Personal environmentalism

The final category of ecological resistance is the most amorphous and variegated. It includes all of the myriad attempts to make the political personal, from the mystical teachings of new age philosophy to the individual efforts to shop in an environmentally conscious manner. What is striking about personal environmentalism is its increasing diversification over time, the fact that ecological, or green, life-styles and attitudes have spread into so many different kinds of life-worlds since they first began to be articulated in the 1960s and 1970s. Very few global citizens have remained unaffected by ecological ideas in their personal behavior, although the sheer variety of what is called "ecological" makes it hard to define what it means in regard to broader patterns of cultural transformation.

A popular book written in 1968 saw in the hippies the main contributors to the Greening of America, and, since the 1960s, it has been many an aging hippie who has found new ways to "keep on keepin' on," as we used to say. The hippies provided a spiritual, or, at least, a spirited contribution to the fledgling environmental movement, stimulated by psychedelic drugs, Asian and native American religious traditions, and ideas about personal liberation that were promulgated by a number of well-known psychologists such as David Cooper, R. D. Laing, Eric Fromm, Gregory Bateson, and Norman O. Brown (Cooper 1968). Members of the counterculture expressed themselves not just by wearing colorful clothes but also in their voluntary simplicity and a youthful openness to non-Western cultures that led many to move to the countryside and take journeys to the East, as well as to take ecological ideas and environmental problems seriously. In Sweden the migration of young people to the rural areas was called a "green wave," and throughout the industrialized world there was a growth of communes and production collectives in the 1970s, many of which have continued to provide training courses and living experiments in what might be termed the spiritual sides of ecology ever since.

As the environmental movement developed the spiritual dimension has tended to take on a life of its own, and, particularly as political campaigns have lost much of their mass attraction, the personal and the political have tended to separate out. In the late 1970s, an American journalist, Mark Satin, tried to fashion a new kind of political movement out of spiritual or personal approaches to environmentalism, but, then as now, new age politics proved to be a contradiction in terms (Satin 1979). The "new age" grew into a substantial and innovative genre of music and art, and, further, inspired a number of schools of therapy. Further, it became an important and influential cultural realm, or spiritual network, with activities spread throughout the world. What has changed through the years is the diversity of the new age culture, which has increased enormously, as has the commercial tone of much of what is on offer. Even the new age has been colonized by the dominant culture.

However, new-age culture continues to be rejected by many of the wings of the environmental movement, even by those - such as the new proponents of the "abstract wild" like Jack Turner - who could be thought to be sympathetic (Turner 1996). And it has brought on many a backlash from defenders of traditional age-old values. In its mysticism and its spiritual eclecticism, its mingling, or mangling, of the reasonable and the unreasonable, those who believe in science and modern rationality continue to find new age culture an easy target for scorn and moral outrage (e.g. Gross and Levitt 1994). And yet the new age continues to grow.

In the 1990s there emerged a somewhat different kind of spiritual, or ethical, discourse, or range of discourses, that were developed in the name of ecology. Inspired in large measure by the diffusion of genetically modified organisms, the very ideas of life and human existence have been seen to be challenged. Ethics has become a popular subject on university courses, as well as in popular literature, and new alliances, or networks, of activity have taken shape, often bringing the religious-minded and the environmentally minded together.

The less spiritual aspects of personal environmentalism took on a new importance in the 1990s, particularly in relation to the marketing of biotechnologies (see Durant 1998). There is a widely felt anxiety about these genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) that seems to indicate that the human exploitation of non-human reality has reached a new kind of threshold. Whatever value genetic technologies may have - and there is no denying that, in both food production and in medicine, there is much that they can contribute - large sections of the public remain unconvinced.2

But although opposition to GMOs has provided a focus of contention for many consumers and consumer organizations, green consumerism is filled with ambiguities. For those who are already involved in environmental politics in an organized way, then it is meaningful to connect lifestyle and politics. In relation to food consumption, in particular, "eating green" can become an important part of one's identity, and, at least, on the individual level, a way to internalize ecology (Halkier 1999). Similarly, gardening and various forms of ecological craftsmanship may provide satisfaction in a contemporary, fragmented life-style. Describing the so-called "ecological footprint" that we leave behind as we travel through life has become an important task for many personal environmentalists and, in recent years, the organization Friends of the Earth has even provided some quantitative methodological guidelines (Wackernagel and Rees 1996).

One difficulty in aggregating from individual experiences, and individual footprints, is in knowing what is ecological. There are so many different forms of eco-labelling and so many different criteria, or schools, of ecological, or organic, or biodynamic, or health food, that the meaning of "ecological consumption" tends to dissolve. Consumption choices are not made in a vacuum, but are rather part of broader strategies of everyday life that are difficult to conduct in a rational fashion. In one Danish study ofecological consumption among young parents, three main strategies were identified: the "bothered," who found ecological considerations in relation to food consumption a nuisance rather than a concern; the "believers," who bought ecological food as a matter of principle, and the "pragmatists," the vast majority who allowed the various contingencies of everyday life to determine their patterns of food purchase.3

The difficulty of generalizing from the particular is obvious, yet an understanding of the cultural dynamics of personal environmentalism requires an in-depth investigation among relatively small groups of people. The motivations that stimulate new age cultural expression and green consumerism are obviously varied, and it has proved difficult to turn a personal commitment into a more all-encompassing process of social and cultural change. But there can be little doubt that personal environmentalism will continue to flourish and grow, and, in particular, will provide serious problems for the biotechnology industries in their attempts to market their products with success.

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