Environmentalism will never succeed by relying on personal virtue
A post on "unnecessary driving" from Clark and a post on poverty and obesity patterns over on NEW’s blog both point to the same fact: The structure of our built environment largely determines our day-to-day habits. It’s hard to eliminate "unnecessary driving" if the store, school, and work are miles away through pedestrian-unfriendly highways. It’s hard to eat healthy when you’re surrounded by fast-food restaurants, the nearest supermarket is a long bus ride away, and local/organic food is nowhere to be found. Most people, particularly poor people, live in environments that make unhealthy and eco-unfriendly choices the path of least resistance.
There are very few built environments in the U.S. that make eco-friendly choices easy. You need to be relatively well-to-do and live near the core of one of a small number of transit-friendly, progressive cities.
So, it’s fine and dandy to ask people to push against the grain, to sacrifice and go out of their way, to make eco-friendly choices. There’s nothing wrong with pushing people to display personal virtue. But it sometimes seems to me that environmentalists are devoted almost entirely to this quixotic undertaking — indeed that "environmentalism" is sometimes taken as synonymous with personal virtue.
That’s bad. It gives an easy out to those at the local, state, and federal level who make public policy decisions. It reduces political matters to "personal responsibility."
Environmentalists ought to be devoted to reshaping public policy, in order to reshape our built environments, in order to make eco-friendly choices easy, so the health of the earth does not require most people on it to be virtuous, cause that’s never going to happen.
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