Read an Excerpt
Let's begin by agreeing that we are all creatures of habit. We do what we do every day because that's the way we've always done it. It takes a big reason for us to make big changes in our lives. And the reason is usually very personal.
Much to my surprise, I've become a green activist. I wasn't always. Oh sure, I cared a lot about our planet and the changes we've made to it. But it wasn't clear to me what I could do to make a difference. Then something very big and very personal happened and I saw the light, and the light was green.
Here's my story.
My son Spencer had just turned three when, one day, I noticed he was coughing a lot. At first, I didn't think anything of it. Kids get sick. I told him to lie down, thinking he'd be fine it was just a cough. A short time later I realized that his heart was pounding, as if it were trying to beat right out of his chest. Terrified, my husband Roger and I rushed him to the hospital. The emergency room doctors placed our son on oxygen and gave him strong steroids to help clear his airways. We spent the next two nights in the intensive care unit. The doctors told us he had something called reactive airways dysfunction syndrome a form of asthma.
Asthma? How did our little boy develop asthma? We'd never heard of asthma coming on so suddenly. We were confused and sick with worry.
We talked to our son's doctor. We talked to other doctors. We asked questions but never got satisfactory answers. Ultimately, we knew our son's condition had to be either genetic or environmental. Neither my husband nor I had any family history of asthma, going back for four generations. So we concluded the cause was environmental.
I've spent most of my career working as a consumer reporter, so I knew how to dive right in and begin researching. It didn't take long to discover that the United States is in the midst of an asthma epidemic. One of every thirteen school-age children in the United States has asthma. Asthma in children younger than five has increased 160 percent since 1980. Nine million U.S. children under the age of eighteen have been diagnosed with asthma. Asthma is the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States, and it's the third leading cause of hospitalization among children younger than fifteen. The suspected cause of these stunning changes? At least six well-designed epidemiological studies have found one answer: a strong link between the use of certain cleaning products and asthma.1 That stopped me cold. The cause of my son's asthma may have been me. I may have been poisoning my own son.
At the time, Roger had just become chairman of Shaklee Corporation, the leading natural nutrition company in the United States. Shaklee also produces a line of natural, nontoxic cleaning products, and has since the 1960s. Shaklee was green when green was just a color and "biodegradable" was a word only scientists used. We started using Shaklee products exclusively, and Spencer has never again visited the emergency room. Coincidence? I don't think so, and once you've read this book, I don't think you will either.
After that scare, I went to work learning about living clean and green. Much of the information you need to get clean and green is out there, but we're all so busy we don't have time to weed through all that material on the Internet and in books. Plus, it's all so scientific, it's easy to lose your way.
Since my husband and I began our crusade to help others get clean, my family and friends have bombarded me with questions about everything from cleaning products to baby clothes. I found myself becoming the go-to person for all sorts of well-educated but woefully misinformed people. And the more questions they asked, the more I realized the depth of the need out there for information in plain English. The media assault us daily with scary statistics and dire warnings about harmful products. Sometimes the information is reliable, sometimes it's not. Who can hope to separate what's important and relevant from what's just sensational and frightening? I thought that if I could compile the most crucial information, make it accessible and user friendly, and maybe even a little entertaining, people would be able to absorb the message.
Writing the book you have in your hands became my mission.
As a girl, I loved nature. I was a green teen, you might say. As far back as I can recall, I wanted to help our ailing planet. But I was naive; I thought saving the environment meant, for example, saving the penguins in Antarctica. I spent countless hours worrying about those penguins and their cold, fragile habitat, which I hoped to someday visit. I knew nothing about carbon footprints in those days, or emissions, or the ozone layer. And green? I thought that was something that looked cool with pink.
The epiphany came when I was twenty-one. My mother organized an ambitious family expedition to the South Pole. My parents, one of my brothers, and my eighty-three-year-old grandmother all embarked on the journey of a lifetime. At last I was going to meet my beloved penguins face to face.
There was nothing first class about our trip. This was no Princess cruise, with fancy food and nightly entertainment. There was no bingo, no disco, no spa. We sailed on a workhorse of a boat that also functioned as an icebreaker. When we boarded, we were each issued a huge puffy red coat, filled with down. (There were sixty of us altogether, wearing the same red coats. A comical sight.) We burrowed into those coats as the weather grew colder, and by the end of our ten days at sea they had become a second skin. It was late December summer in Antarctica and while it was light almost twenty-four hours a day, the temperature was brisk.
I remember spotting my first iceberg. It shimmered before me like a mirage floating on a mirror-smooth sea. I'll never forget that sight. The sunlight, the blue-green water against the stark white iceberg I've yet to see any photo that conveys its breathtaking beauty.
When we finally reached the Antarctic, there was nothing but ice, snow, and one lonely scientific station. I could have stared into that blank white horizon forever. So pristine, so clean, so pure. And then I saw them: thousands of penguins marching toward us. (They do march, by the way.) Picture it: sixty tourists in puffy red coats meeting something like half a million little beings in tuxedos. They barked, pooped everywhere the penguins, not the tourists and smelled really bad. But I loved it; for the first time, I felt fully alive, immersed in the experience, a part of nature, not an observer. Magic.
It was that trip that made me decide I wanted to work on environmental issues, to do what I could to safeguard the earth. But I was the daughter of a practical woman. She wanted me to keep my options open. I wanted to attend Yale's School of Forestry she convinced me to apply to law schools as well. (I was single-minded, however: My essay on my law school applications was all about Antarctica.)
While waiting to hear from grad schools I applied for a job with Greenpeace. They had an office in New York City, my hometown. I remember worrying that my outfit wasn't Greenpeace-y enough, so I went shopping for something crunchier. Less Barneys. My concept of environmentalist wear at the time was sort of Twiggy meets Tonto. When I arrived at the tiny Greenpeace office, I knocked timidly at the door, but there was no answer. Odd. For a moment I thought I must be at the wrong place. Nope. It said "Greenpeace" right on the door. These were the days before cell phones, so I couldn't call. There was a dry cleaner right below the office. They let me use their phone to make sure I had the right day and time. I reached the Greenpeace answering machine and left a message. When they called back to reschedule, I learned that everyone in the office had been out that day on an "action" which was code for the fact they'd all been arrested while protesting a tanker coming into New York Harbor. Even though I thought they were doing great work, I couldn't see myself having a criminal record. I decided Greenpeace wasn't for me.
So I went to work for a wonderful organization, the Rainforest Alliance. I was happy saving the parrots and the rubber trees, and then one day I got a frantic call from my mother: I'd gotten into law school. But not just any law school. A good one. New York University. It felt like destiny, so I started classes that fall, with an eye toward an eventual career in environmental law.
The following summer I landed a job with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading organization specializing in legal action to protect the environment. But just before I started work, they decided that a first-year law student wasn't the ideal intern. I was devastated; I believed that the NRDC was the best place for me. I ended up in the Manhattan district attorney's office. It wasn't saving the penguins, but it was a sexy second best.
Life takes you where it will. I continued my career at the DA's office for several more years but also found that I had a knack for writing and a growing interest in working in television. I knew that the fastest way to land a TV job was to leave New York for a smaller market, but New York was my home and I didn't want to leave. A friend suggested I try writing a newspaper column offering free legal advice. That seemed like a fine idea: I knew that most people who came into the DA's office had never met a lawyer before. For the most part, they had no money, no access to good legal counsel, no idea how to survive the system. I thought a "Dear Abby"-style column about the law could provide a needed and valuable service. I wrote up a sample column and handed it to a friend who knew people at the New York Daily News. I didn't think I had a shot. They were the largest newspaper in New York. But they loved my sample and gave me a chance. Within weeks I was also writing a legal column for the national magazine Mirabella.
I guess the stars were lining up for me. Around that same time, one of my girlfriends, who worked at ABC News, was riding an elevator, holding a copy of Mirabella under her arm. The head of hiring, who was standing next to her, spotted my photo and asked who I was. Next thing I knew, I was sitting at Peter Jennings' desk at 2:00 A.M., with no on-air experience, analyzing the O.J. Simpson trial on live TV.
It's funny; we often don't so much determine our lives as get carried along by them. I got married. I had kids. I moved. I still cared about the environment, and I wrote a few checks to various environmental groups, but looking back I now see that I'd lost my way. In a sense my children brought me back to who I was meant to be. They made me think about the world they would one day inherit. Then, when Spencer got sick, I came full circle. The iceberg, the penguins, Mother Nature, the environment all these things had suddenly become personal.
And I turned green. In a sense my own evolution into someone who cares passionately about what today are called "green issues" tracked the evolution of our society's appreciation and concern about the environment. Back in the late 1960s, when the environmental movement started to take off, it was mostly about pollution smokestacks belching smoke, rivers so filled with chemical waste they caught fire, drinking water that caused diseases and death. I still remember the television ad that showed a proud native American with a single tear edging down his cheek as he watched people tossing litter on the ground.
Then, gradually, we began to see that everything we do affects everything else, that we live in a closed ecological system. By the 1990s, Americans started demanding safer, saner choices food raised without pesticides and herbicides, products that are organic. "Green" came along just in the past few years as a sort of shorthand for things that don't hurt you or the world you live in. It went from someone else's problem "those polluters" to our own.
It's suddenly become fashionable for Hollywood stars to ditch their limos and sports cars for fuel-stingy hybrids. But you don't have to be rich to be green; in fact, one of the great things about green living is that it's often more economical in the long run. You save money. That's part of the attraction of energy-efficient fluorescent lightbulbs: Yes, they use less energy, but they also last ages longer than old lightbulbs, so while they cost more initially, you end up saving money. These days, you don't have to march in the streets to show you're green; all you need to do is screw in a new lightbulb.
That's how little it takes and how easy it is to begin to take personal responsibility. I wasn't one of those suddenly radicalized moms who throws out everything in the refrigerator but the baking soda and a lemon. I started slowly. I began by interviewing doctors, especially pediatricians, and I soon noticed that they were all about cures; they didn't talk much about causes. These were the very same doctors who saved my son, who helped him breathe, but they weren't conversant with what might be lurking behind his sickness. That stunned me and galvanized me.
In the years since those scary days, doctors have begun to acknowledge that our homes can make us sick, that they can often be filled with invisible poisons and toxic air. The seemingly benign products with which we wash our clothes and dishes and teeth and floors can shorten our lives. Even the things we buy to eat can put those we love at risk of disease.
Look, I don't live in a log cabin. I don't bake my own bread. I wear leather shoes like everyone else. I'm normal. I'm you. And I'm far from perfect when it comes to being green. I'm different shades of green, let's say some days kelly, some days hunter, some days a selfish lime. But I'm trying, and I think there's a lot of value practical value for you and your family in trying, too.
When you think about how difficult life was for your grandmother, it's hard not to be thankful for how much easier and convenient life is now. But hold the thanks. By failing to understand the hidden costs economic, social, environmental, and, yes, physical of the way we live our lives, we've put ourselves, our families, and our planet in grave danger.
I hear you. You're saying, "Look, I'm just one person; how can I possibly make a difference? No way can I save the planet."
True enough. But you can protect and save your family. And by doing so you can reduce the impact of everything you do on that small part of the planet over which you have some control, about which you have some real choices.
That's what this book is about: having choices. And with each small, quiet, incremental better choice you make, you make your own corner of the globe a safer, healthier, more sustainable place.
Recently, I was reporting an Earth Day story for the local news. I told viewers that one quick way to save energy was to unplug their cell phone chargers. (Chargers keep drawing power even after the phone is fully charged.) Simple, right? Easy and hassle free. Then I got home that night and confronted my own hypocrisy. I hadn't unplugged my own cell phone charger. Hey, I've got three kids. In the morning it's all I can do to pour milk over the Cheerios, let alone remember the planet. But I try. I've gotten better. Even the most committed and dedicated environmentalists are always evolving.
When it comes to the environment and many other things, for that matter I think most people make choices based on three criteria: health, convenience, budget. Then, if their choice happens to be good for the planet too great. Bonus. Hard to think about melting glaciers when you're tired, hungry, and operating on a tight budget.
That's where this book comes in. It helps you make greener choices without sacrificing convenience and budget. More important, they'll be choices that will also be improving your family's health. And be warned: Once you get started, you won't be able to stop. There's a natural momentum that comes with doing the right thing for yourself and your family and your planet. You buy one nontoxic cleaning product, you start using one baby bottle made from materials that are safe for your infant, and the next thing you know you're recycling and riding a bike to work and buying organic cotton towels. I think helping the environment is a lot like working out. I always say that just putting on the workout clothes is something to be proud of. It's a step forward. That's the thing that matters: starting.
When I first thought of calling this book Get Clean, my mother told me she thought it sounded too much like a rehab book. I laughed. But now I realize she was on to something. This is a rehab book. It's life rehab. And though I can't help you kick all your bad habits, I hope to help you kick some of them.
So let's get started.
Copyright © 2008 by Sloan Barnett