February 16, 2008
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — The women gathered in the airy living room, wine poured and pleasantries exchanged. In no time, the conversation turned lively — not about the literary merits of Geraldine Brooks or Cormac McCarthy but the pitfalls of antibacterial hand sanitizers and how to retool the laundry using only cold water and biodegradable detergent during non-prime-time energy hours (after 7 p.m.).
Move over, Tupperware. The EcoMom party has arrived, with its ever-expanding “to do” list that includes preparing waste-free school lunches; lobbying for green building codes; transforming oneself into a “locovore,” eating locally grown food; and remembering not to idle the car when picking up children from school (if one must drive). Here, the small talk is about the volatile compounds emitted by dry-erase markers at school.
Perhaps not since the days of “dishpan hands” has the household been so all-consuming. But instead of gleaming floors and sparkling dishes, the obsession is on installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying in bulk and using “smart” power strips that shut off electricity to the espresso machine, microwave, X-Box, VCR, coffee grinder, television and laptop when not in use.
“It’s like eating too many brownies one day and then jogging extra the next,” said Kimberly Danek Pinkson, 38, the founder of the EcoMom Alliance, speaking to the group of efforts to curb eco-guilt through carbon offsets for air travel.
Part “Hints from Heloise” and part political self-help group, the alliance, which Ms. Pinkson says has 9,000 members across the country, joins a growing subculture dedicated to the “green mom,” with blogs and Web sites like greenandcleanmom.blogspot.com and eco-chick.com. Web-based organizations like the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., advocate reducing consumption and offer a registry that helps brides “celebrate the less-material wedding of your dreams.”
At an EcoMom circle in Palo Alto, executive mothers whipped out spreadsheets to tally their goals, inspired by a 10-step program that urges using only nontoxic products for cleaning, bathing and make-up, as well as cutting down garbage by 10 percent.
“I used to feel anxiety,” said Kathy Miller, 49, an alliance member, recalling life before she started investigating weather-sensitive irrigation controls for her garden with nine growing zones. “Now I feel I’m doing something.”
The notion of “ecoanxiety” has crept into the culture here. It was the subject of a recent cover story in San Francisco magazine that quotes a Berkeley mother so stressed out about the extravagance of her nightly baths that she started to reuse her daughter’s bath water. Where there is ecoanxiety, of course, there are ecotherapists.
“The truth is, we’re not living very naturally,” said Linda Buzzell, a therapist in Santa Barbara who publishes the quarterly EcoTherapy News and often holds sessions in her backyard permaculture food forest. “We’re in our cars, staring at the computer screen, separated most of the day from the people we love.”
“Activism can help counteract depression,” Ms. Buzzell added. “But if we get caught up in trying to save the world single-handedly, we’re just going to burn out.”
Like many young women, Ms. Pinkson’s motherhood — her son Corbin is now 6 — coincided with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the advent of treehugger.com and grist.com. A favorite online column is “Ask Umbra,” whose author weighs in on whether it is better to buy leather shoes or “pleather” ones that could contain solvents.
Shaina Forsman, a 13-year-old daughter of eco-mother Beth Forsman, said the alliance branch in San Rafael helped her mother take action at home. Her mother turned the thermostat down so low that Shaina sometimes wore a jacket inside, she said proudly. She was also monitoring time spent in the shower, so as not to waste water.
Shaina said she tried to get her mother to compost, but “we got ants.”
One of the country’s wealthiest places, Marin County, is hardly a hub of voluntary simplicity; its global footprint, according to county statistics, is 27 acres per person, a measure of the estimated amount of land it takes to support each person’s lifestyle (24 is the American average).
Members of the EcoMom Alliance “are fighting a values battle,” said Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and the author of “The High Price of Materialism.” “They are surrounded by materialism trying to figure out how to create a life more oriented toward intrinsic values.”
Wendy Murphy, 41, a member of EcoMoms in San Anselmo, became an activist after she noticed that the new tablecloths in her children’s preschool contained polyvinyl chloride. She and a fellow mother, working with the Green Schools Initiative, a nonprofit in Berkeley, developed green guidelines for shopping, like buying chlorine-free cleaning products, low-formaldehyde furniture and toys made of natural materials.
The matter of toys is particularly thorny. At the EcoMom party in San Rafael, women traded ideas about recycled toys for birthday presents and children’s clothing swaps. Then there is the issue of the materials used in imported toys. “It’s ‘Mom, these come from China,’ ” Pam Nessi, 35, said of her daughters’ recent inspection of two of their dolls. “It can be overwhelming. You don’t want them to freak out.”
At last year’s Step It Up rallies, a day of environmental demonstrations across the country, the largest group of organizers were “mothers concerned about the disintegrating environment for their children,” said Bill McKibben, a founder of the event and author of “The End of Nature.”
Women have been instrumental in the environmental movement from the start, including their involvement in campaigns a century ago to save the Palisades along the Hudson River and sequoias in California and, more recently, Lois Gibbs’s fight against toxic waste at Love Canal.
In public opinion surveys, women express significantly higher levels of environmental concern than men, said Riley Dunlap, a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.
Lately “local lifestyle activism,” much of it driven by women, has been on the rise and is likely to continue, Dr. Dunlap said. “Just belonging to a national environmental organization, which seemed effective in the 1970s and ’80s, doesn’t work anymore, particularly in an era of government unresponsiveness,” he said.
Ms. Pinkson and her colleagues are well aware of “the mom demographic,” as they call it, in which, according to surveys for the Boston Consulting Group, women say they “influence or control” 80 percent of discretionary household purchases. Thus far, their thrust has been more about being green consumers than taking political action.
The eco life can occasionally spawn domestic strife.
Julie DeFord, a 33-year-old mother in Petaluma, said the high cost of organic produce prompted serious “conversations” between her and her husband, Curt, a lawyer, especially after seven nights of chard.
And ecomotherhood is not always sisterly.
At the EcoMom party recently, some guests took the hostess, Liz Held, to task for her wall-to-wall carpeting (potential off-gassing), her painted walls (unhealthful volatile organic compounds) and the freshly cut flowers that she had set out for the occasion (not organic). Their problems with the S.U.V. in the driveway were self-explanatory.
All the new eco-perfectionism did not seem to faze her. “I look around my house and think, ‘I haven’t changed all my light bulbs,’ ” she said. “But it doesn’t fill me with guilt. I think about all the things I’ve done so far. I just try to focus on the positive.”