Tip #6 for Our 44th President: Listen to Your Mother-In-Law

by Emily Main

Based on the interview he gave to 60 Minutes after he was elected, Obama doesn’t really need to be told this. Still, it’s great that his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, is moving in to the White House with the rest of the family, and he should take advantage of all she can offer.

Grandmothers and mothers-in-law have always been valuable sources of advice for all things green, having grown up during a less wasteful era when conservation was key and waste was a sin. If it weren’t for my grandmothers, it would never have occurred to me to use cardboard toilet-paper rolls as extension-cord organizers or food scraps as fertilizer.

In honor of these wise women, we’ve compiled a list of some of the nation’s former First Ladies (and grandmothers and mothers-in-law) and their contributions to a better planet.

Abigail Adams: Her green contribution: line drying laundry in the White House’s East Room. Yes, that was standard practice in a pre-clothes-dryer world, but if all of us followed Mrs. Adams’ example, we’d cut our fossil-fuel-dependent energy use by 4 percent.

Edith Wilson: In 1918, the second First Lady of Woodrow Wilson decided to bring a flock of sheep to the White House both to provide wool, which she auctioned off to support the war effort, and to keep the lawn trimmed. Of course, gas-powered lawn mowers hadn’t been invented then either, but even today, it’s a great form of organic lawn care. And with all that wool, you’ll be able to turn the thermostat down a few degrees in winter.

Lou Hoover: While her husband may not have a great reputation for how he handled the economy, Mrs. Hoover was an avid nature lover (she earned a geology degree from Stanford), and she was heavily involved in the Girl Scouts, getting girls to love the outdoors as much as she did. This year, along with “Take Your Daughters to Work Day,” institute a “Take Your Daughters on a Walk Day” and get them excited about science and the environment.

Eleanor Roosevelt: The woman who planted the first Victory Garden, on the White House grounds in 1943, faced serious objections from the USDA and agriculture industry, who complained that she was hurting food sales. Her reasons for the garden were patriotic, but it’s green, too: Growing your own food (and knowing which pesticides, if any, were used, and how many miles, or feet, it traveled from garden to table) is an eco-friendly habit we can all adopt. You can sign a petition encouraging the new President and First Lady to start an organic food garden at www.eattheview.org.

Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson: She may be best known for her efforts to decorate the nation’s highways with wildflowers and native plants (which foster biodiversity, feed the soil and contribute a number of other environmental benefits to the landscape). But Ms. Johnson lobbied her husband quite extensively for better environmental protections, like air-pollution controls, and against destructive practices like strip mining. Plant a wildflower in her honor this spring.

Hillary Clinton: Technically, she’s neither a grandmother nor a mother-in-law, but she’s still made (and continues to make) major moves on the environmental front as First Lady, Senator and now Secretary of State. She was recently involved in establishing the New York Partnership for a Green Afghanistan, an initiative to replant trees to revitalize Afghanistan’s orchards, nurseries, woodlots and greenbelts. Planting trees, says Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai, is the best thing any of us can do to help foster a healthier planet.

Laura Bush: Our last First Lady incorporated green elements into the Bushes’ Crawford ranch, which was built in 2000, including geothermal heating and cooling and permeable landscaping that allows rainwater to be recycled as irrigation water. If you can’t remodel your home or re-do your landscaping, you can still incorporate some energy-saving habits into your daily routine, or save water by collecting your “warm-up” water to use on plants.

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