Last week, Elizabeth Kolbert, a respected New Yorker journalist who writes admirably about our climate catastrophe and the environment, wrote a scathing attack on my book, No Impact Man. Sadly, casualties on the battlefield of Kolbert’s wrath included not only me, but also the work of James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith (authors of 100 Mile Diet), Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden), and other writers who used their own experiments in alternative lifestyles as narrative vehicles to, hopefully, propel into the popular discourse vital cultural issues that transcend the particularities of their experiments.
MacKinnon and Smith wrote about their year of eating locally as a means of publicizing — and very successfully — the tremendous failings of our centralized, industrialized food system in delivering healthy food to people in a way the planet can sustain. Thoreau, of course, attempted to use his year in the woods to bring to our attention the diminishing adherence to any sort of transcendent human values as we veered into unmitigated materialism in the wake of the industrial revolution.
Kolbert dismisses these writers and others as something similar to renegade circus clowns who are distracting attention from the Big Top. She derides the use of the year-long-living “stunt” as a distraction from the important environmental and social issues at hand, which she presumably believes are discussed more effectively in her own works. And her work does, of course, have tremendous value.
Indeed, it is Kolbert’s deep concern for our planetary climate crises that I suspect — or at least I hope — is at the root of her bitterness. She wants attention focused squarely on the dimensions of the crisis and the necessity for swift and effective solutions. Her priorities are correct in this regard and I admire her for them.
Where Kolbert is deeply wrong, I’m afraid, is that she herself has become the cause of the major distraction of the moment. In her extremely powerful position as a top climate journalist, she wasted four pages in one of the nation’s most highly regarded magazines to attack my and my colleagues’ works as “stunts.” The ripple effect, in sections of the environmental blogosphere at least, has been a distraction from the important message delivered in my and the other writers’ works. Instead of a discussion of the merits of what we have to say, bloggers on both side of this meaningless debate discuss whether we have the right to say it.
This is neither to suggest that there should be no differences of opinion nor to seem ungrateful to those who have publicly defended my honor.
It is to say that ExxonMobil, the coal industry, and the thousands of their lobbyists slithering through halls of Congress with their campaign-contribution checkbooks rub their hands together with glee at this kind of infighting by people who should be on the same side. After all, by using four pages to attack her fellow environmental writers, Kolbert has four fewer pages to use to convince the public that there are serious dangers in continuing to burn fossil fuel and that we could have a better way of life without it.
Indeed, it is this — the possibility of real progress in this area — rather than Kolbert’s misguided emphasis that I want to address. Whether my book No Impact Man and the companion documentary of the same title are remembered as stories of a stunt or not is ultimately immaterial. Of course, as a writer and a person, it hurts to be trivialized, but the truth is that No Impact Man is both a stunt and not a stunt. My hope in living and writing about my year was to put myself in a crucible in which to examine important cultural issues surrounding our solutions to our environmental crises and the quality-of-life crisis that is so closely related to them. And yes, I hoped to popularize these important issues.
What issues do I mean? There are three.
First, is it a wrongheaded meme that suggests a culture that it aligns itself with the needs of its habitat will have to be less aspirational and somehow deprive itself? My answer, having lived the no-impact year, is a categorical yes. Taking the local-eating element of the project alone meant we were healthier because our food was fresh and real. And this was just one of the benefits my family experienced by living environmentally. Examining the possibility of environmental living on a cultural level, it makes sense to me that a renewable-energy industry established to align ourselves with the needs of our habitat will also create an economic boost that will provide jobs. I call this sort of synergy the “happier planet, happier people” principle.
Second, is there a place for individual and community-based action in the quest for a more sustainable culture — or must we depend upon and wait until government and industry do something through the pressure of collective action? The sad fact is that the level of change required cannot be created by government alone. Our climate crisis is so profound that we must not only change the way we transport ourselves and create energy, we must reduce how much we use as people. That means changing the way we live. This is not only my own conclusion but that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Third, is it just possible that, by encouraging people to change their lifestyles for their own benefit (by reducing their expenditures, say) and the benefit of the environment, we might also be creating an on-ramp for the masses into the politics of environmentalism? I answer with a pointed yes. People’s politics are informed by the way they live. A victim of drunk-driving is more likely to be an advocate for drunk-driving laws. A person who experiences the benefits of environmental living is more likely to advocate for climate change mitigation from either side of the political aisle.
No one will be surprised to hear that I believe most vehemently that I am right in these points. Indeed, I have started a nonprofit project intended to advance them: No Impact Project. Still, I could be wrong. I wish it were the rightness or the wrongness of these points that Kolbert had chosen to discuss. In doing so, she would have advanced a meaningful discussion rather than the silly stunt-vs.-not-stunt debate.
Kolbert’s mistaken approach is nonetheless instructive. It reminds us that those who care about these issues shouldn’t attack each other. We should respect each other’s differences while understanding that we all hope to advance the same agenda. That is the only way we can hope for change in the very little time we have to effect it.