Individualization plant a tree buy a bike save the world


This reading has been written from a North American perspective, but Michael Maniates's account of the individualization of responsibility for environmental problems that drives a narrowing of our collective imagination could easily apply in other areas of the world, e.g. in parts of Europe. He suggests we act largely as individual consumers doing what is familiar rather than embarking on meaningful social action that could lead to radically new ways of living. Challenging the forces that lead to this individualization would require different frameworks of thinking and talking and the author suggests one by way of illustration. (Note: this reading has been extracted from a longer paper where further analysis was included, including about what led to individualization of responsibility in the United States.)

§ 'But now,' says the Once-ler, 'now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. SO ... catch'.' calls the Once-ler. He lets something fall. 'It's a Truffula seed. It's the last one of all'. You're in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds. And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs. Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.' (Dr Seuss)2

Most people are eagerly groping for some medium, some way in which they can bridge the gap between their morals and their practices. (Saul Alinsky)3

One of the most successful modern-day children's stories is The Lorax, Dr Seuss's tale of a shortsighted and voracious industrialist who clear-cuts vast tracks of Truffula trees to produce 'Thneeds' for unquenchable consumer markets. The Lorax, who 'speaks for the trees' and the many animals who make the Truffula forest their home, politely but persistently challenges the industrialist, a Mr Once-ler, by pointing out again and again the terrible toll his business practices are taking on the natural landscape. The Once-ler remains largely deaf to the Lorax's protestations. 'I'm just meeting consumer demand,' says the Once-ler; 'if I didn't, someone else would.' When, finally, the last Truffula tree is cut and the landscape is reduced to rubble, the Once-ler - now out of business and apparently penniless - realizes the error of his ways. Years later, holed up in the ruins of his factory amidst a desolate landscape, he recounts his foolishness to a passing boy and charges him with replanting the forest.

The Lorax is fabulously popular. Most of the college students with whom I work - and not just the ones who think of themselves as environmentalists - know it well and speak of it fondly. My children read it in school. There is a 30-minute animated version of the book, which often finds its way onto television. The tale has become a beloved organizing touchstone for environmentalists. In years past, for example, the EcoHouse on my campus has aired it as part of its Earth Day observations, as did the local television station. A casual search through the standard library databases reveals over 80 essays or articles in the past decade that bear upon or draw from the book. A more determined search of popular newspapers and magazines would no doubt reveal additional examples of shared affection for the story.

All this for a tale that is, well, both dismal and depressing. The Once-ler is a stereotypical rapacious businessman. He succeeds in enriching himself by laying ruin to the landscape. The Lorax fails miserably in his efforts to challenge the interlocking processes of industrial capitalism and consumerism that turn his Eden into a wasteland. The animals of the story are forced to flee to uncertain futures. At the end of the day the Lorax's only satisfaction is the privilege of being able to say 'I told you so,' but this - and the Once-ler's slide into poverty - has got to be small consolation. The conclusion sees a small boy with no evident training in forestry or community organizing unpromisingly entrusted with the last seed of a critical species. He's told to 'Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.' His chances of success are by no means high.

So why the amazing popularity of The Lorax? Why do so many find it to be 'the environmental book for children' - and, seemingly, for grown-ups too - 'by which all others must be judged?'4 One reason is its overarching message of environmental stewardship and faith in the restorative a powers of the young. The book recounts a foolish tragedy that can be ^ reversed only by a new and, one hopes, more enlightened generation. n Surely another reason is the comfortable way in which the book - which 5' adults can easily trivialize as children's literature - permits us to look s

¡0 squarely at a set of profoundly uncomfortable dynamics we know to be operating but find difficult to confront: consumerism, the concentra-H tion of economic power, the mindless degradation of the environment, '<2 the seeming inability of science (represented by the fact-spouting Lorax ¡^ himself) and objective fact to slow the damage. The systematic undermin-¡2 ing of environmental systems fundamental to human well-being is scary £ stuff, though no more so than one's own sense of personal impotence v in the face of such destruction. Seuss's clever rhyming schemes and engaging illustrations, wrapped around the 20th-century tale of economic u

-o expansion and environmental degradation, provide safe passage through o a topic we know is out there but would rather avoid.

There's another reason, though, why the book is so loved. By ending •¡5 with the charge to plant a tree, The Lorax both echoes and amplifies "g an increasingly dominant, largely American response to the contemporary environmental crisis. This response half-consciously understands environmental degradation as the product of individual shortcomings (the Once-ler's greed, for example), best countered by action that is staunchly individual and typically consumer-based (buy a tree and plant it!) It embraces the notion that knotty issues of consumption, consumerism, power and responsibility can be resolved neatly and cleanly through enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice. Education is a critical ingredient in this view - smart consumers will make choices, it's thought, with the larger public good in mind. Accordingly, this dominant response emphasizes (like the Lorax himself) the need to speak politely, and individually, armed only with facts.

For the lack of a better term, call this response the individualization of responsibility. When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society - to, in other words, 'think institutionally.'5 Instead, the serious work of confronting the threatening socio-environmental processes that The Lorax so ably illuminates falls to individuals, acting alone, usually as consumers. We are individualizing responsibility when we agonize over the 'paper or plastic' choice at the checkout counter, knowing somehow that neither is right given larger institutions and social structures. We think aloud with the neighbor over the back fence about whether we should buy the new Honda or Toyota hybrid-engine automobile now or wait a few years until they work the kinks out, when really what we wish for is clean, efficient, and effective public transportation of the sort we read about in science fiction novels when we were young - but which we can't vote for with our consumer dollars since, for reasons rooted in power and politics, it's not for sale. So we ponder the 'energy stickers' on the ultra-efficient appliances at Sears, we diligently compost our kitchen waste, we try to ignore the high initial cost and buy a few compact-fluorescent lightbulbs. We read spirited reports in the New York Times Magazine on the pros and cons of recycling while sipping our coffee,6 study carefully the merits of this and that environmental group so as to properly decide upon the destination of our small annual donation, and meticulously sort our recyclables. And now an increasing number of us are confronted by opportunistic green-power providers who urge us to 'save the planet' by buying their 'green electricity' - while doing little to actually increase the quantity of electricity generated from renewable resources.

The Lorax is not why the individualization of responsibility dominates the contours of contemporary American environmentalism. Several forces, described later in this article, are to blame. They include the historical baggage of mainstream environmentalism, the core tenets of liberalism, the dynamic ability of capitalism to commodify dissent, and the relatively recent rise of global environmental threats to human prosperity. Seuss's book simply has been swept up by these forces and adopted by them. Seuss himself would probably be surprised by the near deification of his little book; and his central character, a Lorax who politely sought to hold a corporate CEO accountable, surely would be appalled that his story is being used to justify individual acts of planting trees as the primary response to the threat of global climate change.7

Mark Dowie, a journalist and sometimes historian of the American environmental movement, writes about our 'environmental imagination,' by which he means our collective ability to imagine and pursue a variety of productive responses (from individual action to community organization to whole-scale institutional change) to the environmental problems before us.8 My claim in this is that an accelerating individualization of responsibility in the United States is narrowing, in dangerous ways, our 'environmental imagination' and undermining our capacity to react effectively to environmental threats to human well-being. Those troubled by overconsumption, consumerism and commodification should not and cannot ignore this narrowing. Confronting the consumption problem demands, after all, the sort of institutional thinking that the C

individualization of responsibility patently undermines. It calls too for a

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