It’s time for enviros to adjust to winning
I had hoped to leave my ill-tempered rant behind, since the subject obviously irritates the hell out of me, my irritation obviously irritates the hell out of everyone else, and as was pointed out, the whole subject is something of a distraction.
But as I’m now being compared to (called?) a rapist, I suppose I should chime back in.
First, my writing must have been opaque, since interpretations ran all over the place, mostly wrong. It was not my intention to defend carbon sequestration through tree planting, or big houses, or what have you, from the charges leveled against them. Nor was it my intention to defend techno-optimism generally (though Bart’s distinction is something I think about quite a bit and plan to write more on). Nor was it my intention to use my vast expressive liberties and mighty position as moderator to crypto-fascistically crush all dissent from the Dave Party Line (you’re welcome to envision me rolling my eyes here).
My intent was simply to express my frustration at certain habits of thinking among environmentalists. I will note that multiple green bloggers emailed me to express their sympathy, so I know I’m not alone in this.
First, let me be clear that I love my tribe — the entire crazy-quilt melange of constituencies, attitudes, and personalities. I spend a lot of time out in the world defending us dirty hippies. Any mockery from me I consider a family squabble, and yes, I come from a family where loving-but-exasperated mockery is the coin of the realm. It appears others are somewhat more sensitive to it, so I apologize for any bruised feelings. Now, the the matter at hand.
For a long time, environmentalism has been something of an insular, marginalized subculture — think of the green movement as the chess club of the big U.S. high school. This has inculcated two negative habits of thinking.
First, many greens seem primarily interested in protecting our little circle of virtue — as Randy put it, getting to heaven rather than changing things. This means that when the jocks and cool kids come around trying their hand at chess, they get savaged by defensive eco-geeks protecting turf. Interlopers are branded as fakers or ignoramuses. Only we know how to behave sustainably, and everyone who takes steps in our direction is greenwashing or posturing or missing the point or being superficial or flailing around uselessly.
There’s more than a tinge of resentment to it: "look, we have our thing. You cool kids have ignored and insulted us all this time, you can’t just waltz over now and adopt our thing."
Second, greens have become far too accustomed to thinking like a marginalized subculture — like, if you’ll forgive me, losers. We’re used to shouting from the sidelines, to having our warnings fall on deaf ears, to always being last on the average person’s checklist of concerns.
But look around: everybody’s listening. Everybody’s trying to go green. We won. They’re convinced. It’s time to make the mental adjustment and start behaving like gracious winners rather than resentful losers. That means welcoming and encouraging people’s efforts, working with them respectfully, without condescension or suspicion, to find more effective ways to continue down the path of sustainability. We’ve got to stop assuming, at the outset, that everyone’s faking it for the cameras. Nobody’s trying to give us a wedgie.
Consider, if you will, whether our first response to the news that the Super Bowl is offsetting its carbon emissions should be that the tree-planting portion of the offsets will not have the advertised carbon sequestration effects. Is that really the most significant thing about this announcement from an iconic institution of mainstream American macho bravado?
I would submit that it is not. I would submit that it pales in significance next to the simple fact that this paragon example of Americana is exposing tens of millions of people for the very first time to the notion that it’s worthwhile to consider one’s carbon emissions. Most people have only the faintest idea what carbon emissions even are, or why they’re worth paying attention to. Now some of them, possibly millions, will know. I would submit that this is an unambiguously good thing, even if scientific investigation later reveals that the Super Bowl didn’t actually reduce emissions one micron.
So too with the debut of stylish, modern, ultra-low-impact modular housing. Upscale professionals will now be offered a choice wherein the most financially and aesthetically attractive house (of appropriate size and style) is also the greenest. Cultural creatives — the most influential bloc of culture — will come to realize that sustainability does not mean deprivation. In fact, it is aspirational. Should our first reaction be to discount this development because it does not also convince upscale professionals to live in small cottages? Isn’t that a rather high bar to set? Isn’t that a rather precious and stuffy basis on which to heap scorn on the entrepreneurial pioneers working to create these houses?
Not everything’s about measurable, tangible effects. Nor does everything need to be judged against the green ideal. The most important thing for greens to keep in mind is momentum. The ball’s starting to roll in our direction; we should get behind it and push. We should cheer every development like this, because it increases cultural momentum toward sustainability. Once the ball is rolling along, natural U.S. competitiveness will come into play and people will try to out-green one another. Gadgets and services will come along to serve that goal. More verifiable methods of offsetting will develop. Lighter footprint homes will develop. Momentum is the thing. It builds on itself.
Of course there is and always will be a place for informed analysis and critique. Society needs us now more than ever, ’cause we’ve been thinking about this stuff and hashing out the details for years. We can help.
But our tribe must unlock the circle, cast open the doors, put out the welcome mat. We must spread the message that everyone can be a little greener than they are now, and that every little bit of greener is worth celebrating. It’s fun and cool and interesting to get greener. It’s rewarding; it will be rewarded. We don’t want people peeking in the doors to be confronted by an array of dour, humorless, judgmental faces.
We’re all green now. We need to get used to it as much as everyone else.