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Squeaky green

The Baltimore Sun

Although she sells a lot of bottled water and soft drinks at Sofi's Crepes, her smaller-than-small shop on Charles Street, Ann Costlow couldn't find room for a recycling bin to process the empties. She couldn't, that is, until she began getting complaints from her customers.

"I was like, 'Yeah-yeah-yeah, that's great for others, but I don't have the space.' " Costlow said. "But, more and more people started asking me, 'Do you recycle?' It became this nagging, ankle-biting thing, until finally, I realized I was beginning to look like I didn't care about the Earth."

Chastened, she changed the set-up at her first restaurant, and made sure to include a recycling center, before being asked, at her second Sofi's, which she recently opened at the Woman's Industrial Exchange. "It shows what a little pestering can do," she said.

A small victory, to be sure, and one many ecologists would rejoice over. Yet, others worry about conversions such as Costlow's, which occurred only after she was scolded into action. It's as though the scarlet letter of Nathaniel Hawthorne's time has turned green today; if you break an ecological rule, vigilant members of society now feel free to condemn you with a large "A" for "anti-environment." Some are even calling this newly judgmental type of activism "greener than thou" behavior.

Consider the experience of Catherine Lippincott, a writer from the East End of Long Island, N.Y., who recently ate at a self-serve natural foods restaurant that had what she found to be a confusingly complicated recycling system. "There were at least five different bins to separate your trash into - compost, plastics, bottles, inorganic matter - and I got confused about where to put a milk carton," she said. "I made a mistake, yes, but another customer glared at me, while she reached into the bin and grabbed my errant carton. It was very aggressive."

"This woman was giving me what a friend of mine calls 'eco-tude,'" Lippincott continued. "It's when people have good intentions and they want to save the world, but they get a little rabid in the process. Unfortunately, they alienate those who might otherwise join their cause."

Also subjected to "eco-tude" was Carol Vanderkloot, a marketing executive from New York City.

"My sister lives in a big house in suburban Boston, and even in the wintertime, she doesn't switch on her lights until it is practically dark outside, and keeps the thermostat turned very low. The last time I was there, I was stumbling about, practically freezing, but when I asked her to do something about it, she refused, explaining she was worried about global warming," Vanderkloot said. "I live in a tiny Manhattan apartment! My carbon footprint is nothing compared to hers, yet she's implying that I don't care about the environment. It struck me as quite silly."

Striking a balance

Green comes in many shades, of course, and what is silly to one person is deadly serious to another.

"How much are we willing to get in someone's face over these issues? Activists struggle with this question," said Don Robertson, director of the Baltimore chapter of Earthsave International, a New York-based organization that promotes a shift to plant-based diets. "With the dire issues we face today - global warming, the possible extinction of mankind - it's tough to find the right balance. Can I approach people in a calm, peaceful way, yet get across the urgency at hand? Or, if I become too strident, do I run the risk of turning people off?"

Carol Silldorff, an environmental consultant who helps coordinate Baltimore Green Week (scheduled again for April 2008) and who lives in Timonium, advocates "planting a seed" through such simple suggestions as having corporations use both sides of a sheet of paper to photocopy reports.

"Even if they don't react now, people may decide to change behaviors in the future," she said. "Sixteen years ago, I was in graduate school getting a master's in environmental management, and another student talked to me about food issues. At that point, I ate everything on the planet, and I thought he was crazy. A year later, though, I became a vegetarian."

Robertson suggests the main problem with "greener than thou" chiding is that most people are already aware, in a general way, of what is good or bad for the environment.

Reminders to turn off lights when leaving a room or to not eat "over-fished" types of seafood such as Chilean sea bass sometimes are irritating because they seem so insignificant. Like my taking a shorter shower each morning is really going to save the earth?

'A human billboard'

On the other hand, it is the relative triviality and painlessness of making these small changes that gives some activists what they feel is permission to chastise the delinquent. If your friend drives a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle, do you refuse to ride in it? If your sister-in-law is never seen without a bottle of Fiji water in her hand, do you urge her to consider that tap water is just as good, if not better? The eco-scolders say "yes" on both counts.

"I am a human billboard, I advertise what I am doing," said Julie Kleinhans, a real estate investor in her family's privately owned company, and who lives in Towson. Kleinhans, who says she tries to live "as green a life as possible," is also a vegan who's especially concerned about the environmental damage caused by industrialized agriculture and factory farms.

"I tend to bring up these concerns while people are eating," she admits. "I start to describe the terrible conditions under which a hen or a cow is raised, but people usually cut me off. They want to eat their food, but they don't want to know where it comes from."

That the battle is being waged in America at such a grass-roots, one-bite-at-a-time level is a signal change, according to Yann Risz, managing director of Tendris, a Dutch company that specializes in the creation of earth-friendly and sustainable products such as Lemnis LED light bulbs and ClimaCount, the first "green" credit card that, for every purchase made, offsets an equivalent value in carbon dioxide.

"There is a very interesting shift in the U.S. consumer who's now most concerned about the environmental movement. Twenty years ago, it was a bearded guy living in forest with his organic garden. Now, it is an overeducated yuppie who cares, but cares about being smart, and being perceived as smart," he said. "So, it is becoming fashionable to be green. There is some status that comes with this. And this puts pressure on industry, and it creates peer pressure."

The distinction between peer pressure and outright provocation, however, can be hard to distinguish, especially when one's environmental choices can strike some people as strange. Just ask the "human billboard," Julie Kleinhans, who earnestly lists the great lengths she's gone to manifest her beliefs.

"I always carry a reusable grocery bag. I don't use a dryer, but a clothesline. I don't have a power lawnmower, but one I push by hand. Eighty percent of my electricity at home comes from wind power, through an arrangement with Washington Gas Energy Services. I don't have a car, but I either walk, take buses or car pool. I can easily afford more, but have made a conscious decision to live with less," she said.

Kleinhans compares her role to that of an evangelist, and her voice does take on something nearly like apocalyptic fervor when she talks. "The more I read, the more convinced I am that we are at a tipping point. I put so much energy into these issues, because if we don't do something now, we'll be past the point of no return."

And what keeps Kleinhans going, is that sometimes there is a payoff to her greener-than-thou lifestyle. "I truly believe you can nag your family more than anyone else. And, finally, after seven years of my setting the example, my father has become a vegan," she exulted. "I tried to get at him all sorts of ways, and I finally brought him around."

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