I was somewhat dismayed to hear that environmentalism can only save itself by explicitly becoming "selfish" and "cool." (Or is there a difference?)
I was even more dismayed to find that Grist is, apparently, the house organ for this line of thinking:
[Chip] Giller used to be a down-in-the-mouth environmental ninny, spouting off to anyone within shouting distance his end-is-nigh enviro-rhetoric. But in recent years, Giller has changed his tack and now runs Grist.org, a newish nonprofit environmental blog and online community whose motto is "Gloom and doom with a sense of humor." Grist receives about 650,000 unique hits a month and is part of a new wave of green groups that aim to stress the cost-effectiveness of environmentalism and portray it as engaging, irreverent and cool.
Appealing to self-interest in the name of environmentalism may seem off-putting – the equivalent of paying volunteers for community service, or giving cash rewards to children for visiting their grandparents. Shouldn’t we want to do good? Giller believes that may not provide enough incentive.
"Fundamentally, we live in a consumer society, and at a base level, the environmental movement needs to appeal to that," he said. "I think it’s wonderful to do things for altruistic purposes, but America is a capitalist society, and those values echo down from corporations to individuals. We want to make it more fashionable and socially acceptable to drive a Prius than own an SUV."
Hm. Well, at risk of being excommunicated for diverging from the party line, I’m not sure I really buy this.
Certainly it’s worth pointing out that eco-friendly products and services can save money. And sure, it’s smart to try to tweak social attitudes to make green "cool." But larger issues loom under the surface unexamined.
I’m trying not to write such long-ass posts, so I’ll struggle to be brief.
The main question here is: what is self-interest? It would be hard to find a concept more freighted with social baggage.
In our consumer culture, many, many entities need you to think your self-interest is best served by freeing yourself of any hardship or inconvenience. Why use a brush when you can handi-wipe? Why deal with all the strange, dirty people when you can live in a gated enclave? Why cook when you can order in? And so on.
But it’s a grossly narrow and distorted conception of what our true interests are. Furthermore, it works actively against a whole array of progressive causes, from poverty and inequality to environmental health.
One of the things progressives need to do is contest this understanding of self-interest. We need to remind people that a good life includes healthy social ties, free time, good food, honest labor, commitment to something larger than yourself. Freeing yourself from all hardship won’t make you a good person or a happy person.
That’s the central obstacle. I have no objection to short-term tactical considerations, appealing to people’s base interests. But we should never stop trying to convince people that they’ve been lied to about what they are and what they can be. The ties of place and family and community are not annoyances to be escaped when finances permit. They are the very stuff of being human.
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