This article was on the front page of the Grand Rapids Press for their “Earth Day” edition of the newspaper. The Press “presented 14 West Michigan state legislators with a “How Green Are You?” questionnaire to mark today’s observance of Earth Day. What we asked them, why it matters and what they had to say.” You can read the questions and the legislator responses online, but note that all of the questions had to do with personal behavior – kind of car you drive, do you compost, recycle, use mass transit and environmental groups they belong to.
The story provides readers with some of the reactions from 2 of the 14 legislators who responded to the survey. There are also comments from 3 non-legislators, De Steketee with the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas College, Bill Stough with Sustainable Research Group, and Rachel Hood with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. Each of these three “environmental spokespersons” focused on the survey results and the personal behaviors of these 14 legislators. What is omitted from the story and would seem more relevant to readers and the public is what are the voting records of these state legislators? Other questions to consider would be who gives them money during re-election and which industry groups lobby them, particularly which ones that are notorious polluters? Ask yourself if how legislators vote or their personal choices make more of an impact on residents of Michigan?
State Rep. Dave Hildenbrand drives a Jeep Cherokee sports utility vehicle and uses herbicides to kill the crabgrass that infests the lawn at his 8-acre homestead.
The Lowell Township Republican doesn’t pay his trash hauler extra to collect his recyclables. Instead, he hauls recycled paper, cans and bottles to a Kent County transfer station near Rockford “a few times a year.”
Hildenbrand gave himself an “8” when asked to rate himself on a “green” scale of 1-10.
He was among 14 West Michigan state legislators who replied to a How Green Are You? questionnaire to mark today’s observance of Earth Day.
“Like any family, I think we can do a better job of being more diligent,” said Hildenbrand, who said he would consider replacing his SUV with a hybrid.
“Too often, if you’re an elected Republican, some will label you as not pro-environment. That’s certainly not the case with me,” said Hildenbrand, who belongs to a national group called Republicans for Environmental Protection.
Most of the legislators surveyed by The Press ranked themselves above average. Most recycle their trash, some compost and all say they buy locally grown fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
None have enrolled in Consumers Energy’s Green Generation program which charges its customers extra for power generated by Michigan-based renewable energy sources.
State Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, gave herself a 7 or 8.
“It’s always there in the back of my mind,” said Birkholz, who chairs the Senate’s Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. That’s why she composts leaves and uses eco-friendly cleaning products around the house.
As for the four-wheel-drive GMC Envoy in her driveway, “I live in the middle of the snowbelt,” she said.
‘We can set the bar higher’
State Rep. Arlan Meekhof, R-Olive Township, gave himself a “5.” Yet, his answers differed little from Hildenbrand and other legislators.
“Maybe I’m a little harder on myself than others because I’m in a district that relies heavily on tourism and agriculture,” said Meekhof, who sits on the House’s Great Lakes and Environmental Committee.
Deb Steketee, director of the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas College, said the self-ranking may indicate how aware the legislators are of environmental issues rather than their actual ranking in their overall community.
“Very few people wake up in the morning and think, ‘What can I do to destroy the environment?'” said Steketee, whose office promotes “sustainable” methods that lessen the “footprint” individuals leave on the environment. “But we can set the bar higher for ourselves.”
Environmental consultant Bill Stough, chief executive of the Sustainable Research Group, said he doesn’t see much leadership in the survey responses.
“They weren’t radical on one extreme or the other,” said Stough, whose company advises West Michigan businesses, local governments and nonprofit groups on sustainable methods.
“I think they are a perfect mirror image of our society right now,” he said. “I think if you took 12 people off the street and asked them the same questions, they’d come up with similar answers.”
Stough said environmentalists want to see more leadership from politicians because they can create incentives and new markets for sustainable products.
“I guess the learning moment I carry away from the survey is that we’ve got to get everyone of those legislators to understand the serious nature of the issues we’re dealing with,” he said.
The trick question
Shown the responses, Rachel Hood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, said she would not rank the legislators as highly as they did themselves.
“I would say this group is a little above average,” she said. “I think it’s fair to say every person who lives in America can do more.”
Hood said she regards the survey’s “Paper or Plastic?” query as a trick question. While paper bags are biodegradable, they are more costly to produce than plastic. “All of their answers should have been, ‘I keep a canvas bag in my car to bring my groceries home.’ ”
Yet, Hood admits that it took her a long time to get into the habit of carrying her own bag into the grocery store.
“I don’t think these folks are much different than the general population,” she said. “We are all responsible for making better choices.”