Legion. An amalgamated journal.

Environmentalism greater and lesser

The growing meaninglessness of 'green'

I had a piece run the Crimson yesterday (which seems, incidentally, to have had an unhappy time on the copy-editing floor) arguing that we have saturated environmentalism in so much feelgood language that it is now a soggy pudding of a movement.

It is, instead, about being honest when it comes to what, exactly, people are going to have to sacrifice in order to build an environmentally responsible society. […] At the heart of this is an epistemological reconfiguring of the current pyramid of economic values—namely, that we cannot always have what we want when we want it.

There was something extraordinarily eerie about sitting in the crowd at Al Gore’s speech last Wednesday, watching him give his quite aspirational speech, and seeing Harvard students happily clapping along in the audience. I couldn’t help but wonder—do they know what they’re clapping for? It was as if Lenin had visited Tercentenary Theater in 1918 to give a speech about smashing the international bourgoeise and Harvard students had clapped away in assent. The set economic assumptions which lead to global warming on one branch are the same economic forces that support our chubby lifestyles as comfortable liberal arts patrons. Gore said that the U.S. energy supply must be carbon-neutral within ten years. I happen to agree. But this isn’t the sort of thing that happens by wearing Patagonia vests. It’s the sort of thing that happens with major dislocating effects in our economic assumptions. We still think that we can buy new clothes every week and go out to dinner often and fly to California for cheap. If we’re going to go carbon-neutral in ten years—and, judging from the applause, people seem to think that is a good idea—we’re going to have to start living up to it.

Of course, while Gore was arguing this, in the audience students scrambled for steel water bottles and t-shirts, consumer goods which in many cases will be used for a week and thrown away. After the event, piles of litter had to be taken up from between the rows of seats. “Green is the new Crimson,” the banners and pamphlets proclaim, but whether anyone could give you a coherent definition of what exactly “green” is I am not so sure. The IOP hosted a “green” party following Sustainability Week. What was “green” about it? Only the fact that you were supposed to wear green clothes. Better proof that environmentalism is now no more instrumental a political program than Irish pride I cannot imagine.

When people suggest to me that environmentalism is going to be easy, I offer them this thought-experiment. What are the countries in the world with the lowest carbon footprints; i.e., the most ‘sustainable’ ones? They’re the extremely poor countries—Chad, Burundi, and Afghanistan having the lowest emissions as of 2004. Now think why this is. It’s not because they’re using CFLs and we’re using incandescent bulbs, or because they’re driving Priuses and we’re driving Hummers, or because they’re wearing organic cotton T-shirts and we’re wearing Fruit of the Loom. It’s because they’re dirt poor. Environmental catastrophe is, more or less, the consequence of being wealthy and comfortable.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to live in a mud-hut, and I don’t think the developed world should go paleolithic. What I do want is for people to realize that “green” is not merely an aesthetic category. That is, we don’t become “green” just by living a recognizably eco-conscious lifestyle; for the most part, these lifestyles mean next to nothing. We also don’t become “green” by tinkering with little administrative changes in the way our sociopolitics work. The imperative set forth here demands deep change, and it demands that our best thinkers consider not only how to implement a cap-and-trade program but how to implement an entirely refabricated economic system.

Are Harvard students ready to do that? I certainly hope that they are. For now, though, I think we live under the auspices of a lesser environmentalism, the equivalent of listening to Motown records in the 1960s and thus considering yourself a civil-rights advocate.

Garrett Dash Nelson

October 29th, 2008 at 10:10 am

But perhaps you disagree

3 responses so far

  • [ # ] MarkusOct 29, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    There’s an argument to be made that casting environmentalism as something to be taken on by individuals — i.e. “recycle your garbage, turn off your faucet,” etc. — is problematic both because it demands that personal sacrifice you’re talking about (which is awfully unrealistic to expect from entitled American consumers), and because it ignores the much greater responsibility held by business & industry. The proportion of our CO2 emissions that come from the consumer side is, comparatively, quite small; it always bothers me that we spend so much time trying to convince everyone to buy a marginally more efficient light bulb, or whatever, when you could make drastically greater change with some simple regulatory mechanisms. For instance: how come every damn strip mall and fast-food outlet in America leaves their giant illuminated signs glowing long after they’ve closed for the night, and nobody makes a peep about it? Why are working families expected to painstakingly sort their trash while the industrial giant they’re working for can belch tons of crap into the air every day without consequence? You see where I’m going with this.

    Of course, the change in our economic structure we’re talking about will ultimately result in sacrifices for everyone, regardless. I just think that environmentalism today, especially in the creepy cultlike way it’s presented at Harvard, puts the locus of responsibility way too close to the individual/consumer.

  • [ # ] joel hanesOct 31, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Environmental catastrophe is, more or less, the consequence of being wealthy and comfortable.

    No. Consider Haiti, the most extreme environmental parable of our time. Environmental catastrophe is the conseqence of too many people for the sustainable resource base.

    If there were 500 million people on earth instead of 6,600 million, most of us could be first-world middle-class comfortable without wrecking the planet.

  • [ # ] Change you can believe inDec 31, 2008 at 1:22 pm

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