I wrote this a few years ago for Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, and frankly, I haven’t changed my mind.
I bloody hate Earth Day. No offense to those of you who love it, and I know there are some awesome Earth Day programs out there, but by the time we get there, I’m spending my days hiding under the covers, because every freakin’ time I open my email inbox a wave of the most nauseating spew of greenwashing comes flowing out.
Guess what? A major department store chain, nearly in bankruptcy, is now selling the eco-tote, made from organic sheepskin, embossed with “Think Global, Act Local” to show your care for the earth and indifference to grammar. And not to trouble me, but just so you know, the manufacturers of a disgusting sugar laden soft-drink have a new organic one, in a special collectible earth-day bottle. Don’t forget to follow the adventures of Eddie, who is marching nude across the Alaskan wilderness (except for his high priced hiking boots, oh, and the camera crew is clothed, as are the drivers of the six suport jeeps that follow him at 3 mph for the whole way) to raise awareness of Caribou migration Here’s a new website that helps affluent consumers buy carbon offsets so they don’t have to give a shit about their flights to Cancun wants to let me have an interview with their CEO. And don’t forget the chance to meet the manufacturer of a new, even bigger hybrid SUV that gets …woah…23 mpg!
This happens every year, but of course, for the fortieth anniversary of earth day, the bullshit levels reach new heights. My favorite new innovation is that now the press-releases actually acknowledge the problem of greenwashing, implying that you can’t trust those other manufacturers of pointless bullshit, but you definitely, really and truly, can trust someone who a. knows the word “greenwashing” and b. cares enough to add your email to a mailing list of 70,000 people.
I find myself frustrated by the way that words like “organic” and “local” and “sustainable” are used by these companies. I know that most of them have only the lightest relationship to environmentalism, and many of them have given money to politicians and institutions that have tried to delay or stymie global warming legislation. Moreover, the culture of buying new, high status clothing every season, or driving around in slightly more fuel efficient cars simply can’t get you where we need to go in the relevant time. Utlimately, their products are part of the problem. Moreover, track back the histories of many green products and you find they aren’t really green. Consider bamboo fiber, touted as a replacement for cotton – the process used to soften and process it is incredibly polluting and toxic. Or look at “biodegradable” diapers and plastic bags – manufactured from corn grown in China with heavy doses of nitrogen fertilizer. There’s nothing sustainable about this. Or organic food grown by enormous companies who use more fossil fuels and treat their farm workers badly.
Colin Beavan, aka “No Impact Man” used to say that environmentalism has to become as easy as rolling off a log to get most people invested, and there’s some real truth there. The problem, of course, is that it can’t be. It isn’t easy to figure out what the right choice is – and there isn’t a universal right choice. Should you eat meat? Well no one should eat feedlot meat. But what about a small amount of local and grassfed? Well, it depends on where you live – is your soil mostly tillable? Is there enough water to feed cattle? Do you live on a prairie that needs grazing animals, or on the side of a mountain where you can’t grow wheat? Do you live in a city where you could raise poultry or rabbits on food waste that would otherwise be producing methane in landfills? Even if the answer is yes doesn’t mean unrestricted or infinite numbers of cows – grazing populations have to take water availability and a whole host of other things into consideration. But it does mean that there’s not one answer.
And when there is one answer, when it isn’t complicated, the answer doesn’t usually involve buying anything. It involves using a lot less of that thing – cutting the amount of shampoo you use in half, and then half again and seeing just how little you can use and still have passably clean hair. It involves thrift shops and mending and creative reuse – and hard work and thought about whether you really need something.
The thing is, it is possible to engage people with these more complex strategies. Historian Timothy Breen argues that these “rituals of non-consumption” emerge in difficult times to replace the satisfaction people gets from consumption. But they are communal, collective, and they involve conversations and practices that replace, rather than just eliminate. It isn’t enough to say “stop shopping” – instead you have to give someone something as satisfying as shopping to do, and a community to do it within. When Miranda Edel and I founded the Riot for Austerity, we found that this was the esssential element – that we could get people to cut their usage by 70, 80 and 90% over the average American – and without major political interventions or buying that 20,000 dollar solar system. But what was needed was the fun of the participatory exercise of reducing one’s usage. What was needed was a good story about how we were all part of something.
And that’s why I’m a skeptic about Earth Day and Earth Hour and anything that has you be green for a weekend or a day or an hour. Yes, I’m the original poster girl for “your personal choice makes an impact” – but not one day a year. And yes, teaching kids about the basics of environmentalism is awesome, and having festivals is good. But the truth is that I don’t see it sticking.
I see Earth Day as the new Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, a Hallmark holiday for us to give lip service to the environment. There are contrary forces, good in the mix – but then there are good things in the mix of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Valentines as well. But the reality of Mother’s Day doesn’t seem to be that it inspires us to be more respectful of the needs of mothers – what comes out of Mother’s Day isn’t more calls for breastfeeding stations and child friendly policies, but a “we told you we loved you last Sunday…aren’t we done yet?” The same is true of Valentines Day – there’s no compelling reason to believe that once a year special chocolates and sex really do all that much to lower the national divorce rate.
The problem of living in a culture whose dominant message is that consumption is all – that we are not citizens but consumers, is that we learn to think of ourselves as baby birds with our mouths open. Our job is to create markets, to buy the right things, to spend money. And how you spend your money definitely matters. But it matters in context with how you vote and act and live your life and demonstrate and speak and model a meaningful way of life. More is simply required of us that opening our beaks.
Isak Dineson famously said “All suffering is bearable if seen as part of a story.” The emptiness that people feel when they live a life primarily as consumers is no accident – the problem is that the story we’re engaged in isn’t very interesting. A story where your primary role is to create a market, to consume and come back for more is incredibly dull – try writing one someday. But the good news is that there really is a worthwhile story to be told – just not one to be told one day a year. It has all the best elements you can imagine – survival against odds and courage and journeys through difficult circumstances. It has heroes and acts of heroism and passion and drama. It is the story of our lives in the circumstances we find ourselves in – and it is no accident that despite the fact that bazillions of dollars are spent telling us we are just consumers, and that’s all the story we could ever need, people by the thousands and sometimes even millions are frustrated and looking for a better story. And it is here.
It is also no accident that corporations and others are attempting to transform the story of our future, of our journey to and through a difficult and remarkable transition as the story of just another shopping day.
Is it any wonder, if you live your life like a baby bird with your mouth open that what gets dropped into it every time is a worm? People will attempt to reshape your worm and convince you that it is extra yummy this time, but it is still a worm. And the story of consumers is still boring.
If you are going to get better than that, we’re going to have to participate, and go out and seek new sources and resources and options, we’re going to have to replace much of our consumption with rituals of non-consumption. We’re going to have to write a good and compelling story with our lives. The good news is that it is a lot more fun to be a citizen than a consumer, and rituals of non-consumption are just as satisfying as retail therapy. The good news is that there are better stories out there for the claiming and the living, and events are conspiring to keep our times interesting. The good news is that we can do better than worms.
(I then wrote a sequel to this post, after I annoyed a bunch of people. You can read the whole thing here)
The central message of most Earth Day celebrations is that if we all do a little, we’ll make the world a better place. But the fact is that that’s not true, and as much as we like to hear such a friendly, fuzzy message, we can’t make it factual just by wanting it to be true. The blunt reality is that unless we all do an awful lot, very fast, we’re facing disaster. We use the word “sustainable” casually, to mean “well, we can probably do a little more of this if we cut back a little now.” But we are facing a sustainability crisis in the deepest sense – if we don’t make massive changes and quite rapidly, our children’s future is in question – and the children of billions of people around the world.
The rhetoric of baby steps and we each have to do our tiny part masks the fact that only a massive collective effort can succeed. It is not accident that climate change and peak oil activists always invoke WWII – because we know it is possible to invest everyone in a vast international project, given sufficient motivation, but as long as even the folks on the side of the planet insist on using warm fuzzy rhetoric and not telling the hard truths, we’ll find ourselves bang up against people who say “even you don’t think this is a big deal, so why do it at all.”
Baby steps haven’t gotten us very far – our cloth bags and our CF bulbs haven’t done enough. It is time to admit that we can’t live the way we are for very much longer, and it is time to change the rhetoric. Now it is possible that Earth Day could, actually, result in that kind of changes – but so far, it hasn’t. It has pleasantly helped propagate the idea that because we’re not ready to deal with things as the laws of reality require, we don’t have to, that we can do only what we are comfortable with.
We do not like to acknowledge that we may not have the time, resources or leisure to do things in comfortable, pleasant ways. We do not like to acknowledge that if everyone on the planet can’t live like us, that means we have to change our lives, and soon – we like to think that the rest of the planet doesn’t really mind if we take more than our share. Well, they mind. We like to think that we can have what we want and be oblivious – that we can choose not to know what the real state of our planet is. But all these things are lies, and if you believe in the truth, it is better to know the truth and begin to go forward from reality than to live in the world of polite lies. That is just another kind of greenwashing.
I know, right now, you are thinking “geez, she’s depressing, she wants me to feel guilty.” But no, I don’t. I think guilt is an empty emotion, a weak emotion – “Oh, I shouldn’t eat this cookie..oops, I’m really bad because I ate the cookie, I really shouldn’t eat another one…” I have no truck with guilt, and frankly, no interest in it. I’m interested, instead, in action and what is possible, in the taking of responsibility, the acknowledgement of truth and the making of real change. So no, don’t feel guilty. Do things that matter.