Why Environmentalism Looks Goofy and Awkward

To start with, as is often the case I find something Keith Kloor writes incomprehensible. He suggests that the failure of “environmentalism” is about “missionary seriousness”, about a lack of a sense of humor. This doesn’t entirely ring true for me, nor does Keith’s endless concern troll schtick strike me as particularly lighthearted. But I am glad I followed some of his links and discovered this remarkable (and quite earnest) keynote by Jenny Price, addressed to the American Society for  Environmental History (There’s a Society for Environmental History?) in Madison a year ago this week. There are parts to object to, but the key thrust, sandwiched awkwardly amid some reflections on the career of Rachel Carson, explains a great deal about why environmentalism is socially unattractive, and perceived as both unhip and unkind.

The 20th-century focus on the preservation of wilderness as the real, authentic counterpoint to the artifice of modern life doesn’t seem to define the heart and soul of this environmentalism. Rather, it pays a lot of attention to everyday life—to what we do in our everyday environments. And yet […] some of it just seems weird. I kept reading newspaper and magazine articles about the great things people were doing to achieve ultimate Green-itude, and a lot of it just felt somehow wacky. It just felt kind of off—such as replacing all five of your cars with Priuses (though I do live in L.A., where we specialize in 17,000-square-foot LEED-certified houses). Or throwing out all your old light bulbs and buying new ones. Or refusing to let your son play on a baseball team because the nearest one is twenty miles away and that’s too much global warming entirely. Really? Or becoming a devout locavore and blogging and twittering about it all the time on an iPad and iPhone made in China. I mean, seriously? Your kid can’t play baseball? That‘s how you want to stop global warming?

She identifies two threads in environmentalist discourse, (or at least American environmentalist discourse; she doesn’t address whether these problems are pervasive elsewhere): the “I” framing and the “we” framing and finds them both unsatisfactory. The “I” framing:

Individual virtue, I think, plays out in the Green Revolution very concretely. You can track it very tangibly, I’ll argue, through the common acts of wackiness–and also through the class divide—in a few different disturbing ways. Here’s the first way—which is that acts of Greenitude to protect nature have commonly become acts of Ultimate Virtue. Green acts, in other words, can trump other values and other kinds of virtuous acts—say, such as making your child happy by letting him or her play baseball. You can’t do that because you absolutely have to stop global warming?—even though you could reduce your energy use in a thousand other ways (such as not living in an exurb in the first place).

Here’s the second way that the obsession with personal virtue plays out in very concrete ways—which is that in a society in which we readily identify ourselves and our values by what we consume, and in which we consume to be virtuous, well, we consume to be virtuous Greenies. And consume and consume. So we buy the new light bulbs and throw out the old ones. We junk or trade the old car (or the three old cars) and buy Priuses—and if you buy five Priuses, you’ll save five times as much energy as if you buy one Prius. As if the more energy you use, the more you can save. As if all Priuses sail into the sky at night, under cover of darkness, to gobble up carbon whenever President Obama, or maybe Al Gore, flashes the green bat signal. Obviously, some of these virtuous acts of consumerism actually create more environmental problems than they solve. If you junk your perfectly good Toyota Corolla for a new Prius, for example, you’ll have to drive 41,630 miles just to erase the carbon debt that manufacturing that Prius creates. Or to quote the surprisingly honest slogan in the recent ads for the Chevy Volt: “Electric when you want it, Gas when you need it.” The light bulb or the energy-efficient car can actually be a marker of virtue as much as or more than a purchase that will actually make a real difference.

Here’s a third way that the I Problem, or the obsession with personal virtue, plays out—which is, in fact, that it just flat-out encourages an overemphasis on the actual importance of individual action, especially compared to systemic or regulatory action. It emphasizes changing your light bulbs versus transforming the national energy grid. It focuses on buying nontoxic paints and carpets versus banning toxic paints and carpets. Not that individual action can’t be important—but there’s a lopsided faith in its effectiveness, and in personal versus more collective kinds of virtue. While you see the “50 simple things (or 10 things, or 24 things) you can do to save the earth (or the planet)” lists all the time, none of them ever says, Vote!, or Pay your taxes!, or Stop fudging your deductions, for goodness sake!–which would likely be a lot more effective than changing your light bulbs

In other words, what the I problem makes invisible is that not all individuals can afford to buy new light bulbs or green up their houses–and, in general, and more important, that not all individuals contribute equally to environmental messes, and also that not all individuals suffer the consequences equally. At the same time, the notion of green Virtue really and actively relies on these differences. We say, “if everyone would just change their light bulbs.” Yet if everyone did—which is what we need to happen, and why we need regulation—then using the energy-efficient light bulbs wouldn’t be virtuous. I wouldn’t be queen for the day. It’d just be what everyone does—just as, for example, we don’t really think about how our cars adhere to federal emissions standards. The culture of individual green virtue–which is often about virtue as much or more than environment–really depends on everyone not engaging in green acts

On the “We” framing:

This Man-&-Nature rhetoric of course encourages us to think of the environment as one unitary thing– the major icon for this way of thinking and seeing, of course, being the image of Earth from Space. And seeing nature as one, unitary thing plays out, too, in everyday culture and in policy in very concrete ways. To begin with, it, too, encourages the association of virtue with environmentalism. The Earth from Space icon suggests a small, fragile Planet, which you can hold in your palms—and in environmentalist iconography, one of the most recurrent images is, in fact, of human hands cradling the earth. What I mostly want to talk about here, though, is that the We rhetoric—or seeing nature as unitary– encourages a decidedly weird fungibility. In other words, it can encourage us to see all Green acts–no matter what you do or where you do it—as accomplishing the same goal. So perhaps I own an SUV (I need it for the kids!–and I just kinda like Range Rovers, they’re sleek), but I recycle, and I’ve got an energy star DVR, and I eat local broccoli. These actions may all address very different sets of problems–but they all save the planet. Again, this, too, is how greenwashing works, right?—which is to say, we’re screwing things up there but we’re madly saving the planet over there. So Apple screws up the environment all around China, but the company redeems itself with its new data center in North Carolina that’s LEED-certified platinum–and after all, they do print the iTunes gift cards on 100% recycled paper. The acts you engage in to save the planet, then, become weirdly interchangeable– but also exactly where you do them becomes not very important. There’s a kind of geographic cluelessness to the Save the Planet environmentalism—by which anything you do here or there benefits absolutely the whole planet everywhere. And again, the geographic cluelessness in this rhetoric plays out in very real ways in policy–most obviously perhaps in the enduring enchantment with offsets and trading programs. Such programs tend not to be geographically specific. And the many critics of offsets and trading have made trenchant economic and political arguments—but what we’ve missed, I think, is that these programs at once are rooted so powerfully in enduring cultural assumptions. We’ve missed the cultural and rhetorical power of the idea, rooted in our Man-&-Nature definitions of nature, that you can trade an environmental mess here for a clean-up there. The We rhetoric, then, entirely ignores that not all environmentalist acts accomplish the same thing, and also that they don’t clean up environmental messes to the same degree. Even more important, though, I think, is that, again, the rhetoric almost entirely makes invisible that some people are more responsible for those messes than others. And it also makes invisible that some places are a lot dirtier than other places. A whole lot. The Man-&- Nature way of thinking blinds us to the extreme, dramatic inequities in where environmental problems are, specifically. It also then inevitably blinds us to dramatic inequities in the solutions, which so often fail spectacularly to address the geography of where the messes actually are (and who creates them).

My summary, with which Price may not agree, is that as creatures of a symbolic culture most of the modern educated elite are more capable of seeing the problem than most, but we’re utterly incapable of doing anything about it. All we typically do is manipulate symbols! The processes continue unabated. The Keystone pipeline is a good place to draw the line on continued carbon exploitation. It’s more than symbolic, as Andy Skuce explains. But the objection to it takes on an ethereal, otherworldly aspect. The turnout to the demonstrations is smallish and uncompelling. Most people take no responsibility whatsoever for the real physical pipeline, because they distract themselves with lightbulbs and fussy recycling of tiny amounts of plastic film. We have to focus our efforts where they matter quantitatively, we have to look at what is happening everywhere and not just in our field of vision, and we have to act collectively. By becoming distracted by superficial and symbolic acts we fail to achieve much of any significance. What’s more, our concerns look silly to the numerate and offensive to those of limited means.


  1. Who are you calling we, white boy?

    Most normal humans would like the solutions just fine. But we are effectively governed by people who stare greedily at the several trillions of dollars worth of yet unburned carbon.

  2. Am I crazy for noticing that KK, after briefly chiding on twitter for linking Sandy to climate, has dropped climate almost altogether for lecturing environmentalists about GMOs? Like after it became ok for media to discuss extreme weather and climate?

  3. I'm conflicted on this. The kind of economic ideas central to the transition movement have a strong flavour of personal moral choice to them. It also obsesses overly about food production partly because of a 'common sense' idea that food is obviously the most vital thing to get right if there's an apocalypse in the post, but also because it's something that people enjoy and feel they have some control over ("let's set up a local mobile phone production company! Oh").

    But while I can find a lot of economically dubious reasoning, it might be very important that people are thinking about ways to regain some control over their economic lives. From the point of view of great swathes of theory "economic democracy" is an oxymoron. Note Dr Grischa Perino's argument: if you have an effective emissions trading scheme that includes aviation, people should stop letting aviation into their own personal carbon morality as it's actively damaging to the approach:

    if you consider making a trip from London to Glasgow, flying has higher physical GHG emissions than a coach journey. However, additional emissions of flights are fully offset by the EU ETS, even without buying the offsets offered by most airlines when buying tickets, while those of the coach are not and therefore are additional. Surprising as it may sound, going by coach increases total emissions more than flying.

    If this is the alternative to fussy personal greenie morals, it's not a very appealing one to me. I am very uncomfortable with it. It chimes with an argument Hayek always made: people should be actively restrained from attempting to insert any kind of personal moral values into economic choices as they can't possibly comprehend the system they're interfering with. That's a different argument from saying "your democratically elected government has set up a carbon trading scheme on your behalf - problem solved, carry on as normal and don't deviate" - which could be said to be economic democracy in action, if one believes one's government is truly carrying out their democratic mandate. But the result is equally disempowering.

    Which is where I swing back to the transition movement again and wonder if the importance of its impact is its championing of grassroots economic democracy, not its economic ideas. I could, for instance, imagine a carbon trading scheme at a much more local level that people could actually buy into and see. There's a principle of subsidiarity here - what level are effective climate-solving decisions likely to be made? What kind of decision is best made at what scale?

    I am highly skeptical about relying purely on regional or global solutions (EU level / US level etc) though clearly those must have their role. I'm reminded again of Elinor Ostrom's last article.

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