I didn’t appreciate my literature classes in high school. I was a Team Numbers guy, not a Team Words guy. Silly me - I didn’t realize those teams weren’t actually competing for anything.
I have a much richer appreciation for literature now, one that has developed organically over the last 15 years. Science fiction and fantasy top my list of favorite literary genres, but I still find pleasure in others. Even poetry, which I’ve tended to never quite “get,” has a growing appeal. Recently, I enjoyed the heck out of a poem I stumbled upon: “To a Mouse” by 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns.
One line in the poem really grabbed me: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union….” Written nearly 200 years prior to the environmental movement’s beginning, this might as well be our motto.
That line isn’t why the poem is famous though. This one is: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.” No that wasn’t a typo – remember he was a Scottish poet. Substitute “Often go awry” for those last three words and you’ll get the gist.
I’m almost certain that line is ringing bells in your memory. The reason why is because John Steinbeck borrowed from it in titling his 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. There’s a good chance you had to read that in high school just like me.
That line of the poem also reminds me of the environmental movement. As a group, we try to do and advocate for the “right” thing, but it’s so easy to fall into counterproductive traps. I think that’s true of any diverse movement group, but it’s certainly true for us. Let me give you an example of one of my best laid environmental plans that went awry.
My wife and I bought our current home four-and-a-half years ago. When we bought it, the basement was unfinished and we were able to make some design decisions in finishing it. I knew that I wanted our house to be as environmentally friendly as possible, so I insisted that we have spray foam insulation installed. I knew that spray foam outperformed conventional fiberglass insulation and would make our home more energy efficient. The spray foam went in, and I’d been figuratively patting myself on the back ever since.
And then I read The New Carbon Architecture, which I wrote about in last week’s blog post. One section of that book covered the embodied carbon footprint of various insulation types. To my dismay, I learned that my spray foam insulation has a big carbon footprint, and it’s notably larger than fiberglass!
Basically, a whole boatload of carbon was emitted to manufacture the stuff that would make my home operate with a lower carbon footprint. I bought future carbon savings with an immediate carbon harm, and it was a bad deal for the planet. I’ve researched the issue further, and the Carbon Smart Materials Palette website has further information on this if anyone wants to dig in deeper. What I should have done is source a natural material for insulation.
The moral of this story is that doing right by the planet is a complicated and nuanced endeavor. It’s important that we all keep learning, doing our best, and not beating ourselves up when our best laid schemes go awry.