Just how green are you willing to go

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 22, 2009

By David A. Fahrenthold
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON ó A woman parks her hybrid car and erases its computer memory because she doesn’t want her husband to find out she’s getting just 30-something miles per gallon.
A dirty plastic to-go container forces a woman to face down her brother, who thinks she should wash it out and reuse it at another restaurant. She thinks … no.
A family quietly defies the rules of the mother, who likes locally raised bacon, whole-grain bread and raw milk. But somebody keeps smuggling in Chef Boyardee.
This is life on the dark ó or at least the cranky ó side of green.
Some people have embraced eco-friendly living with a fervor that makes Al Gore look like an oil company lobbyist. They give up everything from furnace heat (too many emissions) to store-bought meat (too much factory farming) to plans for a second child (too much of everything, given the average American’s environmental impact).
But for people who have to live with these enthusiasts, this much green can sometimes be hard to take. The result is a bubbling mix of bemusement, tension and furtive resistance ó and, in the Washington area, at least one green divorce.
“You’re kind of in a perpetual state of feeling like you’re not measuring up,” said Janet Tupper, 50, of suburban Cheverly, Md., who is still happily married to her environmentalist husband. Because of his convictions, they layer up indoors during the winter: The house’s heat usually comes from a single stove burning wood pellets.
“I’m behind it. I’m supportive. I wish, you know ó I wish it was easier,” Tupper said. “Our kids complain about us living like the Amish.”
For some, the idea is that Earth Day ó or at least the plant-a-tree, change-a-light bulb way Earth Day will be celebrated today ó isn’t nearly enough. They say that such problems as climate change and polluted waterways demand immediate shifts in modern living.
“The American way of life, as we’ve come to know it, just uses ó wastes ó too many resources,” said Sat Jiwan Ikle-Khalsa, 31, a green-building consultant in Takoma Park, Md. Ikle-Khalsa said he wants his home, where he lives with his wife, 2-year-old daughter and sister, to be an example to others that “you can have a pretty normal and happy life by making these small changes.”
To which his family might say: Small?
“I drew the line at keeping a bucket in my shower,” said sister Ava Khalsa, who refused his idea of keeping a five-gallon bucket in the shower to catch the water that bounces off her and then using it to do the laundry. “He was like, ‘It’s simple.’ And I was like, ‘No. I’m just not doing it.’ ”
She also occasionally disobeys his rules about used to-go containers: “I just don’t want to deal with cleaning it out. … I’m like, ‘I’m throwing this out.’ ”
The stakes are higher for his wife, Mimi. He thinks having a second child could have too high an environmental cost. “We’ve had the discussion of, ‘If we have another biological child, it means we never fly,’ ” plus doing other things to offset the child’s carbon footprint, said Mimi Ikle-Khalsa. “I’m 40, so my clock is going boom! Boom! Boom! Sometimes I just roll my eyes and go, ‘Come on, honey, think about who our child could be!’ ”
Many spouses and children said they support what the family environmentalist is trying to do … but they’re not above snickering as he does it.
“When we’re going down a hill, he’s like ‘OK, watch this! Watch this!’ ” said Helen Ross, 15, of Columbia, Md., whose father, Brian Ross, delights in taking his hybrid Honda Civic down hills and watching the display show his sky-high miles-per-gallon rate. She says it’s worthwhile, if a little dorky: “He says, like, ‘Oh, woo! Fifty on the way down!’ “Usually, the eco-process involves giving up things. Like heat.
“It just feels cold, and then I (went) into my friend’s house and they had the heat on, and I was like ‘Oh, my God, that feels so good!’ ” said Sophie Barnet-Higgins, 10, of Mount Rainier, Md. Her parents keep the thermostat at 54 degrees on winter nights, and Sophie often begins her day by warming up in front of a stove burning corn kernels.
“It’s kind of easy to put up with it,” Sophie said. “We’ve been green for a long time, because I don’t even remember when we had the heat on all the time.”
But even in families in which everybody agrees that green is good, things can be pushed too far. Signs of resistance turn up: a fiance who starts eating dinner out after repeated nights of locally grown organic salad. A child who pleads to have Hot Wheels-trademarked Valentine’s Day cards instead of home-made ones, despite the evils of their plastic packaging.
In Gina Faber’s house, it was the SpaghettiOs.
“It seems like every time (my daughter) and my husband go grocery shopping, a can of SpaghettiOs makes it into the bag,” said Faber, 42, of Loudoun County, Va., who tries to get most of her food from local farms and her own garden.
“I would want to make that myself, with ingredients that I trust,” she said.
But she does let them eat it.
Occasionally, though, extreme eco-friendliness runs into even stiffer opposition. As in: divorce.
Grant Moher, a family law attorney in Fairfax County, Va., recalled a case in which he represented a husband, married for about a decade, who wanted to move to Arizona and live in the desert in a trailer, with only an experimental kind of air conditioner to keep cool.
His wife was with him until the experimental air conditioner, Moher said.
Then she wasn’t with him at all.
In Paeonian Springs, Va., Ann and Will Stewart are making their green-and-greener marriage work. She said yes to some of his ideas: turning off most lights, turning down the heat and using a herd of sheep as a low-emissions mower. But she said no to canning her own food.
And sometimes, she has learned, it’s best to say nothing at all. One recent day, her hybrid’s readout showed 42 mpg ó not terrible, but he could do better. And, if he saw a number like this, he might tell her how.
“Here we go,” she said, demonstrating how to find the right button on the touch screen. “Reset, zero!”