Here are a few recent letters to the household environmentalist:
Dear H.E.: I recently received a present from my in-laws -- a basket of fancy fruit and jam from a mail-order orchard in Oregon. Imagine my growing dismay as I opened the box, lifted out the foam rubber padding, peeled away the plastic film wrapper, unwrapped the waxed tissue from around each individual fruit and candy, and even found a gigantic Styrofoam insert under the goodies. The packaging dwarfed the edibles. Here's my question: Shouldn't I let my in-laws know that the present they sent contained an unconscionable amount of trash? Think of the burden on our landfills!
A: Don't even dream of it. Write a warm thank-you note to your in-laws. Then dump all the paper and plastic back into the box and return it to the orchard with a polite note pointing out that their packaging practices are somewhat behind the times.
Dear H.E.: I am an ardent environmentalist. My wife is not. I use a sponge, she uses paper towels. I conserve water, she turns on the tap and tours the house for dirty dishes. I commute to work on my bicycle, she drives to the end of the driveway to get the morning paper. She likes a warm house. She likes all the lights on. She . . . you get the idea. I try to make her see how habits like hers are ruining the planet, but I can see that I'm not making any headway. In fact, she seems to be getting worse. What can I do to make her change her wasteful ways?
A: Gee, I can't imagine why your approach isn't working. Perhaps nagging isn't the best way to convert people after all. May H.E. suggest a change of tack? Bite your tongue for a while and let the heat fade out of the issue. Perhaps eventually you can approach the subject from another angle. Is your wife concerned about saving money? Home conservation measures are almost always money savers. You may have better luck with that as a theme. But if nothing works, remember: One environmentalist in a household of two is still better for the environment than two people in two households -- which H.E. fears may soon be your situation.
Dear H.E.: The other day, while strolling in the arboretum with a friend, I heard the unmistakable sound of an aluminum can buckling. I whipped my head around in time to see a man toss his soda can into the bushes. With a shriek, I jumped after the can, and, brandishing it under the man's nose, I wasted no time in delivering a stinging reprimand. Afterward, my companion suggested that I might have overstepped the bounds of polite behavior. I'm sure that a like-minded environmentalist like yourself will take my side. Who is right?
A: Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is possible to be an environmentalist without being a zealot. So lighten up. The correct thing to do when one observes a passerby littering the landscape is to pick up the offending object and call out gaily, "Excuse me! I think you dropped something!" Then smile sweetly and thrust the litter back into the transgressor's hand. Your approach, while well meaning, may prove hazardous to your health.
If you have a question, write the Household Environmentalist -- on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.