A few years back Peter Montague, editor of the internet-distributed Rachel's Environmental and Health Weekly, took the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to task for its annual calendar, which this powerful and effective organization widely distributes to its more than 300,000 members and many non-members too. What drew Montague's ire was the final page of EDF's 1996 calendar, which details a 10-point program to 'save the Earth' (EDF's phrase):
1 Visit and help support our national parks;
2 Recycle newspapers, glass, plastic and aluminum;
3 Conserve energy and use energy-efficient lighting;
4 Keep tires properly inflated to improve gas mileage and extend tire life;
5 Plant trees;
6 Organize a Christmas tree recycling program in your community;
7 Find an alternative to chemical pesticides for your lawn;
8 Purchase only those brands of tuna marked 'dolphin-safe';
9 Organize a community group to clean up a local stream, highway, park, or beach; and
10 Become a member of EDF.
Montague's reaction was terse and pointed:
What I notice here is the complete absence of any ideas commensurate with the size and nature of the problems faced by the world's environment. I'm not against recycling Christmas trees - if you MUST have one - but who can believe that recycling Christmas trees - or supporting EDF as it works overtime to amend and re-amend the Clean Air Act - is part of any serious effort to 'save the Earth'? I am forced to conclude once again that the mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has run out of ideas and has no worthy vision.9
Shortly after reading Montague's disturbing and, for me, surprising rejection of 10 very sensible measures to protect the environment, I walked into an introductory course on environmental problems that I often team-teach with colleagues in the environmental science department. The course challenges students to consider not only the physical cause-and-effect relationships that manifest themselves as environmental degradation, but also to think critically about the struggles for power and influence that underlie most environmental problems. That day, near the end of a very productive semester, my colleague divided the class of about 45 students into smaller 'issue groups' (energy, water, agriculture, etc.) and asked each group to develop a rank-order list of 'responses' or 'solutions' to environmental threats specific to that issue. He then brought the class back together, had each group report, and tabulated their varied 'solutions.' From this group of 45, the fourth most recommended solution to mounting environmental degradation was to ride a bike rather than drive a car. Number three on the list was to recycle. The second most preferred action was 'plant a tree' and the top response was, again, 'plant a tree' (the mechanics of tabulating student preference across the issue groups permitted a singularly strong preference to occupy two slots).
When we asked our students - who were among the brightest and best prepared of the many with whom we'd worked over the years - why, after thirteen weeks of intensive study of environmental problems, they were so reluctant to consider as 'solutions' broader changes in policy and institutions, they shrugged. Sure, we remember studying these kinds of approaches in class, they said, but such measures were, well, fuzzy, mysterious, messy, and 'idealistic.' [...]
In our struggle to bridge the gap between our morals and our practices, we stay busy - but busy doing that with which we're most familiar and comfortable: consuming our way (we hope) to a better America and a better world. When confronted by environmental ills - ills many confess to caring deeply about - Americans seem capable of understanding i themselves only as consumers who must buy 'environmentally sound' a products (and then recycle them), rather than as citizens who might come 1 together and develop political muscle sufficient to alter institutional a arrangements that drive a pervasive consumerism.10 The relentless abil- 5' ity of contemporary capitalism to commodify dissent and sell it back s
¡0 to dissenters is surely one explanation for the elevation of consumer over citizen.11 But another factor, no doubt, is the growing suspicion of H and unfamiliarity with processes of citizen-based political action among '<2 masses of North Americans. The interplay of State and Market after ¡^ World War II has whittled the obligations of citizenship down to the ¡2 singular and highly individualized act of voting in important elections. £ The increasing fragmentation and mobility of everyday life undermines v our sense of neighborhood and community, separating us from the small arenas in which we might practice and refine our abilities as citizens.
-o We build shopping malls but let community playgrounds deteriorate and o migrate to sales but ignore school-board meetings. Modern-day advances § in entertainment and communication increasingly find us sitting alone •¡5 in front of a screen, making it all seem fine. We do our political bit in "g the election booth, then get back to 'normal.'12
Given our deepening alienation from traditional understandings of active citizenship, together with the growing allure of consumption-as-social-action, it's little wonder that at a time when our capacity to imagine an array of ways to build a just and ecologically resilient future must expand, it is in fact narrowing. At a moment when we should be vigorously exploring multiple paths to sustainability, we are obsessing over the cobblestones of but one path. This collective obsessing over an array of 'green consumption' choices and opportunities to recycle is noisy and vigorous, and thus comes to resemble the foundations of meaningful social action. But it isn't, not in any real and lasting way that might alter institutional arrangements and make possible radically new ways of living that seem required.
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