Being Green, Saving Green-
balancing environmental values and a modest budget
The Eye- Columbia Spectator
March 12, 2012
By Ravenna Koenig
In high school, I looked at the world like it was a strip of negative film. Everything was black or white,right or wrong. I didn’t have to work hard to remain consistent with what I thought was right because doing so was as simple as sorting the recycling, going to the weekly meetings of charitable clubs at my school, and reproaching people when they used derogatory words.
It’s harder now that we’re in college, where convenience often has conscience on a leash. Finally out of our parents’ homes, we have achieved independence of will—but usually not of wallet. The choices we make maybe our own, yet they’re limited by small budgets and crushing workloads. This isn’t just a student problem, either—the years after college will likely offer many graduates minimal pay and long work hours. If it’s important to us to be environmentally conscious and ethically consistent, how can we as young New Yorkers navigate our busy lives while staying loyal to our values?
Food has long been one of the primary battlegrounds upon which budgetary limitations have warred with personal conscience. By now, it’s commonly understood that words like “organic,” “local,” “free-range,” and “free-trade” convey particular (and positive) information about a product’s history. Also widely known—and bemoaned—is the high cost of such righteous items.
Enter conscience champion No. 1: the food cooperative. Owned and run by members, these co-ops are designed with policies, prices, and organizing principles that will bring the greatest boon to their members. Though they yield the kinds of produce you might find at your local grocery store, co-ops can function with a high degree of social responsibility because they aren’t at the mercy of bottom-line business in the way that corporations are. What constitutes membership and what is required of members differs from co-op to coop, but underpinning all food cooperatives is a desire to enable people to buy quality food that is the product of demonstrably conscionable practices.
The Park Slope Food Coop is one of the oldest coops in the nation and is famous for its strict membership rules. Since its founding in 1973, only members have been able to shop at PSFC, and all members must work 2 1/2 hours a month in order to keep up their membership. The total amount of work comes to roughly 36 hours per year—“less than the average work week,” Ann Herpel, general coordinator at the co-op, points out. Herpel believes the younger members are sometimes more accepting of the co-op’s strict rules than the older members. When asked to hazard a guess as to why this is, she says, “They have to cobble together a professional life. I think they’re more flexible.”
Since members do the bulk of the labor—which consists of everything from working the checkout lines to unloading produce from trucks—PSFC is able to offer phenomenally low prices. It claims that members save 20 to 40 percent on their weekly grocery bills. If you just buy produce and bulk products—that is, avoid the artisanal cheese and rosemary pheasant pâté—you can afford to eat well even “on an AmeriCorp Salary and food stamps,” as 24-year-old Katherine Dexter did when she first became a member of the co-op two years ago.
More than sustainability, fair trade, and environmental consciousness, the co-op also exemplifies the value of community, which Dexter cites as a huge factor in her participation. “People have always joined the co-op to get a good deal on food,” Dexter says, “but people continue to join because they want to belong to a community, which is hard to find in New York City, especially for young people who move here.” Other co-ops in the city include the 4th Street Food Co-op, which is open to the public and manned entirely by members, and the Flatbush Food Coop, where you don’t have to be a member to shop but do have to be one to participate in decision-making.
Practicing this kind of conscious consumerism is one surprisingly manageable way that we can live up to our values—even those that may at first seem to demand large expenditures of time or effort. Another way to incorporate a more environmentally conscious outlook into your everyday life is to adopt greener methods of transportation. New York City isn’t the worst offender on this front: Metropolitan Transportation Authority statistics put ridership on an average weekday in 2010 at a high of 5,156,913 people out of 8,175,133 inhabitants. Numbers from the Department of Energy indicate that the energy expenditure for the subway is 3,492 British thermal units per passenger-mile. Compared to a car’s energy expenditure of 3,702 Btu per passenger-mile, that’s an improvement—but compared to the Btu expenditure of a bike (read: zero), it’s a lot.
Biking reduces your transportation-based carbon footprint to nothing, cuts your MetroCard costs to zilch, and saves you the time you would lose waiting for transfers. “Coming back from Brooklyn on the subway?” Greg Pendergast , a senior in CC and a bike enthusiast, says. “I think nine times out of 10, I’d beat the subway home on a bike.” Plus, when you get around on your own steam, you don’t have to worry about finding time to exercise. Organizations like Time’s Up!, a “not-for-profit direct-action environmental group” with locations in the East Village and Brooklyn, make it easy to get your wheels spinning. They sell recycled bikes and offer weekly bike repair classes and open workshops where you can work on your bike with the help of a mechanic. These workshops also function as a meeting place for a like-minded biking community.
Sometimes it may feel as if we’ve been cornered by the demands of our bustling lives. But it’s important to remember that we do have choices and that if we lay a little groundwork at the outset—by, say, becoming members of a food co-op or buying bikes—we may find that manifesting our values becomes an easy, even unexpectedly convenient task.