Today is the thirty-eighth Earth Day and, at least from my perspective, it remains unclear what positive impact, if any, this “celebration” has had on long-term ecological/agricultural sustainability. In fact, I am going to argue that Earth Day and other instantiations of mainstream environmentalism serve to obfuscate the very problems that they intend to address. People buy into (both figuratively and literally) the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism as a defense mechanism. The seduction of the phrase “going green” proposes a fashionable, celebrity-endorsed lifestyle that enables a person to resist, deny, or otherwise marginalize the fact that their continued existence on the planet costs–that they will always exist at the cost of something or someone else.
Before I continue my argument, let me make a couple of things clear. First, the only difference between my mindset and the mindset that I am critiquing here is that I am keenly aware of the cost of my existence. That is to say, I am in no way an ideologue, “environmentalist,” anti-capitalist, or whatever, but I also would never presume to deny that every part of my daily existence involves a Darwinian deflection of costs onto someone or something else. The gas I use in my car is gas that someone else can’t use. The bird I ate for dinner last night must die so that I can eat. The energy that runs my computer to write this post, that keeps this blog existent in cyberland is energy that cannot be reallocated to another purpose. I want to make clear then that I’m advocating nothing here except a resistance to illusion, a resistance to rhetoric that resists the reality of these costs. I’m not indicting people for jumping on the idea of “going green,”nor am I suggesting that their intentions and actions are ignoble or ignorant. I’m simply arguing that the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism that the boomers and post-boomers are now recapitulating and buying into is part of a corporate shell game that masks the systemic problems of industrialized agribusiness and deflects responsibility away from those corporations and onto individuals.
Let’s now consider the current signal phrase of this mindset: “going green.” I don’t know where this came from, but it’s genius. Americans have been in love with the “gerund + noun” combination for years now (consider: Finding Nemo, Finding Forrester, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Chasing Amy, Breaking Bad, etc.), and what’s catchier than the optimism of a verb like “go”? It radiates simple but strong action, movement, and also implies a teleological end, a positive destination–here, the mindset/pseudophilosophy “green.” And it’s alliterative to boot. People love to say this phrase, and love to believe that when they buy certified organic foods or remember to bring their own bags to the grocery store or put gas in their Priuses (Prii?) that they’ve somehow done something intrinsically and in and of itself, good. The rhetoric abrogates their culpability in a systemic denaturalization of the human position in the world which they cannot control. The rhetoric buys the lie of control and choice, and resists the truth that to live in our modern world is to live at the cost of someone or something else.
The phrase “Save the Planet” is less insidious by sheer virtue of its exaggerated ludicrousness. As rhetoric, “Save the Planet” is the worst kind of anthropomorphic evil, the hyperbolic illusion of the human as ultimate hero. If one simply considers for a moment the scope of what the slogan commands, one can see the sheer folly of such a mindset. A more appropriate vision would be: “Save Local Food” or “Save Your Money: Do You Really Need That Thing?”
Mainstream, corporate environmentalism reflects the will to god-like mastery over nature in the illusion of stewardship and care over the planet
“Recycle, Reduce, Reuse,” however, is not a bad mantra really–when detached from the rampant materialism it seeks to cover up, that is. In fact, the tenets of recycling and reusing are ancient, simply because before consumer culture, there wasn’t really another option. People had to squeeze the last little bit of use out of anything and everything they consumed.
There is a salient irony then in the boomers buying into these phrases–and I target boomers here, although every generation after the boomers is just as culpable. The boomers, however, are really the first American generation to accelerate the post-WWII homogenization of consumer culture, with all its implications to agribusiness, rampant stripmalling, and the emergence of the “corporate citizen.” The boomer’s massive ideological failure in the 1960s leads directly to the selfish materialism of those “Me” decades, the 70s and 80s (think of the final scenes of Woodstock: the party’s over and the pastoral landscape is now littered with every sort of consumerist debris).
Post-apocalyptic landscape (after peace, love, and understanding)
We are now trying to clean all this up, and the boomers, whose cultural norms still dictate this country, are finally getting on board. But the irony is that environmentalism-as-ideology was never much of an issue before the boomers got a stranglehold on this country, simply because every generation up to and including WWII had to be de facto environmentalists. Consumer society simply didn’t exist. People ate local food, walked most places, built their own houses, etc. (make no mistake–I’m not romanticizing or idealizing this: life was tough). This isn’t to suggest at all that the prescient efforts of John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. were not important or meaningful or even necessary during their context, because they were. At this point, however, we are all implicated in a global economy in which an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources, coupled with the rapid emerging industrialization of the world’s two largest nations, India and China, entails an imminent ecological disaster. And appreciating nature in our glorious National Park System is not going to fix that, at least not on its own.
I hate to pose problems without solutions, but my solutions are admittedly vague and general. I return first to my real issue here: rhetoric. Mainstream, corporate environmentalism encourages people to shop their way out of this problem (see: greenwashing). People get to buy into the continued illusion of a cost-free existence, or at least to believe that their actions as consumers neutralize these (ecological, environmental, human, animal) costs. The first step, then, is to recognize that the small individual actions that corporations so readily promote are not enough. What is needed is full-scale, infrastructural changes focusing on local production of foods and usable mass transit systems. I believe that such changes can be more easily accomplished than the (Big Oil sponsored) U.S. government would like the average citizen to believe; currently, however, there are simply too many getting rich off the last few drops of cheap oil to redirect their efforts to such a project. So they distract us with sloganeering and feel-good celebrations as they rob the earth. We can beat this though. Let’s lose the illusion.