This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

My little green guilts.


I’ve been using paper towels a lot—a lot—more often lately, and every time I do, I feel a spark of guilt. It’s wasteful, bad for the environment, I know, but I’ve been sick lately, so I need it. I figure that paper is more sanitary than the cloth towel that’s been sitting out for days. (I can understand the woman with sick kids who said on the radio, “Thank god for paper towels.”)

But I’ve also been destroying groves of trees for reasons that have nothing to do with health or hygiene. Paper towels are easier; there’s a slight satisfaction when the perforated seam rips just right, and when I tear off a piece, I’m participating a little bit more in America and its corporate pleasures. To ignore your worries about waste is itself a kind of pleasure, and for a moment, I imagine that Sarah Palin isn’t scorning me as a wimp mom-pants green do-gooder. That bright white, clean slate of a paper towel momentarily wipes my politics clean enough to join the ranks of both corporate and red America.

My guilt and good sense usually win out over such ridiculous pulp fictions. I recycle and, in the summer, I compost. I try my best to boycott the long list of Koch-owned household products, like Stainmaster carpet and Lycra, that have invaded the world. (So no Brawny paper towels or other Georgia-Pacific products in my house.) I bring my own shopping bags.

But… I eagerly stock up on plastic shopping bags, for the kitty litter. I get a lot of take-out and, not always bothering to track what’s recyclable and what’s not, I throw out tons of plastic containers and unused knife and fork sets. Water? I often forget and let it run and run.

And I rationalize: I’ve never been a purist, I tell myself. We’re all a little corrupt. As long as I’m pointed in the right direction, that’s good enough. Excuses and small daily denialisms course through our minds as much as fire retardants, pesticides, BPA, phthalates and PFOAs (the magic ingredient in Teflon) course through our bodies.

It is comforting, after all, to think that everything is OK. In fact, only since writing this have I dared look into the dioxins that are a byproduct of the chlorine used to bleach paper towels and tissue.

Corporations depend on our rationalizations: it absolves them of doing anything wrong and it creates guilt-free consumers. That’s why they run all the ads that tell us, “What, you worry?” Falling back on wasteful or toxic products not only has its perverse pleasures, but it can seem “natural,” especially if those products are featured in ads with wild animals and awe-inspiring landscapes.

So of course it’s better not to go with the corporate flow. But if you sometimes do, mop up the excess with old rags.

Read more of The Nation‘s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day

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