Again with the Lazy Environmentalists

"Never has so little been asked of so many at such a critical moment."


Michael Maniates, a professor of environmental science and political science at Alleghany College, contributed a compelling op-ed to the Washington Post recently, "Going Green? Easy Doesn't Do it." Maniates basic point is captured both in the title of his essay and the quote I excerpted above. As related to the old industry-sponsored ad campaign, he's saying that Iron Eyes Cody isn't asking much of us.

He writes, ostensibly, to call attention to some recent books appealing to maintaining the status quo by suggesting we, American consumers, need to do very, very little to make a change. These include The Lazy Environmentalist, It's Easy Being Green, and The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Step at a Time. Each offers useful advice for things everyone should do--turning off lights, recycling, reducing shower time--and Maniates has no quarrel with the value of such things (nor do I). But the premise that doing the easiest, smallest, individualist things will resolve our larger social and environmental practices is misguided at best, quietly destructive at worst. My point of critique is directed not so much at the authors, who understand that they are offering solutions to real life issues in ways that are digestible and legible, but to the audiences who read or listen to them with self-satisfaction. Or worse, the politicians who find that they can promote themselves as being green savvy without having to change anything. (Okay, my point of critique is also directed at the authors, who pave the way for such interpretations.)

Recycling is in the same class of civic practice as voting: they are both necessary, but not sufficient. One should always recycle, and vote, and, while we're defining the class, be nice to neighbors, and bake cookies, and hold doors for those who can't. But Lazy Environmentalism proposes that these are sufficient, encouraging us to not be encouraged to live or think in different ways. Recycling won't solve our problems. In fact, it could make them worse. By promoting consumption practices and shifting the burden of environmental care from the producer (who made all that paper, and aluminum, and steel, and plastics 1-7) to the consumer (like Iron Eyes Cody, crying because you didn't pick up that can - note that the famous Crying Indian ads were sponsored by the Aluminum Industry; that, and the Crying Indian was an Italian American), recycling suggests that the responsibility is on the individual alone. Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. This is why it is like voting: because we have to do it, recycle and vote, but alone those aren't the answer.

Maniates's point is broader than he was given the space to address in the op-ed. The depth of his argument, though, is suggested in his characterization of our current, lazy solution sets as being born of and then further promoting "individualistic, consumer-centered actions." That context of individualism and consumer identity is thick and deep and difficult to disengage. It has been built over a few centuries through the intertwining of democratic and capitalist pursuits. It is embedded in American culture and in our political practices. It is not, that is, easy to remove. No wonder that most of my students consider their identities as citizens to be identities as consumers. To participate in the polis is to exercise a consumer option, the ultimate synthesis (let's hope it doesn't go farther) of democratic capitalism.

But when the problem is individualistic consumerism, the solution cannot be more individualistic consumerism. True, this point isn't new. (Among others, it is the premise for an excellent book, Confronting Consumption, co-edited by Thomas Princen, Ken Conca, and, yes, Michael Maniates. It is also the basis for a book by Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency, that I've referred to here before.) But it seems worth repeating and, in subsequent conversations, amplifying. It is part of the reason why I argue against nuclear energy (with these), since promoting more energy production is the kind of "technological tweaking on the margins" (quoting Maniates again) that perpetuates the practices that are causing the problems new energy sources are meant to address. It is, in the parlance of technology studies, another technical fix. It is also why I'm glad I found the op-ed clipping from the paper three weeks ago in my bookbag, crumpled, and not yet recycled, underneath a stack of folders.

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When persuasion, understanding, and change occur, is the process incremental or all-at-once?

For me that's a key underlying question. And in my experience, the answer has been, "yes". Neither approach is always optimum in every case, and each method suits some audiences some times.

It's also been my experience that each method should acknowledge the existence of the other. I interpret your frustration as a result of persuasion attempts that don't acknowledge the whole process or other methods. I share that frustration.

My own experience of being persuaded felt sudden, sweeping, and all-at-once. My experience in trying to persuade others has resulted in a mostly incremental approach. What worked for me doesn't seem to work as well for the people I encounter.

What have you found that works well to inspire folks to challenge the consumer culture in which they've always lived? Do you think there's a way to hook folks with "easy does it", and then keep them hooked to think about harder questions?

I can't say that I know tried-and-true techniques to effectively challenge consumer culture. What I generally talk about, though, rather than consumer culture, is the way of thinking that lies behind consumerist philosophy itself. (I too am a consumer, after all, and as much part of our consumer culture as the next person, so I can't go down this road as if one can either be in or out -- or easily so.)

To approach the larger problem of which consumer culture is the visible part--the ways of thinking that lie behind it -- I'm personally interested in finding out the historical contours that brought us here, so we can see the pivot points and the gaps where change has occurred and can again occur. Doing so serves pedagogical goals -- it helps students recognize that the material world they inhabit is of very recent invention, that things have not always been this way or did not have to turn out so. But doing so also serves my own conceptual interests -- what does it take, what has it taken, to perceive the things around us as things to be be bought or sold? How do we, how have we (I'm really leaning on the Royal We here) make things into saleable and tradeable items? It took a lot of work. I'd like to find out more about it.

The solution therefore must be to get rid of democracy and capitalism. Consumerism is a natural byproduct of the two, and one cannot exist without the other.

I'm not sure if your answer was facetious, BWV, but assuming it wasn't, it's difficult to understand your conclusion. The historical inquiry I allude to in my reply allows one to see that the "natural" answer you defer to holds no water.

Of course it was facetious. The POV strikes me as comically puritan, the equivalent of the Victorian temperance advocate - believing that they can actually change people through a combination of education and government fiat. If there are no solutions to environmental problems through consumerism then there are no solutions at all. There is no better representation of the cost of a good than its price and no better motivator of behavior. The only workable solution is to price unsustainable practices out of the marketplace

Your fundamental point is on the mark. The global economic and environmental challenges we face predetermine that either total population or per capita primary energy consumption must decline in the future. Our remarkable success in promoting substitution technologies will not be sufficient this time. Looked at from a biospheric perspective, our current efforts favoring substitution over constraining consumption for conventional hydrocarbons clearly rob Peter to pay Paul. What we will eventually realize is that achieving true sustainability requires massive redirection of our cultural priorities and activities -- in all spheres. Of course, this is hard to accept, and it is uncertain whether this can happen through a process of creative, positive, and peaceful democratic choice (I hope so, but I'm doubtful), or will be forced upon us through shortages, higher prices, social crises leading eventually to some sort of violent revolution.

What beliefs do we maintain that allow prices and markets to function?

I found that when I stopped expending so much of my time and energy propping up the fragile, high-maintenance belief system that underlies The Economy, I gained a lot more time and energy to begin to understand the subtler mechanisms of the culture around me.



Thanks for taking note of my Op-Ed piece, which first ran in the Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day under the title of "Going Green? Easy Doesn't Do It." The original copy can be found on the Washington Post website, or by going to

I was deluged with reactions to the piece, most of the "we want to do more than 'easy' but aren't sure what" variety. In other words, the dominant reaction to the piece was quite at odds with the sentiment that folks don't care or aren't paying attention. The best polling and focus group information of which I'm aware indicates that people ARE looking to make a difference - at least enough people that matter - and that they are doing the "easy" things.

I agree with the comment above that we ought not look for a silver bullet, or pit "easy" and individualistic action against more collective efforts to transform the systems in which we live. The more I learn about this issue, though, the more skeptical I become of the hope -- which has been my hope for some time -- that getting people to do the simple and easy stuff can be an effective springboard to more ambitious action.

I don't believe that it's working out that way, principally because the simple and easy stuff carries with it a theory of social change -- "we've got to get everyone on board with this" -- that's fundamentally at odds with how we know social change actually occurs. In ways that I'm writing about now, the simple stuff ultimately becomes disempowering because it lies about how we go about working in common for the common good. Keep an eye on for more.

Thanks for the compliment of mentioning my piece.

Michael Maniates

i like to think of this from the perspective of population biology, rather than political theories (democracy) or economic analysis (elements of late capitalism). [although, of course, the metaphors mix themselves up pretty quickly once you get going].

what Royal We need to do is make the sustainable options the fashionable ones, fashionable for the elements within the species which select for mates, and thusly for traits. yes, that leaves our species hanging on the whims of young women. if 6,000 sq. ft. McMansions became, in their eyes, the equivalent of HuskyPants, while yurt-living plastiphobia overtook RockStardom as the preferred lifestyle choice, we'd be on the right track. easy.

but then we're right back at the level of marketing and persuasion, and all that cultural inertia (and the pesky reality that nothing seems to stay fashionable for more than half-a-generation). and we'd probably have to 'text' them all to get the marketing right, so we'd need a planet-wide telecommunication network, which would require, oh, some corporate Heft to get things moving, and...there we go again, pushing the buttons driving increased consumption.

if it's any comfort, at least the fates of several other species hang on the same trait-selection whimsy. so we'll perhaps make an interesting note in the study of vanished species someday...