Turning over a new leaf to live green

December 07, 2007|By Mike McGrew

BADEM, Germany -- During my youth, I was called many things - but never an environmentalist. The only thing I reused was my ignorance. When I changed auto oil, I dug holes to "plant" dirty petroleum. I took 30-minute showers, adjusted my thermostat only from its summertime 68 degrees to its wintertime 72, obsessively sprayed weed killer and water on my three-quarter-acre lawn, and crammed seven cans with mixed trash for each weekly pickup.

Over time, my habits changed somewhat. I started using a mulching mower and compost bin. I then bought a leaf shredder and a hybrid. However, each change was motivated primarily by saving money. The government didn't provide incentives to do more, and I recycled my tired excuses for why doing more wasn't worth the trouble.

Since moving from Carroll County to Germany last year, however, my appreciation of the world's environmental dilemma has grown. Viewing An Inconvenient Truth and reading Bill Bradley's comprehensive, affordable environmental proposals in The New American Story sharpened my awareness. But it is my participation in German conservation and preservation practices (and benefits) that thoroughly convinced me that "throwaway guys" like me could be rehabilitated - and more easily than most people probably assume.

In my typical German community, there is little sprawl. New homes cluster on town outskirts leading to wonderful trails through unspoiled countryside. Farmers here fertilize naturally (you get used to the smell) and chemicals are strictly controlled. Like our neighbors, my wife and I recycle used shopping bags, separate paper from plastic, glass, metals and other trash, and compost biodegradable food waste with our yard clippings.

Plastic foam cups and plastic utensils are rarely utilized here. We return water, beer, juice and soda containers for a deposit. We place other used glass, according to color, into nearby containers.

Granted, it takes time, but it was surprisingly simple to adjust to the new routines. The first time my grown children visited, my daughter murmured, "This makes sense," quickly picked up on our trash can system (paper blue, recyclable yellow, biodegradable green and restm?ll gray for nonrecycled trash), and willingly rinsed bottles, plastics and cans. My sons had no problem with separating recyclables, composting biodegradable waste and taking glass to town containers.

Similar environmental practices now pervade most aspects of life here. In my home, we close the door and turn off the heat to every room that isn't in use. Rolling shutters restrict sunlight entry and insulate every window. Together with our stone floors, they keep us cool in the summer - without air conditioning.

Fireplaces are vented throughout homes, capturing valuable heat. Washers use less water, heat it themselves and require less detergent than American models. Dryers pause in tumbling and heating for energy efficiency. Computers regulate house and water temperatures for different times of the day and year. Toilets now have two push buttons to adjust the intensity of the flush.

Bicycles, minicars, park-and-ride lots and windmills are everywhere. Recently, I bought family train tickets costing us $9 each for round-trip travel anywhere in our state. Public transportation is available in every city, and train stations are safely located near major attractions.

Why are Germans far ahead environmentally? The Green Party raises awareness and stimulates governmental action. Taxes that double some fuel costs encourage conservation and utilization of alternative energy and transportation options.

In addition, 83 million citizens crowded into a country smaller than Montana more closely experience environmental challenges and limited resources than do Americans. As important, many appreciate their environment more because they regularly hike, bike, play and garden in it during their plentiful time off work.

What is needed for significant American change? More grass-roots consciousness-raising and governmental action to develop potent incentives, legislation, regulations, and consequences that would stimulate habit changes at all levels. Creative public service announcements might inspire citizens to do even more.

Will some of our transformation be painful? Absolutely. Nevertheless, if we really mean business about energy independence and global warming, we will all pitch in and be proud of our necessary sacrifices.

Mike McGrew, a psychologist, is working for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Germany during a leave of absence from the Carroll County public schools. His e-mail is mcgrewclark@hotmail.com.

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