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Doing the Right Thing

They say guilt is a great motivator, but I’m unconvinced. If it were true — if disgrace and penitence could spur a gal to stand up and set things right — then I wouldn’t be lying here, curled around my atrophying wallet in a shade-grown, grass-fed, phosphate-free paralysis.

I’m lame with eco-shame.

Do I read too much? Do I pay too much attention? Am I the only one confused and incapacitated by knowing the fiendish ways that every product on the market will impact our health, environment, and the progress of global human rights? Pesticides, PVCs, bioengineering. I’m afraid to consume anything for fear I might ingest E. coli, support sweatshops, or single-handedly deplete a rain forest.

I’m not one of those “let someone else figure out global warming; I loves me some Styrofoam” people, I swear I’m not. I’m conscientious-ish. I buy organic milk, free-range eggs, fair-trade coffee. I pack my kids’ lunches in re-purposed hummus tubs instead of landfill-bound, petroleum-based sandwich baggies. I confess I still don’t know what “sustainable” means, but I compost kitchen scraps for garden mulch. I even lease solar panels for my roof.

It’s not enough, though. And we all know it. Having spent years dreading the confounding “paper or plastic” quiz at the end of a grocery run (you know there’s no right answer, right? And that no matter what you say, you’re going to Hell), I bought cute, reusable shopping bags. But they were too cheap to be as attractive as they are, and now I can’t shake the feeling they were stitched by a nimble-fingered, factory-imprisoned boy named Rashid in Uzbekistan. I’m sorry, Rashid, I’m trying. I’m trying!

It’s depressing to realize one lacks the mental capacity to shop responsibly. Conscientious consumption turns out to be an AP calculus problem that gums up my remedial-math mind and leaves me randomly filling in bubbles on the Scantron: Um … renewable energy good? High-fructose corn syrup bad?

Is it better to buy a new fuel-efficient car, or pack your gas-guzzler full of carpoolers? Should you support the town’s new eco-upright market? Or protest its owner’s anti-union practices and public stance against universal health care?

Gain two points if you eschew pesticides. Lose two points if you squander fuel by driving all the way across town to buy chemical-free root vegetables. Gain one point if they’re from a locally owned business. Lose a point if it packages each parsnip individually.

I bought a book called The Better World Shopping Guide at Chaucer’s. It was the worst thing I ever did. The book grades more than 1,000 companies on their environmental and social impact. My son likes to go through it and tell me how our chocolate is “slave-free” but our mayonnaise is made by a “corporate villain” who “continues to do business in Burma.” Neither of us knows where Burma is.

The more I read, the less I know. When Newsweek names McDonald’s one of the nation’s greenest corporations, you know society’s criteria has become a-jumble. Things used to be simpler. Not long ago, the words “dolphin-safe” were all you had to know about seafood. Now, how do you choose a healthy, humane, can’t-I-just-eat-my-fish-in-peace piece of salmon anymore, for carp’s sake?

I like to think that normal people — people without my persnickety A-student personality — are content and even proud to make “lesser evil” choices and stick to them. But not me. I want to do it right. I want to hold up my end.

But since I’m afraid to go shopping anymore, I’ll just sit here and eat the only thing in my house that doesn’t seem to be triggering the end of the world. If I can’t be guilt-free, at least I can be “slave-free.”


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