A Conversation With Avital Binshtock, Sierra's Lifestyle Editor

Avital-Post.jpg Even though she works as Sierra magazine's lifestyle editor, where, in addition to other duties, she oversees the annual "Cool Schools" issue, so broad and deep is her interest in green and sustainability issues that Avital Binshtock makes time to write for the Los Angeles Times and a number of other newspapers and magazines. In addition to her work in traditional journalism, Binshtock is an avid traveler who wrote Frommer's Napa and Sonoma Day by Day. Here, Binshtock discusses her belief that, since consumption isn't going away, we should approach it realistically and do the best with it that we can; why it is that people believe living a green and sustainable lifestyle is elitist; and how cell phones may soon be small enough to be implanted into our heads.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say, "I'm a writer." If prodded, I'll go on to say that I'm Sierra magazine's lifestyle editor and that my job is to point readers toward ways of living that are environmentally responsible. I research and test products, call out greenwashing, and tell stories of entrepreneurs trying to get eco-friendly stuff onto stores' shelves. I'm also in charge of Sierra's annual "Cool Schools" issue, in which we rank and report on America's greenest colleges.

In addition to my work at the Sierra Club, I write often for other publications, covering a range of topics, though travel is my specialty. I wrote the biweekly "Tours & Cruises" column for the Los Angeles Times Travel section for years and am the author of a Frommer's book about Napa and Sonoma.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

The miniaturization of technology. It's not that new but it does always renew itself: Every time a device becomes smaller than it was before, the smaller version feels almost like a new invention and people scramble to adopt it.

That impacts sustainability in two ways: One, the rush to buy the newest mini gadget is hard on the planet for reasons that are clear. But on the other hand, things that can be produced with fewer materials can mean less waste on the production side, and certainly on the castoff side.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that in 50 years, the cell phone, with its modern capabilities, will be so tiny that we'll be able to implant it into our heads. That everything is on the verge of virtually disappearing should help ease the e-waste problem.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

There's a perception that green living exists in some sort of elitist sphere. That only rich people can afford to care about it and that it's a luxury to be concerned with only after your other needs are met. That's backward thinking. It's the poor that are most affected by environmental problems, and they're just as capable of and willing to live a conservationist life.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The way technology is being incorporated into food. Until now, the mechanization of the food industry has been to blame for serious environmental issues. But scientists and engineers are turning their attention toward how to re-pair technology and food production so that the union becomes sustainable rather than destructive.

For example, lab-grown meat could be a reality within a year. I'm a vegetarian and abhor how factory farms operate, so the possibility of mass-producing meat without all that pollution and cruelty fascinates me.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

It irks me when environmentalists act like their environmentalism is a status symbol. Haughty attitudes like that do the cause no justice.

I get letters from readers that are like, "Why are you recommending these green products? You shouldn't be telling people to buy anything." My response to these hard-line purists is: Consumption isn't going away, so at least we can approach it realistically and try to do the best we can.

We all have things we could do better, and if people were more positive about the good that others do instead of condemning what's not perfect, there'd be a lot more people interested in participating.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I started to write a story about greenwashing, which is when a company makes exaggerated or untrue claims about its environmental sustainability. I worked on the piece for a while before realizing that the topic is such a massive, complex beast with so many interesting characters that it couldn't have been contained within the 2,000 words I'd have been allotted.

During the conferences and conventions I attended to research the topic, what I saw was a space filled with slick publicists, rehearsed networkers, even outright hypocrites. There are some genuinely concerned people working to make corporations more responsible, to be sure, but there's also so much fakery to wade through that it's no wonder two-thirds of Americans don't trust green marketing claims. Advertisers and branders, in service to the bottom line, have created doubt and cynicism in place of enthusiasm and trust. The cure, in my opinion, is an emerging marketing concept: radical honesty.

My article's on the shelf for now but maybe it'll end up as a book one day.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Emerson, Thoreau, and Rachel Carson. Emerson and Thoreau sound like clichéd answers, but I really am a true, deep fan of theirs, especially of Emerson's. I visited his grave in Concord, Massachusetts, and it felt more like a pilgrimage than anything I've done. And Rachel Carson's writing did what most journalists dream their writing will do -- it enacted real policy change, which is all the more impressive considering she was a woman and it was the early 1960s.

If you're talking modern era, though, I'd say John McPhee, Bill McKibben, and, increasingly, Jonathan Franzen.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Psychology. I have a fierce curiosity about what drives people. I find it fulfilling -- and not in a schadenfreude sort of way -- when people choose to be nakedly honest about themselves and their problems, especially if they're on a quest for betterment. I chose journalism, though, which is also a job for which you get paid to ask people probing questions.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Is Google too obvious an answer? That company is a godsend.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Endlessly," by Muse.