On This Earth Day, It's Actually Easier To Be Green

Apr 21 2014, 11:16pm CDT | by

 EDITOR’S NOTE: Forbes has just published Curbing Cars: America’s Independence From The Auto Industry, an eBook investigating why a growing number of Americans are giving up their cars. Written by Forbes contributor and former New York Times Detroit bureau chief Micheline Maynard, this illuminating account of our changing automotive habits is available for download now. Here’s an excerpt looking at how environmentalism has become an every day event.
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Those of us who grew up watching Sesame Street sang along to Kermit the Frog’s lament, “It’s not that easy being green.” But for many Americans, it’s actually easier than ever to be green.

Sustainability has quietly become an every day event, less a statement than a way of life. That is something experts at Stanford University call “pro-environmental socialization.” In other words, if you are expected by your refuse collection system to separate your cans and bottles and your newspapers, you do it, without feeling you are making a social statement.

On the first earth day in 1970, it was a common sight for skies in industrial cities to be gray with pollution, and for a thin film of soot to cover cars and clothes hanging out to try. Litter flew across American highways, and cigarette butts were strewn on restroom floors.

By the time American millennials became aware of dirty air, smog was something they saw in pictures of Beijing and Shanghai. No one in a state with a recycling law would dream of throwing away a soda bottle; in Michigan, it yielded a 10 cent deposit.

People now regularly tote their own canvas shopping bags to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, as well as to local farmer’s markets. The statements that our parents’ generation made by being environmentally conscious is just part of the landscape for those born after 1980.

In the middle of all this, millennials are responsible for their own significant shift. A study by the advocacy group US PIRG found that Americans between 16 and 24 years of age reduced their driving by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. Granted, this federal highway data is a little old, but those years were not a time when much emphasis was placed on creating greener college campuses, aside from some recycling programs.

Now, however, 30 plus campuses are offering bike share programs. Colleges like the University of Dayton are offering free bikes to incoming freshmen if they do not bring a car to campus for two years. Campuses, like Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, are redesigning their landscapes to cut down on automobile use and promote the use of bikes, as well as walking.

It will be interesting to see the impact this will have on millennials as they get older. If this generation is discouraged from using automobiles when they’re in school, and taught it’s easier to be green, their behavior could carry over into adulthood. And that could affect the transportation choices they make, and demand, for years to come.

You can buy Curbing Cars: America’s Independence From The Auto Industry at Amazon and Apple now. On Wednesday, take part in a Twitter chat with Micheline Maynard at noon ET/9 am PT. Tweet questions to #AskForbes and follow @forbes.
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