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Jul. 21 2009 - 1:22 pm | 15 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Seriously, why bother?

WH Garden

Image by UrbanReviewSTL via Flickr

So over the weekend, the Secretary of State gets an ear-full from India’s environmental and forests minister, Jairam Ramesh, that goes something like this: one American consumes as much as twenty-five people living in India, and you are going to lecture me on carbon dioxide? Please.

Then today the Times reports that India has agreed to let U.S. companies build and profit from two nuclear power plants in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, but the U.S. companies won’t get started until India agrees to shield them from $450 million of liability in the event of nuclear meltdown.

Such hypocricies remind one how hard it is, as Americans, to talk about the climate crisis,when we are largely responsible for it. It can drive you to ask the question Michael Pollan posed in The New York Times Magazine, “Why bother?” Pollan asked it in terms of China’s population, not India’s, but it is the same question: Why grow a garden, and buy local, and stop eating beef when

I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelganger in Shanghai or Chongping who has just bought his first care (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for my troubles.

Derrick Jensen, in his column in the current issue of Orion magazine, offers this answer: nothing. Or next to nothing. Both Pollan and Jensen have problems with the consumer-oriented “solutions” offered at the end of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.Even if we did all that Gore asks, U.S. carbon emissions would only drop 22 percent, not the 80 percent that is needed to stave off real global problems. Jensen, who makes a kind of art out of the inflammatory, puts it this way:

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery…. Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions?”

The point is well-taken. If individual consumption accounts for only 25 percent of all U.S. energy consumption, then something else has to give. Namely, industry, commerce, agribusiness and the military. Personal changes, however virtuous, are not enough: we have to change the system.

I like Derrick Jensen. I like that the way he tells the choir, within the context of an environmental magazine, that they suck. Or that they need to change their tune, or at least sing with a little more passion.

 And he’s right that we need to think of citizenship as a much more active duty, a way of redefining democracy against the forces of industrial-capitalism. But personal change has to be a part of that. For one, if you buy less, and buy local, you are changing the market culture–shifting it away from petroleum-based fertilizers and transportation. You are also changing yourself at the most fundamental level–the level of conscience and character. No real environmental movement can sustain itself without that kind of change on the part of the individual.

What’s more, changes on the individual level are acts, however small, of self-reliance, of taking control of one’s life back from Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Agra.

Not only that, as Pollan writes in “Why Bother?”

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand.

But beyond all that, if you are someone who is calling for the end of, say, mountaintop removal strip mining, and you are doing nothing to reduce your own consumption of coal, why should anyone listen to you? You’re a goddamn hypocrite.  You have no moral high ground.

China and India have to see that not only the Obama family, with its White House vegetable garden, are advocating personal change, but that many, many more Americans are ready and willing to make fundamental changes to reduce the size of this country’s carbon footprint.




2 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    How’s giving up any form of summer-time air conditioning, as one step? Seriously — is that a valid, measurable individual step? I’ve never used AC in my home, going back to the mid-1990s, because I think it’s a waste. But I’ve never seen actual numbers, per individual, on how much carbon emission this might reduce.

  2. collapse expand

    If every single act — turning off a light bulb, using an efficient bulb, re-using shopping bags when we shop — gave us a specific and clear idea what the actual effect was, would that make it more compelling? We are so disconnected, ironically, from truly understanding how every small daily action we do (like using this computer’s electricity to write to you) carries a material and environmental cost that we might be able to mitigate or prevent.

    I agree we all have to act. But when you feel your one or two or even 23 actions make little to no difference, it’s tough(er) to do the right thing.

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    About Me

    Erik Reece is the author of LOST MOUNTAIN: A YEAR IN THE VANISHING WILDERNESS and AN AMERICAN GOSPEL: ON FAMILY, HISTORY AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD. He won Columbia University's John B. Oakes Award for distinguished environmental journalism, along with the Sierra Club's David R. Brower Award. He is a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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    Location:Lexington, KY