In Sharon’s Defense: Reaction to the New York Times article

I have been a daily reader of Sharon Astyk’s blog Casaubon’s Book for years now and I am rereading her book, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, with pencil in hand.  Sharon was the one who made me conscious of the opportunity for a different, more sound kind of lifestyle, like I’ve outlined in What We Do and in this blog. And while persuading me Sharon made me laugh and cry and made my heart race with indignation and swell with hope. But first of all she was and is always thorough in her discussion, brutally honest also about herself, and, most importantly, down-to-earth and practical, feasible. What she was doing, I could do too!

So like many I was holding my breath when Sharon announced on her blog that a visit to her homestead from a reporter and a photographer from the New York Times was imminent. What an opportunity, but would the Times do her – do us, the believers – justice?

The resulting article, “Completley Unplugged, Fully Green,” by Joanne Kaufman (sorry, you may need to subscribe, for “free”), was a grave but not unexpected disappointment. To Sharon first of all, as is noticeable in the title of her blog entry on the subject: I was a Whore for the Mainstream Media (19 October 2008).

The article appeared in the “Fashion and Style” section of the paper. Fashion and Style? Really now. It’s no wonder then that, while presenting a typically short, superficial and selective portrait of Sharon and some of her colleagues, Ms. Kaufman devoted the article’s last page to consulting “some mental health professionals, to whom “the compulsion to live green in the extreme can suggest a kind of disorder” (my italics).

In the extreme.

True, unplugging the fridge, using a composting toilet and heating with a wood stove to an indoor temperature of 52 degrees, cosleeping in some form or other to pool body heat is not something we all do, but compulsive? Are refusing to drive many miles every Saturday to a Little League game,  washing out Ziploc bags, growing one’s own produce, raising chickens and containing one’s spending on consumer goods dysfunctional? Even air-drying  one’s clothes, keeping an eye on one’s trash-output, and taking showers rather than baths (which is “Among the less intuitive” of measures) are made to seem obsessive.

To believe Ms. Kaufman, these are all signs of the “carborexic” “zealotry” of “energy anorexics,” who obsess “over personal carbon emissions to an unhealthy degree, the way crash dieters watch the bathroom scale.” One has to ask: “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work? Is it taking precedence over everything else in your relationships?” “If you can’t have something in your house that isn’t green or organic, if you can’t eat at a relative’s house because they don’t serve organic food, if you’re criticizing friends because they’re not living up to your standards of green, that’s a problem.”

That’s right, but really, none of the people presented in the article, least of all Sharon, fit that description. One only has to read the words of the interviewees closely to realize that.

So one might then say that in Ms. Kaufman’s defense I have the wrong impression of what she “suggests”. But this one line gives her away: “Certainly there is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the compulsion toward living a green life“: at this point in the article, the italicized part is stated as a given.

I resent that.

Wanting to live a more sustainable life, safeguarding a better future for our children, and taking up one’s responsibility as a citizen of the world are not a compulsion. A compulsion is “a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will“. What Sharon stands for is on the contrary a fully conscious and conscientious positions to proven problems.

Sharon deplores that the Riot for Austerity – a community effort of many quite sane people like you and me – was not mentioned. She no doubt also regrets the last line of the article, in which her own words – spoken perhaps, off guard – are co-opted as the inane  conclusion that the whole issue is like a fun game.

Sigh.

It is clear to me that the article philanders to the lowest common denominator by presenting  Sharon and “her ilk” (that’s me, too!) as being just as crazy as the gun-toting survivalists who hole up in the hills. And the constant mentioning of the children (Sharon’s, Colin Beavan’s , the Lavines’) suggesting, as Sharon comments, her “low-level child abuse (cold house, no baseball)” are a clear grab for outrage.

This article reveals more about the writer – and her media outlet, since it chose to publish her article – than about her subject. It’s bad and irresponsible reporting, and it demeans Sharon, her admirers (like myself) and the Times readership. I don’t care if this is how “the Mainstream Media” usually operates. We still need to speak out against it.

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