Young, Green and Consumerist

From occasional partner-in-crime Keith Farnish (and author of _Times Up_) comes a scathing but accurate indictment of superficial youth environmentalism.

(our heroine in her pricey electric car, cruising the streets of Beverly Hills)

Farnish writes:

I have met some incredible young people with vision, passion and the willingness to stick two fingers up at the system in order to create some kind of change. I have learnt from some young people what it feels like to be a concerned person in a society that values shopping, celebrity and vacations above the fundamental need to have a functioning ecosystem. I have seen young people cry - including my own children - at the thought that certain types of humans are capable of such horrific acts in the pursuit of wealth and status. Oh, that I had such knowledge at such an early age - what could I have done by now?

Well, if I had been Ally Maize, I could have got to meet Miley Cyrus, Renee Zellweger and that prime example of eco-conscious thinking, Paris Hilton. I could also, as per the above introduction to GYM, have become utterly deluded that small, superficial actions create big change; adopted the lie that politicians have any part to play in a sustainable future; in order to alienate part of my audience entirely, I would have referred to "teens" as "young children"; and finally, I would have got my parents to by me an electric car for when I passed my driving test - well, she does live in Beverly Hills...

The easy answer to this is that she could be a teenager like any other, and what she's doing is at least better than that. But I'm not so sure that's an answer. There are too many serious environmental youth leaders all over the world who do real things to valorize someone who implies that we don't have to make deep changes in our consumer culture.

Besides, as Farnish observes:

Some might say I'm being harsh on a 17 year old, but then not all 17 year olds have their Mom and Dad to buy them an electric car with custom plates, employ a huge "Board of Advisors" or pay for a PR company which doesn't even bother to check the nature of the people to which they send out press releases.

It is a tough balancing act to model a real and decent life - it is easy to mock celebrities, but so much of our culture is celebrity culture that we need public figures to make a stand. At the same time, we need to be really careful about the kind of messages we're sending - because the more we tell kids that they can have everything they want, and nothing really has to change, the angrier they are going to be when it does anyway.



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To be fair, you aren't advertising with the budget of an electric car company, so your message of change isn't shared among the electoni-centric culture of the next generation.

You would have to be producing the (rebellious?) new music, or a movie as compelling as IronMan or Twilight to reach as wide an appeal as the news, the government, car dealers, and manufacturers have penetrated the youth market.

I mean, have you actually directed a message to parents to get their teen a garden (I love the "Square Foot Garden" book you recommended) instead of a car, for graduation? Have you told parents that instead of flying the family in for a wedding, they could a video of the event would be uploaded to the family web site?

Honestly, have you shared with the mass-media public the difference in character growth, between buying the family a Wii or a broadfork?

I observed years ago that the Christian adoration of the "pure" faith of the child has less to do with the message, than the absence of contradictory or complicated information. Sure, the teen things she is doing green because she is told: 1) Green is good - her teachers, her school agenda tell her so; 2) electric cars (that the electricity keeps coal-fired power plants on line) are "green" - never mind the tremendous expenditure of manufacturing another vehicle, producing the batteries (and eventually disposing of spent batteries), or transporting the vehicle to her dealer (on electric trucks!?!?); and 3) Buying vehicles on credit supports the local economy (President Obama just really, really wants you buying his GM and Chrysler cars, or he might not have a really impressive retirement nest egg, and the unions might get mad[der] at him). If that is the only story she is told, that buying a green car (since only "other" people ride buses or share rides) is the green thing to do - how in the world is she to realize that she is merely shifting the problem, and not solving anything?

I wouldn't expect her to get any other message, given the union influence in federal, state, and local governments, and how little coverage gardens, composting, and preparing to live after the economic decline rolls its way to prominence in our lives.

When criticizing her green-ness, you did mention her Beverly Hills status. The implication of class bigotry was pretty subtle, but plays an important role in her perception of "green". I doubt she chooses to mow her parents' lawn with a reel-type, non-motorized lawn mower, or walk anywhere within a mile and a half.

yeah... it's one thing to accept that teens will, by their very nature, have somewhat simplified views of the world (there's only so much information a teen would have had time to absorb and learn and understand, and only so much real-life experience); but it's patronizing and irresponsible to pat them on the head "for trying", when what they're doing is useless and counterproductive like that, because they're young.

Light green environmentalism frames itself as a "trendy lifestyle choice", not a stoic matter of life and death for the planet. "Saving the planet" is merely a weak slogan, not something to ruin the carefree buzz of business as usual.

There is a lot of that in my town. The green group in my town actually earned a state EPA award for an oh-so-ambitious 10% energy consumption reduction challenge. That gives you an idea how low the bar is being set by mainstream environmental groups, and how ineffectual it will be in the mounting challenge before us.

There is a lot of that in my town.

*sigh* I wish we had even that much; in my town, global warming doesn't exist, and resources are never going to run out. And every farmer has a god-given right to a brand-new one-ton pickup truck.

My favorite thing is that the ad at the top of the page while I was reading this post was for Fingerhut. Purveyors of plastic crap nobody needs. I love irony.

wow, I usually find your posts both informative and enlightened, but I gotta call a halt here. Is the bar being set kinda low? Yeah sure, but talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good! Here you have teens who want to use small, electric cars and you are mocking them? Jeez, at least they want to make a change! Don't we understand that when someone takes a step in the right direction, no matter how small, that step needs to be praised and encouraged? Ask any dog trainer! The dog doesn't learn to walk a tightwire in one fell swoop - first he learns one small step, then another. You can argue that that is too slow, and you are most likely right. But unless you want to abandon voluntary action for coercion, you have to accept small steps.

I am willing, by the way, to talk about coercive steps.


Her foundation is an asset shelter created to hide money stolen from Lehman and Federal insurers. Her daddy the "philanthropist" is looking at 98 years in federal prison for fraud.

Child activism is always creepy, always cosmetic and always wrong no matter how you may feel about the cause.

It takes a couple of decades to reach the point where you are advancing your own developed positions. Until then you can't be anything other than a parrot or an iconoclast.

The same is true in art and music (even true of Mozart).....sorry kids.

Now go out and play while you still can.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 15 May 2010 #permalink

I don't think either Sharon or Keith (I read the full post) were being too hard on Ally and GYM. As both point out, there are so many teens, and younger and older folks, who are doing the right thing (and not getting notice for it) that we can, and need to, point out the problems with what Ally and GYM are suggesting.

Keith's post reproduces some of GYM's suggestions for living green. As is often the case in lists like this, there are useful actions buried among the useless. That's part of what makes it difficult to critique: it takes more time to pick apart the list and explain what's wrong with it than it did for GYM to produce and distribute it.

Those of you who haven't read Keith's book Time's Up, BTW, it's well worth reading. You don't even have to buy it; you can download it from his blog (though I think the paper version has merit as you don't need electricity to read it).

Easy target, lazy journalism.

I completely agree about what you're saying, but I don't think it's really linked to young people any more than people of any other age. I've met scads of "eco-conscious" adults of all ages who think they're doing their part by buying a Prius and the organic veggies in the grocery store from California. Brad was spot on when he talked about advertising --- it's really, really hard to advertise simple living because no one spends money on it and in many ways it's simply an absence of excess.

Actually, I think Anna nailed it: " it's really, really hard to advertise simple living because no one spends money on it". Or can make obscene wages and profits off of it.

If we all went back to the simple, localized lifestyle advocated at this blog, our current economy - national and global - would collapse, we would be in the mother of all depressions, millions of people would lose their jobs: we wouldn't needs the scads of truckers to carry (organic) produce from California to Wisconsin or N. Jersey, we wouldn't need the Deep Horizon rigs in the Gulf, many, many people in advertising and marketing would lose their jobs, commercial ocean shippers would find their business vanished, and millions upon millions of Chinese would lose their jobs as we stopped importing consumer goods from China. All of which I rather think would be a good thing.

But you can't make big fat profits and bonuses off of simplicity, you can't sustain millions of professional, bureaucratic, and management or especially financial jobs off of simplicity. Sounds like my kind of world.

DennisP: "If we all went back to the simple, localized lifestyle advocated at this blog, our current economy - national and global - would collapse, we would be in the mother of all depressions"

I think the general view here is the inverse of your statement. Our current economies ARE collapsing, and will collapse much further. That may well enforce simplicity, as perhaps the only way to actually survive it all.

Well, that pretty much got the range of reactions that I expected ;-).

Aimee, the problem isn't the kid herself - if it were a solo enterprise, kid initiated, it wouldn't be that big a deal, but it is something being run by a bunch of grownups, for teens, and it is, I think a little creepy, even if Prometheus's comment about her Dad isn't true (I have no idea).


It is, btw, perfectly true that there are plenty of adults whose version of environmentalism is consumerist. But if radicalism doesn't come from youth, it probably won't come from anywhere - or at least it won't be listened to, because let's be honest, neither Gen X Moms like me nor baby boomers are driving the culture anymore.

Moreover, what frustrates me is that people like her are seen as the face of young environmentalism. I'm going to run a series coming up on real young environmentalists, but I do think it worth calling bullshit where bullshit is and am glad Keith did it.