Besides propitious weather and sublime terrain, the nice thing about living in Santa Barbara is being surrounded by a shimmering bubble of righteousness.
Shopping at Farmers Markets, championing curbside recycling, and peddling fuel-free bicycles, we fancy ourselves among the greenest citizens in the nation. We hear little rounds of applause in our heads every time we refill our stainless-steel water bottles or toss used coffee filters — and their spent, shade-grown grounds — into the compost bin. Deep down, we believe the use of canvas grocery sacks puts us at the forefront of a heroic global movement and guarantees us admission to a landfill-free heaven.
Travel almost anywhere else in the U.S., however, and we discover that in addition to being reverent and right-minded, we Santa Barbarans are also groundlessly smug. And blissfully ignorant.
Venture away from our commendably conscientious coast and we are shocked by the rest of the country’s apathy for our inviolable eco-ideals: merrily topping off the tanks on their Suburbans, using Ziploc baggies like Kleenex, cranking the air-conditioning just because it’s, you know, daytime.
“I can’t travel anywhere without Cali guilt dogging me,” says my friend Barbara. “In Las Vegas, I ask, ‘Why are you throwing that soda can in the trash?’ In South Carolina, it’s, ‘What do you mean, what’s recycling?’ I want everyone to care about the environment, but they don’t.”
Other friends bemoan Midwestern family members who burn and bury their trash, and let the tap water run and run and … My pal Victoria recently attacked her New York brother-in-law for buying oranges imported all the way from South Africa.
One Left Coast mom stayed at a Georgia hotel where breakfast was served on Styrofoam plates. “It had been a while since we had seen the stuff,” she said. “The kids and I were trying to get over not being able to find food-waste bins, but the Styrofoam was particularly perplexing: ‘You mean, you just toss it all? In the same place?!’ We were troubled.”
Soon, “troubled” yields to “outraged.” When you’re conditioned to see every paper towel as a symbol of deforestation, watching Uncle Bart toss a newspaper into a Hefty bag feels like riding in a car with someone who plows through red lights. It’s beyond reckless; it’s criminal!
Good stewards that we are, our outrage succumbs to obligation, and we set about educating the offenders (often our hosts: awkward). Like missionaries, we preach the Green Gospel to these poor wasteful heathens. And the result is rarely good. In fact, they respond the way I do when people read me my horoscope: “Look, if you want to play along with this hoo-hah, that’s fun. But rearranging your life around it? That’s delusional.” Or when people try to convince me to drink wheatgrass juice: “Yeah, I’m sure that’s a smart idea, but I’m never going to do it. Seriously. Ever.”
Such eco-indifference hits us hard. When you believe that your own efforts are having some small impact on the Earth, then a glimpse at your neighbors’ astonishing nonchalance makes your personal and even regional commitments feel worthlessly minuscule. It’s not wrong to want to save the planet one aluminum can at a time — but it might be wrong to actually believe we are doing it.
Then again, maybe what makes Santa Barbara special isn’t the fact that we’re doing something to preserve our extraordinary environment; maybe it’s the fact that we’re not doing nothing. That feels good.
We can’t force our friends and family members to reduce, reuse, and recycle. But when they visit us, they’d better be prepared to respect, revere, and even ration the damned tap water. No Styrofoam-loving fruit importers are gonna burst our bubble.