As a child I would sometimes find my father in his study on weekend afternoons, studying his patients' files or flipping through lecture slides, the voice of Norman Vincent Peale humming in the background. He liked to listen to The Power of Positive Thinking on audiocassette while he worked. I found the sound of Peale's droning voice oddly soothing, and when I heard it I'd wander down the hall to his study and sprawl out on the carpet with a book. The books I read on the floor in there almost certainly included Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, one of my all-time childhood favorites and also the closest thing to a self-help book I'd ever read. Until this year, that is.
I'm still not the kind of girl who embraces self-help books, and most women's magazines that espouse "new" ways to rev up your sex life and look better in a bikini give me anxiety. I tend to think that whatever ails my psyche, my backside, or my wallet has more to do with a lack of will than a lack of know-how. Yet as the editor of OnEarth's book review section, I've watched my office become overrun with piles of environmental how-to tomes. They come in all shapes and sizes, marketed to appeal to every shade of would-be green, and their titles are predictably lame: Hey Mr. Green, Big Green Purse, True Green @ Work (perhaps using the word green in your title is a prerequisite for publication). When the magazine decided that it was finally time to round up these books and tell you something about them, I volunteered my services, thinking I'd have a good laugh and end up advising you to forget the books and use the Internet to find your answers, like the savvy person I trust you to be. I lugged them to the gym and on planes and trains, consuming all the eco self-help one human can stand. But after all that reading, I felt much as I did listening to Dr. Peale drone on: people might actually need some of this stuff.
Among these many volumes, the best manage to keep the proselytizing to a minimum. They may espouse the planetary benefits of each act of do-goodism, but they're also about what's in it for you. The books that rise to the top are those that have married the environmental benefits of efficiency, reduced consumption, and recycling with the American ideal of perpetual self-improvement. Get healthy and thin! Get happy! Get rich! All in seven days! You say you want all of those things? Well, my friend, just go green.
First, a quick tip on what to skip: anything that is a page-a-day calendar. How stupid this is. If you're looking to save the world, buying an item that can be used only once is precisely what all of the other books will tell you not to do. The one that landed on my desk was shrink-wrapped, packed in a box, and had a green plastic base stamped with the words "Please Recycle This Backer." So I checked the little number printed inside the recycling symbol: the base is made of plastic #5. Not even in my office, in the headquarters of one of the largest environmental advocacy groups on the planet, are you able to recycle #5.
Ready, Set, Green, by contrast, rises above its Romper Room title with great success. This book, by Graham Hill and Meaghan O'Neill of TreeHugger.com, is one of the gems of the lot. The subtitle is Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living, but you can read it in one sitting, thus reinventing yourself much more quickly than even the authors claim. Or, you can read one chapter a week: reduce, reuse, recycle; food and drink; cleaning and home decor; transportation; clothing and personal care; and so on.
The authors have put together this smart little volume using a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure approach. There is actual prose here, so you can dig in and read more deeply about, for example, the environmental benefits of public service systems like the New York City subways or shared services such as Zipcar and the Laundromat. If bite-size info nuggets are more your speed, flip to the charts filled with tips for eco-improvements you can make in "30 minutes or less." Note the little dollar signs and lightbulb symbols printed next to various actions: they tell you that doing those things will save both money and energy.
One caveat: Ready, Set, Green slips up in a fairly big way when the authors tout coal's "upside" as a "fairly flexible fuel" that can be converted into a gas and then "reconstituted into various different liquid fuels…for home heating or in vehicles." Producing liquid fuel from solid coal emits far more global warming pollution than producing conventional oil. Combine that with the emissions generated when you burn the stuff and it's pretty clear that liquid coal has nothing to do with going green. Even Congress knows this: the 2007 energy bill prohibits federal agencies from buying fuel that emits more greenhouse gas pollution over its life cycle than conventional oil. So if the Pentagon isn't allowed to sign a contract to purchase liquid coal, you should rule out putting it in your car.