Wichita, Kansas. I have a blogging (and occasional real world, actual face-to-face) friend by the name of Laura McKenna. She is funny, smart, occasionally profane, often wise, and very much a part of–and mostly a fan of–our modern, liberated, democratic world. I read her blog all the time (and so should you), but to my mind, one of the very best things she has ever written–and the thing probably most relevant to the Front Porch Republic–was this short, vicious, hilarious, dead-on truthful attack on the trendy, faux-environmentalist and localist presumptions of America’s upper classes which appeared in Pajamas Media last year. Here’s the best part:

My issue of Domino arrived a few days ago. Domino is a home decorating magazine, aimed at a young, urban demographic. This month’s issue is devoted to green living. From this magazine, I learned how I could save the earth by buying $1,950 cement garden chaises, a $65 wicker hamper, or a $1,695 tree stump fashioned into an end table. I don’t mind when the magazine does its usual promotion of products, but this green issue is simply absurd. How many trees were killed to produce this glossy package of hypocrisy?

You want to save the earth? Here’s a little hint. Don’t. Buy. Shit.

The greenest people are totally unhip and unlikely to be photographed for the Times or a glossy magazine. They’re still wearing their clothes from twenty years ago. They aren’t keeping their home spa-worthy clean. No need to worry about polluting the air with chemicals, if you aren’t dusting every five minutes. They aren’t constantly renovating their kitchens and bathrooms, all of which uses enormous amounts of energy and resources; they are still living with the Formica numbers from the 70s. They aren’t jetting off to Europe to browse the Paris markets; they go bowling in the next town over. They aren’t constantly shopping for new things and tossing out the old things.

This is some poetry in all of this. Grandma with the Hummels has a smaller carbon footprint by doing absolutely nothing than the wealthy do-gooder in the Range Rover attending the NRDC fundraiser.

If you must have a hip home and global warming is a concern, then there are other ways to go. Pick up end tables from a garage sale and paint them. Buy an old house near the center of town. Don’t get your nails done. Don’t drive to the gym. Don’t join a gym and instead, burn calories by gardening. Stop recycling your San Pellegrino bottles and drink tap water.

You could also elect politicians who are willing to make serious efforts in conservation, mass transportation, and in the regulation of industry.

Let’s encourage the eco-conscious to ignore the calls of magazine hucksters to buy stuff, including $1,950 tree stumps. Let’s stop wasting our time with the band-aid solutions and guilt from the eco-moms.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a dent in global warming. But to do it, you need a serious, non-cosmetic, un-cool, and un-trendy change in lifestyle and habits. And frankly there’s no need to make a big fuss about it, get preachy or show off to others how environmentally correct you are. Excessive non-consumption aimed at impressing one’s friends and neighbors is just as annoying — and as conspicuous — as consumption.

The relationship between a properly conceived “environmentalism” and an appreciation of the homely, the local, the simple, and the durable has already been touched upon here at FPR by Patrick Deneen, and I won’t add anything to it. So I’ll just add as a commentary to Laura’s excellent little piece a reprint of what I first thought of when I originally read her column last year: namely, that Laura had just expressed, in modern idiom, something my grandmother used to swear by.


“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Did anyone else grow up with that phrase hanging around their living environment–as counsel, as a warning, as a reprimand? I did. We sure didn’t live it as well as we might have, but still, I heard it recited often enough, from my parents and grandparents and church leaders and others, to accept it as the Gospel truth, long before I read any of the philosophy or politics or economics that persuaded me of its correctness on their own. Basically, the message is that the way to prosperity and happiness–at least insofar as the material world is concerned–is to live conservatively and renounce extravagance and stick with what you have and know. “Pioneer truths” is what we called it, invoking the memory of Mormon ancestors crossing the Great Plains in handcarts, and their descendants who built homes and communities in the midst of poverty and persecution and with next to no consumer goods. If it was good enough an ethos for great-grandma, it’s good enough for us, or so we were supposed to think….

What does Laura’s counsel to her fellow modern liberal thinkers have to do with those traditional principles? Everything! You want to be environmentally conscious and help conserve what resources we have left? Well, then quit buying all that expensive crap that gets shoveled out at us by the Powers That Be, crap that’ll have to be thrown away as soon as you’re lured in by the next model car/range oven/purse/sneakers/lifestyle renovation/electronic gizmo. Resist change, cut back, slow down! Wear that sports jacket for another year! Exercise at home! Garden and eat your own food! Not everyone can do all of this; indeed, given how pervasively the habits of acquisition, competition, and consumption are threaded through most of our daily routines, most of us can’t do most of it. But here and there, we can and should make a stand, however wired our professions or home lives may be. As Laura herself a couple of years back, buying that Blackberry is only going to put you on the clock, make you run more errands, make you burn more gas, keep you away from making do with what you already have and make you compensate by buying more stuff you don’t need and can’t afford and will throw away that much more quickly anyway. So just don’t get one.

So ultimately, here’s her radical idea–real environmentalism begins with “tending to” our environment, rather than upgrading it or ourselves in the name of continual betterment, and supporting those moral causes and political campaigns that are actually trying to make tending to our families and jobs and neighborhoods more possible, rather than selling us on constantly retraining and retrofitting ourselves and our world. I think that about sums it up. But of course, that’s much too long a sentence to fit on a bumper sticker. So stick with what grandma said. As Laura succinct evisceration of eco-consumption makes clear, it’s more relevant to being a modern person today than ever.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Since Laura touched on the issue of mass transportation, I’d like to ask if anyone here knows more about this issue? I know that I would like to see a quality train system in this country. I’d even be willing to let the government run it.

  2. I don’t think we can really “go green” without getting off our addiction to the automobile. The problem, as Wendell Berry has pointed out, is that we all live too far from each other.

  3. Great piece. Truer words are rarely heard. That’s exactly why I’m so unhip. I live in a tiny apartment downtown and wear clothes I’ve been wearing forever that I buy at used clothes stores. I mostly only buy books and to me, they’re worth the death of a few trees – as long as we’re good about replanting.

    Josh – I think a decent rail system is vital. Good mass transportation, I believe, is necessary if we are to have strong communities in a modern world.

  4. The amount secured within the recent “stimulus” package for railroads was notable but remains far short of what we should be doing regarding a renovation of scaled rail systems in the nation. It was, however, a good indicator of how far we are from a collective cognizance of the vast investment in a mistake we’ve made. A country with the limited resources of Spain has found a way to embark on major rail improvements within the last several years and we remain largely unable to do so. The potentials are enormous …in energy savings, pollution control, city planning, addressing the deteriorating air travel system by taking up some of the slack…et etc. Utah is a fine case in point. The Wasatch Front is a region that is typical of the West….sprawl and auto-centric transportation abounds. The conventional wisdom was that rail service would never catch on. Well, it was started in advance of the winter Olympics and it has grown remarkably since. A people who would “never” embrace it actually love it and ridership continues to grow. I don’t know enough about it to say whether or not it includes freight transport…but I hope it does. Having grown up chasing and filming last runs of various Locomotives with the old man while listening to stories of a grandpa who ran Southern Pacific Locomotives from the company town of Montello , Nevada and on the Alaska R.R….I look forward to the unavoidable day when we have a rail system as good as Germany , France or Spain. Much vocal agitation is needed here.

    As to the vaguely luddite quality of the essay, a general policy I have a lot of sympathy with, I have a minor point. I will assert that a new, small and well designed house with new technology in windows, doors, plumbing, heating etc may actually be quite a lot greener and more economical than buying that old inner city house….no matter the abundant charms of that house. I’d endorse an economy of both.

  5. Josh, E.D. Kain, D.W. Sabin, I endorse everything you say in your fine comments.

    The current level of support for programs of mass transit across in the states–and within the various states–is indeed a good indicator of how much we are still beholden to those early 20th-century shenanigans which resulted in the buyout and bankruptcy many communter railroads and railway companies, while preserving the big freight players, all the while ceding more and more land and money to the addictive cure of the automobile. I’d like to think more and more people are realizing this, and perhaps the paltry amount devoted in Obama’s stimulus package is a step in the right direction, but it is a tiny step.

    The possibility of building a culture of mass transit will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, given how our movies, our music, our patterns of life while growing up, have become so conditioned by the promise of private travel afforded by the automobile. But the fact that, in limited places and in different contexts, it has nonetheless made a comeback, gives one hope. The light-rail transport through the Salt Lake Valley is one example; Spain’s commitment to rebuilding their deteriorating system is another. And I should not that it is a culture, or at least a habitus that can plant deep roots; I sometimes wonder if my own beliefs were not in some small way shaped by the regular exposure I had to the egalitarian intercourse one would find betwixt bus riders, as I caught the bus to downtown Spokane, WA, Saturday after Saturday as I was growing up.

    As for Luddism, I confess some real sympathy to it as well, but also, D.W. said, an awareness that there are ways in which new technology, and even new gizmos, can actually make like simpler, more amenable to our own collective control over it. One shouldn’t throw the baby with the bathwater–sometimes, in the midst of all the environmentally destructive, needlessly complicated and compromising crap, some genuinely good stuff bubbles up. (If Caleb can have an iPhone, then anything is possible.)

  6. If you want more of a rail system and less of an automobile culture, how about supporting a netzero gas tax instead of things like CAFE and cap-and-trade. Those mostly serve the purposes of political corruption and help the wealthy to afford their expensive driving habits and their contributions to urban sprawl. Having governments spend more on mass transit while allowing things like CAFE to stand is not going to accomplish anything good.

  7. Interesting that you mention the ‘egalitarian intercourse’
    on the Spokane bus system… Spokane’s bus system is still
    pretty good, and still a good mixer. Obama’s infrastructure
    spending will help it even more, enabling it to buy 24 new buses.

    I’ve been able to live without a car for 18 years now
    because of this good bus service, and because I listened
    to my father when he quoted the old “make it do” philosophy.

    Livin’ small may not be as exciting as livin’ large, but
    it’s a whole lot less precarious when times get hard.

  8. Reticulator,

    If you want more of a rail system and less of an automobile culture, how about supporting a netzero gas tax instead of things like CAFE and cap-and-trade….Having governments spend more on mass transit while allowing things like CAFE to stand is not going to accomplish anything good.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not really a big fan of emissions trading of any sort. I recognize that there are a lot political contexts where it’s much more likely to work than any kind of direct tax scheme, and for certain fuel standards and such have had some good impact on the environment–and, of course, there’s the whole “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” thing. Still, you’ll get no disagreement from me regarding your point that, in the long run, making our dependence upon the automobile and other polluting industries cheaper and cleaner won’t, in itself, do anything to build the culture of mass transit which we really ought to have.


    Spokane’s bus system is still pretty good, and still a good mixer. Obama’s infrastructure spending will help it even more, enabling it to buy 24 new buses.

    Are you a Spokanite? If so, well met! It’s a good city: big, but not so big that the egalitarian and empowering consequences of social and economic actions are lost. I’m glad to hear Spokane’s bus system is still functioning, and will even expand further. (My parents and my siblings still in Spokane live out in the Valley and Otis Orchards now, but I consider the whole metro area my home.)



    And if I were a radical Green and believed the “natural” environment was absolutely the only thing that mattered, I’d agree with you. Fortunately, I also happen to believe that human beings–including their culture and society–have a place in that “natural” world, and so I think in terms of sustainability and sovereignty, not extinction.

  9. It’s interesting how political conservatism has become detached from living conservatively. I grew up in a wealthy town that had been a bedroom community of NYC for over a hundred years. My family moved there from a blue collar town (we lived in what i euphemistically called the Irish ghetto) but I had friends among the older families. They lived in beautiful old homes that today still go for over 2 million. But, they parents drove an 8 year old Mercedes, the house was furnished with older items, their kids had jobs, wore jeans and their first car was a clunker.

    Now when i go back to visit the downtown looks like a catalog photo-shoot and there is a political row going on because the HS won’t provide parking for the student’s bemmers and mustangs, and its not like its all Nouveau rich. Today’s conservatism is riddled with consumerism and entitlement. just because you can afford to spend $200 fill your vehicle up doesn’t mean you have to. And many of the professed conservatives I know dismiss energy conservation and re-cycling even though they still clip coupons and have a fridge full of leftovers, that’s just weird, cheering on a proliferate lifestyle for people they don’t know while also harping on their children’s spending habits.

    I starting thinking about this after reading the blog of Patrick Deneen where he comments on the thriftiness of his German in-laws.


  10. add:

    “Here’s something funny: my German father-in-law – no friend of big government, and about as anti-60s one could find – describes this way of life (including the solar panels, etc.) as conservative. And what could be more conservative than the Swabian motto – “schafe, spare, Häusle baue” (work, save, build a house)? Of course, the high finance boys in NYC never got a bonus house in Westhampton based on THAT ethic.”

  11. Today’s conservatism is riddled with consumerism and entitlement.

    Similarly with today’s leftwingism.

    BTW, I can remember when the environmental wackos were on the right, not on the left. (Similarly, back in those days the anti-Semites were on the right, too.) Somewhere I have an issue of a right-wing publication from the early 60s that was cheering Rachel Carson. The anti-fluoridationists were on the right back then, too. It was kind of an anti-establishment thing, before the Vietnam war and the days of the hippies.

    I also remember how in 1970, in the fall of the year of the first earth day, I got the message loud and clear that much of the right now saw the environmental movement as a threat.

  12. “The single greatest thing you can do for the environment is: DON’T HAVE KIDS.”

    In the long run, it’s also the greatest thing you can do for the kids.

    Human bodies are such frail, susceptible, fickle things of gross matter. Life as a temporary preoccupation would be an easier idea to promote were it not so hard, cold, and rough.

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