Did you catch the article on “green noise” in the New York Times? The claim is that there is so much information about environmentally responsible living out there that people get overwhelmed and do nothing. Unable to decide between despoiling forests for paper bags and choosing plastic bags with the attendant disposal problems, they say “What they heck!” and take up driving SUVs.

There are two things going on here, I think. The first is the old “The experts can’t agree, so I’ll do what I want” argument that we so often see applied to nutrition. Some experts say that potatoes are a healthy source of complex carbohydrates and others say that they have a high glycemic index, so you might as well eat french fries. If you can’t be sure whether cloth or disposable diapers are worse for the environment, then you might as well give up and use styrofoam tableware.

These arguments are terrible, if we’re looking at it from the point of view of logic. On the other hand, they’re great if we’re looking for an excuse to do what we wanted to do in the first place. And lots of us are. 

#1 daughter told us about being at a bonfire with a group of people in Cowboy Land who were putting their styrofoam tableware into the fire. She offered to take the stuff into the house and throw it away instead, which may not make an enormous difference, but it would have made her feel better. People groaned at the suggestion that they should think at all about the environment.

One of the cowboys spoke up for her. “The world would be a better place if more people thought like her,” he said, tossing a stack of styrofoam cups into the fire.

That seems more honest than claiming that you’re paralyzed by the rival claims about burning Styrofoam vs. putting it in landfills.

On the offchance that you’re feeling paralyzed about it, let me remind you of a book I’ve mentioned here before: The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choice: Practical Advice From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Or, if you’re not up for a book, try Healthy and Green Living, a collection of blogs from the well-established environmental activist site, Care2.com.

The other issue here is the problem of information overload. The argument is that we in the modern world are so buffeted by information on every side that we can scarcely think straight, and we shut down our attention to much of it just in self-defence.

This is one of those things that we hear so often and from so many sources that it begins to be part of our worldview, but I don’t know whether it’s true or not. I have never seen any actual evidence for the claim; it’s just supposed to be self-evidently true.

I guess I can imagine that our pioneer foremothers dealt with much less information than we do. There they’d be, standing over the washtub all day on a Monday, and perhaps no one at all came and told them anything. They had nothing new to read, no electronic media, and met no one all day. When a letter came, it was a cause for excitement, and going to town was at least in part an opportunity to get a bit of news. There were many more newspapers in those days than we have now, but people would have access to fewer than we have, since they’d only get the ones from their own towns.

But if we’re talking about the 20th century rather than the 19th century, it seems less plausible. For the past  hundred years, most of us have had access to new information from one source or another during all of our waking moments, haven’t we? Widespread literacy, affordable books and papers, the radio, television, and rapid travel all made the exchange of information easy long before the internet.

And many of us still haven’t caught on to the major scientific developments of the 19th and 20th centuries anyway, in spite of being bombarded with information. We seem to be able to pick and choose our information.

In fact, the internet has allowed us to filter and narrow our news sources in impressive new ways. Bloglines, Crayon, and similar services let us choose exactly what news we want to pay attention to and ignore everything else. You might be amazed at the amount of celebrity gossip I don’t know.

#2 son is home for the long weekend. The bell choir is suggesting, with apparent seriousness, that we should do a medley of cowboy songs, with the swinging of bells over our heads as though they were lassos and the wearing of cowboy hats. I find the whole handbell experience humiliating enough without that. Last night, having apparently forgotten what it is like to play handbells with me since we have been on hiatus for a while, the director and all the members were sort of crowding around me trying to figure out what was wrong with me and how to get me to play the flipping notes at the right time now and then.