The green pen and the yin and yang of modernity

Iridium fountain pen nib, macro.

The nib of a fountain pen. Ever thought of this as green? (Image via Wikipedia)

I have always loved fountain pens. I relish the variable width, the bold strokes or the noble, clean lines that a good fountain pen can make. But I had never thought of a fountain pen as “green,” until a friend sent me one of those “the way things were” essays that fly around the Internet like loose confetti. This one was especially intriguing.  Here is an edited* version:

In the checkout line, the cashier told the older woman that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized: “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.” Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store, which sent them back to the plant to be washed, sterilized and refilled. They really were recycled. In her day, they walked up stairs because they didn’t have an escalators and elevators in every store and office. They walked to the grocery store instead of climbing into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks. They dried clothes on a line, not in a machine burning up 220 volts.  Wind and solar power really worked. Kids wore hand-me-down clothes, not always brand-new clothing. Back then they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not one in every room.  In the kitchen, they mixed by hand because they didn’t have food processors. When they packaged a fragile item to mail, they wadded up newspaper to cushion it; no Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. They used push mowers that ran on human power. They exercised by working, so they didn’t need to go to gyms to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. They drank from water fountains, not plastic bottles. They refilled pens with ink instead of buying disposable pens and replaced the razor blades instead of throwing away the whole razor.

The ability to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently has lured us into being “un-green,” much like  the proverbial frog in the pot. We are saving time, yes; the environment, perhaps no.

Of course there are green costs associated with washing and re-using coke bottles, but not producing plastic bottles that end up in a landfill has to count for something. I think it’s also interesting that the collateral effects of some decisions make us less green. For instance, many owner-associations have banned outdoor clotheslines for aesthetic reasons. Is pretty better than green? Maybe that needs to change. And while shopping online saves us gasoline and the resultant air pollution, the packing materials our purchases come wrapped in are filling up landfills just like disposable dirty diapers, paper plates and plastic bags. Maybe the best change would be less stuff altogether.

It is  the yin and yang of modernity — this balance of time versus the environment. Is is worth my time to hang sheets on the line, walk to lunch or get up and find a water fountain? It should be. But in our rush be maximize our time, we have minimized our environment. I’m not sure the consequences are worthy of the time we save.

So I’m rethinking some thing, as are many Madison students, faculty and staff. This summer, when JMU adds new gates to part of the campus, the changed traffic pattern will create more green and pedestrian space and fewer vehicles will travel through the heart of the campus. That’s good for green. And students all over campus are consciously making better-for-the-environment choices. So what shall we choose: slower and less efficient? Or fast and careless? It’s a simple choice, a smart choice and one that collectively will lead to significant change. Imagine, for instance, how much energy would be saved if everyone used clotheslines. Or what if students grew vegetables and herbs in beds around dorms or apartments? A rather smart lady I met recently suggested that. I think it’s a very good idea.

From the list above, I came up with some very simple actions I can change to be more environmentally responsible:

1. find my old fountain pen and put it back in service
2. turn off and unplug my multitude of electronics when not in use
3.put up a clothes line and learn to enjoy crunch towels and crisp, fresh sheets
4. give cloth diapers as baby gifts
5. resist the urge to buy the newest fashion and instead dust off last year’s clothes, thinking, “Good for me!”
6. buy locally produced foods (Harrisonburg’s Farmers Market is amazing!) and frequent restaurant and groceries that buy locally.
7. shun bubble wrap, Styrofoam and plastic whenever there’s a better choice
8. buy a cow, a push mower and/or a goat. (Well, maybe not.)

This list makes me think that the secret to green living is simpler than we think and change ultimately requires choices. It’s about changing a mindset and choosing the ways we do simple things.

I’ve made my list….now make yours. What changes can you make? Tell us about them.

Explore the Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market online at:  Or better yet, GO!

And check out JMU’s Choose Environmental Stewardship page on Facebook:

* Although I tried to find the source of this circulating email, I was unable to find the name of the original author. Thus I print this adaptation without credit but with thanks to whomever it is due.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to The green pen and the yin and yang of modernity

  1. Pingback: The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech « James Madison University's Be the Change

  2. Nathan Alvarado-Castle says:

    “This list makes me think that the secret to green living is simpler than we think and change ultimately requires choices. It’s about changing a mindset and choosing the ways we do simple things.”

    This statement is true in the sense that, “change ultimately requires choices”, and that, “changing a mindset”, is fundamental to altering how existing trends function in the overall scope of society. However, what is misleading about this concluding statement, is that you characterize “green living” as something “simpler than we think”. Simple in what sense? The list you provided I understand is not some complete curriculum for every environmental-friendly person out there to adhere to, yet your recommendations seem to be quite pedantic and fail to provide any real changes on how we, the consumers, ought to act in a free-market society. All your steps stem from a naive understanding of what being “green” really is.

    All your “green” techniques on your list, (which I understand are not yours in that you formulated them, but have probably read some mainstream literature regarding the environment and the consumers’ role within it), are rooted in changing consumer habits. This is slightly true if we are looking to remedy this ecological crisis, though not the priority for any revolutionary manifestation of environmentalism. Nevertheless, a larger portion of the environmental problems we see occurring on a massive scale, can be linked to the production methods in which large corporate-industries use. For example, in your list, “2. turn off and unplug my multitude of electronics when not in use”, assumes buying a multitude of electronics as ‘okay’ as long as one can be responsible in unplugging them when not in use. A better method according to various environmental scholars (John Bellamy Foster, Micheal Bell, Richard York) is to alter how electronics are produced, the purpose behind production, (like efficiency, profit-motives, and monopolization), and ultimately the global political economy; which obtains rationales inherently antithetical to environmentalism. This is perhaps not as simple as we think.


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