Friday, May 28, 2010

Scott Unnaturals

I saw a commercial today that epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the so-called environmentalism that’s become the norm in American society. It was a commercial for Scott Naturals, a brand of toilet paper that apparently contains 40% (non-post-consumer) recycled content (“just the right amount,” the commercial claims, as if there might be something wrong with 80 or 100%). As the folks at Scott tell it, buying this product is not only the environmentally responsible thing to do but a way for consumers to “take a greener step without sacrificing quality.” So instead of being pitched as a concession to certain insistent environmental realities, Scott Naturals are marketed via the traditional "win-win” rhetoric of consumer fantasy: by purchasing this ostensibly environmentally friendly alternative, we’re told, we can get everything we want plus the value (and virtue) of environmentally conscious behavior.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this sales pitch is antithetical to any real vision of environmental sustainability. Indeed, by furthering the ideology that got us into our current mess in the first place (“you can have it all!”), such a commercial more than cancels whatever miniscule environmental gain the product it sells might actually generate. For if consumers believe that all they need to do is make simple, insignificant changes in their daily routine to save the world, it is quite possible they will commit, in the long run, even greater excesses than they might otherwise. Many individuals, that is--individuals who don’t identify themselves as environmentalists but who still feel uneasy about their impact on the planet--might have been tempted to modify their behavior in fundamental ways: most obviously, by buying less. But that would be bad, very bad, for business as usual. The solution: take away their guilt, and keep these folks buying ever more and more. After all, they can believe they’re saving the planet while they drive their hybrid minivans to Wal-Mart for a shitload of Scott Naturals.

Such “green consumerism,” in short, represents no alternative to our current habits of environmental recklessness; quite the contrary, it’s a marketing coup that enables industry to maintain, indeed extend, its earth-killing practices and consumers to ignore how their own behavior upholds those practices. As Timothy Luke writes in his essay “Green Consumerism: Ecology and the Ruse of Recycling” (from his 1997 book Ecocritique), such faux-environmentalism actually forestalls the work it professes to achieve: “Instead of thinking about how to reconstitute the entire mode of modern production politically in one systematic transformation to meet ecological constraints,” green consumerism “bases its call for action on nonpolitical, nonsocial, noninstitutional solutions to environmental problems. . . . The absurd claim that average consumers only need to shop, bicycle, or garden their way to an ecological future merely moves most of the responsibility and much of the blame away from the institutional centers of power whose decisions actually maintain the wasteful, careless ways of material exchange” that are devastating our world. Luke likens such consumer behavior to the purchasing of “green indulgences”--a reference to the practice whereby the early Catholic Church sold “indulgences” or pardons from sin. In the case of that shameful strategy, what you were buying was a ticket to heaven; in the case of green consumerism, what you’re buying is escape from the reality of living on earth.

Yet green consumerism, for all its patent falsehood, is growing; in fact, it has become the dominant mass-cultural form of environmental “activism,” and it shows up not only in the obvious places (industry and marketing) but in supposedly more responsible venues, such as the community campaigns sponsored by mainstream environmental organizations and the list of “easy ways to reduce your CO2 footprint” that ends Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. (What’s the difference, after all, between Gore’s claim that you can green the planet by screwing in compact fluorescents and the tagline for another supposedly “green” product line, this one from Procter & Gamble: “When green is user-friendly, we can all be future-friendly”?) The popularity of this fraudulent message is unsurprising: it’s easy, painless, consistent with the ideology it falsely claims to replace, and utterly congenial to the status quo.

With the growing trend in green consumerism, it’s no wonder that few young people these days appreciate the fundamental contradiction between true environmentalism and consumer ideology. Though the youth I’ve observed, from my children’s grade-school peers to my own college students, talk a lot about recycling (almost never about reducing or reusing), the idea that conservation might be irreconcilable with “having it all” has never entered their minds. That they might need to do without their electronic gadgets, sweatshopped garments, and gas-guzzling cars is anathema to them; that the entire global society might need to be restructured in such a way that its highest priority was no longer the rape of the earth to produce such disposable junk would strike them as nonsense and sacrilege. So they choose instead to buy Scott Naturals, and in so doing to countenance and advance the destruction of the earth they claim to cherish.

True environmentalism isn’t “user-friendly.” It’s not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. In fact, it can be a real pain in the ass. But in the end, isn’t it better to have a sore ass than no ass at all?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dances with Wells

So I learned today that BP has brought in actor Kevin Costner, he of Dances with Wolves fame, to help solve its little environmental and public relations disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Seems as if, for the past fifteen years, Costner has been funding research and development of a new device designed to separate oil from water (something like a huge centrifuge, as I understand it). On a trial basis, BP is shipping a bunch of the gizmos in to see if they'll be any more effective at stopping the bleed than the other newfangled gizmos they've already tried (remember how well the giant dome on the ocean floor worked?).

Now, Costner strikes me as a pretty square guy, a pretty earnest guy, but also a pretty useless guy when it comes to realistically appraising and addressing the grimy realities of life. All his films, from The Untouchables to Field of Dreams to Robin Hood to Dances with Wolves, feature idealistic dreamers who come face to face with the brutal facts of the real world, with its nasty politics, greed, militarism, and meanness, and whose response to those realities is simple: fight or flight. Thus some of his heroes become vigilantes; others choose heaven--whether in the form of an Iowa corn field or a Lakota encampment--over the soiled and sordid world. All, in other words, choose escape--escape from responsibility, from complexity, from the real work of life--over the far more difficult task of responsible, committed action. They either shoot somebody with their own gun or run away from somebody else's. They embrace fantasy over reality. Is this really the right guy to clean up the horrid reality of the BP oil spill? With sci-fi centrifuges, no less?

Of course, of course, we have to clean up the spill, and if Costner's thingamajigs work, then hallelujah. But what then? Continue to pump oil from the ocean's floor, secure in the knowledge that we've got us a really groovy techno-marvel to clean up our messes? Don't we see that, in looking to a guy like Costner and a gadget like his to address this problem, we're applying the same faulty, fantasy logic that got us into the mess in the first place?

We had a legitimate alternative before this mess occurred. It was called cleaning up our act, ending our addiction to fossil fuels, seeding renewable energy, changing our ways. We still have that alternative--though every day we fail to act, every day we continue to gobble and vomit oil, we set ourselves back who knows how many tens of years and tens of millions of lives. Nonetheless, we do have a choice: we can face the difficult realities of an alternate future, change our own behavior, join with like-minded peers, pledge to elect politicians who share our vision, and reform our world.

Or we can call up Kevin Costner and ask him if he's got any really big centrifuges.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Of Oil and Water

The cataclysmic BP oil spill now spreading through the Gulf of Mexico signifies--if any further signifying were needed--why America's (and the world's) addiction to fossil fuels cannot be reconciled with any reasonable vision of a sustainable planet. Forget global warming for the moment; forget wars over oil; forget fine particulate pollution (in Pittsburgh, where I hail from, the good news is that we've moved up from the nation's worst air to the nation's third worst). Just look at the well belching hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the world's waters, and ask yourself: how long is it going to take before we realize that we're on a crash course with doomsday?

Then there's the recent coal mine explosion in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 workers. Coal, the cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel around, is responsible, one way or another, for thousands of deaths every year: deaths from accidents, from air pollution, from contaminated waters. I heard recently that there's an investigation underway into corruption in the regulatory agencies that supposedly oversee coal mining. Seems as if mine inspectors are on the take. Seems as if while we're paying with our lives, they're just getting paid.

And then there's the ongoing dispute in Pennsylvania over the Marcellus shale, a natural gas-rich formation that underlies much of our state. The drilling companies rushing to take advantage of this lucrative sink of fossil fuels is refusing to pay a severance tax to help mitigate the environmental damages their activities will surely cause. If they're taxed, they say, they'll take their business elsewhere, depriving us of the thousands of (good?) jobs they'd otherwise bring. Every other state in the nation that authorizes deep well drilling imposes a severance tax, but the Pennsylvania legislature can't seem to bring itself to do the same. More fossil fuels, more deaths, more damage, more destruction, and no one to pay for it.

A quick definition of addiction: knowing you're killing yourself but refusing to stop. That pretty much sums up the state of the world as we continue to pump junk into our veins and waters.