Walking the Talk

Essay by Ed Quillen

Environment – April 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO WHAT DEGREE should we expect people to “walk their talk?” This question popped up again recently in respect to two out-of-office politicians: Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States, and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In Gore’s case, his critics charge that he might talk a good line on global warming and reduced consumption, but his big house in Tennessee uses 20 times as much electricity as a normal dwelling. As for Gingrich, he was leading the charge that President Bill Clinton be impeached as the result of an adulterous affair with an intern, while at the same time Gingrich was conducting an illicit sexual affair.

This isn’t the first time the question has occurred to me. About 15 years ago, I ventured to the annual Headwaters Conference in Gunnison, where the featured speaker was Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind.

Nash talked about how we should respect the environment, and theorized that someday microbes and rocks might have legal standing in environmental controversies. He also talked about how much he enjoyed the gorgeous mountains around his second home in Crested Butte, and the big boat he kept at his first home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and how he’d just returned from some international conference in (if memory serves) Geneva.

In other words, here was a guy telling us how we should tread lightly on the earth, while he was contributing to ozone depletion (that was the major worry at the time; global warming had not been discovered then) and conspicuous fossil-fuel consumption (always a worry since the oil shock of 1973). He was telling us to live in a way that he didn’t, and that struck me as hypocrisy or worse.

But hypocrisy is not hard to find elsewhere. Phyllis Schafly, the mother of six children, used to fly around the country telling women they should stay home and raise their families. And for that matter, any major-league politician who promotes “family values” but spends his time campaigning, far away from his family on most evenings, annoys me in the same way: If it’s so important for us to be tending to our families, why isn’t it important for you?

Or there’s William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and author of The Book of Virtues — and a man with a serious gambling habit.

Along a similar line, I remember Scott McInnis, who was then our congressman, railing against single-payer government-run health care when he debated Curtis Imrie in Grand Junction in 2000.

McInnis said it was a bad idea. But at the same time, he and his family were covered by a government-run health-care plan. If it was so terrible for us, why did he use it? If he had somehow opted out of it and tried to select and pay for an adequate private plan out of his own pocket, as we self-employed folks are forced to do, I’d have had a lot more respect for his position.

In other words, I get tired of people prescribing medicine for us which they’re unwilling to take themselves.

I don’t know that that’s entirely fair, though. In Gore’s case, he works out of his house, which generally means more electric consumption at home, and he pays extra for electricity produced by renewable sources like wind and sunshine. He also purchases “carbon offsets,” which presumably capture the carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) produced by his other activities. So perhaps he’s doing the most that is reasonably possible in our society to “walk his talk.”

PERHAPS NEWT GINGRICH is sincere in his repentance for his hypocrisy of a decade ago. Furthermore, the issue was not that Bill Clinton was having sex with a woman not his wife, but that he lied about it under oath. Gingrich didn’t lie about his affair under oath, so there is a legal difference. But Gingrich did yammer on about how America needed to return to “traditional family values,” and his three marriages, two divorces and numerous affairs certainly make it appear that he never lived by the standards he advocates.

Therefore, perhaps all Gingrich can advocate in good conscience is that men over 60 adhere to “traditional family values,” which actually sounds doable, and likely, since the majority of men over 60 are probably neither welcome in nor drawn to a culture dominated by sex, drugs, drinking, and co-eds, along with rap, techno and modern pop music, The Pussy Cats, Paris Hilton, Beyonce, and Justin Timberlake. Presuming a person lives long enough, living up to traditional values really should get easier — even for guys like Gingrich and Clinton. But unfortunately for Newt, Americans under 60 and over 60 are still likely to judge candidates on their recurrent misdeeds and moral lapses; so perhaps Gingrich should consider another campaign strategy.

The bigger problem, however, is that very few of us live up to the standards we advocate — no matter what they are. While I confess to a certain schadenfreude (a German term which means “taking joy from the sorrows of others” ) when there’s a Ted Haggard or Larry Schwarz story about a right-thinker caught with his pants down, the simple fact is that most of us promote ideals of some sort or another, that we sometimes fail to live up to. Or, as the Bible puts it, “All have sinned.”

I often argue that Americans drive way too much, which makes us dependent on petroleum from countries that do not like us. And I can feel reasonably virtuous on gasoline consumption. In 2006, Martha and I burned about 305 gallons. The average American household consumes 989 gallons, more than three times as much. If everyone were as abstemious as us, then we wouldn’t need to import foreign oil.

THAT STATEMENT is somewhat misleading, though. Darn near everything we buy in Salida is trucked in, so there’s a significant amount of indirect oil consumption which I couldn’t begin to calculate. Most of my livelihood comes from writing for the Denver Post, which is trucked throughout the state every day (well, since the Joint Operating Agreement, on Saturdays it’s the Rocky, but the principle is the same), and that’s got to consume plenty of fuel. The firewood that helps warm us in the winter comes from gasoline-powered chainsaws and is hauled into town on gasoline-powered trucks and often gets reduced to stove size with a gasoline-powered wood-splitter.

The way our country is set up, gasoline and diesel-fuel are built into everything. Turn the clock back a century, and coal was feeding the locomotives which hauled in local food and household goods — although more merchandise was produced here then (i.e., there were local dairies, flour mills, brick kilns, etc.).

Go back another century, to the days of the Utes, and realize that they generally visited Central Colorado only for summer hunting.

This region has never been “self-sufficient” for human settlement; it can’t produce enough food for a significant population. And even if you try some sort of Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News “self-sufficiency” today, your tools will come from somewhere else. There’s no local factory that produces canning jars, solar panels, or lead-acid batteries.

To move on, there’s electricity consumption. Martha and I have tried to cut back with some degree of success, although we haven’t signed up to buy wind-generated electricity which, in theory anyway, I support.

We have replaced most incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and it makes a difference. But of course there are other issues — the miserly new bulbs come from China, hardly known as a haven for fair labor practices. One should wonder what foreign evils we might be supporting in the name of household virtue, and one could ask whether there are any net energy savings when you consider the transportation necessary to get them here.

I am now reasonably dutiful about turning computers off when I’m not using them, and we’ve switched from CRT monitors to LCD flat-screens, which use considerably less electricity. But there’s still one computer that is on all the time, because (among other functions) we use it to receive faxes that can come it at any time.

IT PROBABLY BURNS more power than a fax machine would, but on the other hand, most of our faxes are junk and I can delete them without wasting the paper and ink to print them out. Maybe I should replace that computer with a more efficient low-power machine, but then the old one becomes a piece of electronic junk to pollute the landfill.

So while I think reduced consumption is in general a pretty good idea, I don’t know how well I manage in some areas, and there are always trade-offs.

After all, I like the idea of recycling, but do I practice it well? We go through a lot of paper and receive a lot of newspapers and magazines, and no, I don’t bale them all up and take them to be recycled. I don’t have the storage room for that. I try to reuse paper, by printing rough drafts on the back of fliers and faxes and last month’s refuse. But is this magazine printed on recycled paper?

I have no idea, and I’m not even sure I want to know, since Colorado Central is printed locally, and the only way we could match our current turn-around time and price would be to find a large printing operation elsewhere, which would require added transportation.

Nor have I inquired as to whether this ink comes from fossil petroleum or sustainable soy (which probably requires a fair amount of petroleum for planting, cultivation, harvest, processing, and transport, anyway).

We are fairly good about recycling aluminum, although that certainly doesn’t get any easier. Time was, you could take bags of aluminum cans to Safeway and get about 30 cents a pound. Or haul bags of crushed cans to the parking of a highway supermarket where a truck arrived to haul them off every Saturday morning. Or more recently, you could toss bags of crushed aluminum over the fence at a small enclosure at a shop along the highway, where the proceeds would be donated to Ark Valley Humane Society — an act that made me feel quite virtuous.

Now, however, (although I’ve been too lazy to check it out recently and probably won’t until the bags of cans in the shed become so numerous as to get in the way), recycling aluminum in Salida means shoving the cans, one at a time, through a hole in a receptacle by the swimming pool. Who’s got time for that? If we were serious about recycling here, wouldn’t we have a better system than this?

But here I am complaining, when there are a lot of people who have donated their time and energy to get us this far, and I certainly don’t want to demean them. They are at least walking their talk, which is a lot more than I do when it comes to recycling — virtuous as I may be on gasoline consumption, and trying to keep my utility bills down, and refraining from jet-setting.

But even though I sometimes fail to live up to my ideals, ideals are important. We need goals for ourselves. And politics is all about what goals we should have as a society.

Also, in order to accomplish more personally and as a society, we need to see, hear, and believe that those basic goals which so many politicians espouse are real goals that can be met, because believing in our goals is what keeps us hanging in there and improving. Thus it only seems fair to discuss how well the political talk gets walked.