. Irrigating acres of parklike cemeteries or air-conditioning memorial buildings increases the environmental impact. “People think you’re lying there like Vladimir Lenin,” says Billy Campbell, an E. O. Wilson-quoting physician who is considered a pioneer of the United States’ green-burial movement. He began organizing environmentally supportive burials in rural South Carolina in the late 1990s, informed by a strict conservationist’s orthodoxy: no harming of plants; shallow graves (to keep the body in the soil’s “living layer”); simple shrouds or even unadorned burial directly into the ground; and a maximum of 100 bodies per acre (as opposed to 800 to 2,000 in most cemeteries). He says his company, Memorial Ecosystems, which he runs with his wife, has performed 100 burials, and he developed the ecological standards of the Green Burial Council’s approved providers. His newest site, Honey Creek Woodlands, sits amid 2,100 acres owned by Trappist monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 20 miles outside of Atlanta. Graves are minimally marked and ecologically restored with sparse adornments like a wild ginger root or indigenous maple sapling. Think of it as a natural necropolis. CHRISTIAN DeBENEDETTI

DISPOSABLE VS. COTTON: The heated debate over the environmental costs of diapers, a roughly $5 billion business, goes something like this: on one hand, the 25 billion or so disposable diapers used per year in this country are bad because they are made with petroleum-based plastics, account for more than 250,000 trees being cut down and make up some 3.5 million tons of landfill waste that won’t decompose for decades. Cotton diapers, on the other hand, now enjoying a resurgence in popularity, cost less over the long run but require vast amounts of energy from the production of cotton, the washing and the distribution. Environmental and industry groups brandishing rival stats and studies have effectively declared a draw. Even an outspoken group like the Natural Resources Defense Council declines to take a trenchant position (“six of one and a half dozen of the other,” a spokeswoman says). Apparently the only way between the two sides is to do without (which means teaching babies to use a toilet) or adopt some middle-way product like gDiapers, which combine cloth and flushable elements. The late Donella H. Meadows, the founder of Vermont’s Sustainability Institute, recognized the conflict long before the carbon footprints of everyday objects were a mainstream concern. “It’s great to try to move our lives in the direction of ecological righteousness, but it’s also true that every human activity has environmental impact,” she wrote in an op-ed article that appeared in newspapers in 1990. In addressing the debate over diapers, she had what may have been the final word. “From the earth’s point of view,” she said, “it’s not all that important which kind of diapers you use. The important decision was having the baby.” CHRISTIAN DeBENEDETTI

 

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