01 April 2008

Cannon Fodder

Okay. Fine. I'll admit it--I'm a friggin eco-puritan. The worst kind. The kind that snarls at Hummers while her fingers freeze off because she's biking. The kind that silently screams in frustration when her housemates take 25 minute hot showers, and the kind that's utterly disgusted by the sheer amount of mass-produced meat that Americans consume.

I typically squelch these outbursts and channel them towards pedaling faster, finding ways to shorten my own showers, or cooking another batch of lentils for lunch. I firmly believe people have a right to pursue enjoyment and more importantly, throwing a tantrum or stepping up on a eco-soapbox isn't going to convince other people that I'm right and they're wrong. No one likes being lectured (or screamed at). Besides, who am I to talk? I'm taking 2-3 international flights a year now, plenty enough to obliterate all my other minuscule attempts to cut waste out of my life.

I'm not an angry person. I rarely get into arguments, and I can't remember the last time I yelled at someone. Usually, things just slide off my back, so I'm fairly puzzled by this boiling eco-rage that's bursting out more and more frequently.

Why do these things bother me so much?

I attended the down:2:earth convention in Boston this weekend, where I was completely inundated by eco-propaganda. It was eco-puritan heaven--chatting with the folks at Equal Exchange (the fair trade coffee/chocolate/etc company), tasting water beetles and cicadas at a bug cooking demo, learning about Sol Solution and Mass Bike, watching an expert carve up a locally farm-raised pig carcass, and re-discovering The Food Project.

During a presentation on climate change by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the speaker was talking about floods and droughts and she said, "Basically we're going to have less water when we need it and more water when we don't." And I burst out laughing. When she started talking about the effects on fish populations and tree diversity, I rolled my eyes. I didn't care. I've been swimming in don'tpollutesavetheenvironment since first grade, and I'm glad it's receiving much more popular attention, but frankly by now I've grown dead sick of hearing "global warming" bleated everywhere.

So why the eco-rage?

Then I heard Bill McKibben speak, and it suddenly hit me that it's not the pollution or the carbon footprints that bother me, it's the blatant disregard for other people. That's right, drive that bloody Hummer while soldiers die in Iraq to satisfy our oil habit, go ahead, burn a few more gallons so the rising temperatures can encourage the spread of dengue fever and fill stretchedtothelimit crumbling clinics in Bangladesh. Don't worry, it won't harm you. Just turn the air conditioning up. Yeah, maybe Boston will flood, but hey, they'll build dams to keep the ocean at bay. You really shouldn't trouble yourself about all the farmers in Mali that will lose their crops to the flooding rainwaters and their children will die because they won't have the nutrition to fend off disease.

I do believe everyone has the right to pursue enjoyment. Life is short. We don't all have to shave our heads, wear burlap sacks, and retire to caves to meditate. Maybe Hummer drivers really enjoy their Hummers. But fuck it, couldn't you have chosen a slick little sports car instead?

America has 4% of the world's population. And we use 25% of the world's resources. That's disgusting.

Hahahaha...and here's the sick part, I'm willing to bet Hummers don't contribute much to the enjoyment of their owners. Despite tripling affluence in the developing world since the 1950s, overall happiness has declined. McKibben argues that as we grow richer, we become more isolated from one another in our nice suburban homes, and our communities are withering. Humans are social animals. They like interacting. Hummers are big metal boxes that separate you from the rest of the world. Go ahead, pop some more prozac.

Yes, I'm simplistic. It's part of being an eco-puritan. Disagree with me? Disagree with anything I've said? Please post a comment!!! I would really really like to hear another viewpoint on this that isn't the groupthink I've been wallowing in. Know someone who will violently disagree? Please send them here or have them drop me a line.

P.S. Dear housemates, even though your showers sometimes drive me crazy, I still love you. At least you don't take 2-3 international flights every year...


Anonymous said...

I experience similar feelings at my group house sometimes, especially with the recycling. I think some of my housemates are under the impression that anything not covered in food is recyclable. I end up picking through the bin before we put it out on the street. I did post a list of what is and is not recyclable, but it gets ignored... and I don't want to be the eco-nag.

I have a picky comment about your post as well... I know that "prozac" has become a convenient shorthand for getting a particular point across, but it still bugs me. In my own experience with Prozac, rather than numbing or isolating me, it made it possible for me to leave my room and actually participate in the world (if it matters, I did try therapy first). I'm sure anti-depressants are over-prescribed, but they're not the fix-all happy pills that I think people imagine they are.

- an Olin alum who will remain anonymous

nikki said...

Interesting post...

it's not the pollution or the carbon footprints that bother me, it's the blatant disregard for other people

The big question, in my mind, is whether any of the people we're sympathizing with would act any differently in our situation. Aren't people, in general, driven by the same inherent motivations, subject to the same selfish whims and desires and social pressures? Not that, of course, anyone who has-not deserves to be in that position, but if they did have these things, would they be any more responsible about it than we would?

Maybe they would, given their background and culture, but aren't we all a little selfish inside? People do good things for other people, but [somewhat logically] the number one motivator for a significant number of people is self and family -- why should possession or lack of money change that? Is being mad about it worth it [not that it's really an option]? People won't change who they are, especially on that big a scale. We all have our flaws and weaknesses, and most people neither acknowledge nor try to overcome that.

chris said...

You make an interesting point about the intersection of happiness and our consumeristic society. I like to think I care about other people and I like to think I don't enjoy needlessly consuming resources, but I certainly could do much more to minimize my own impact. And I would, if not for three problems.

1. I'm not entirely convinced my personal actions really make a difference one way or the other, meaning not only do I feel like I'm not using too many resources but also that consuming less myself won't matter either. But I don't mind hedging my bets with low-hanging fruit like recycling.
2. I don't know how to optimize my consuming-less attempts. I don't understand the impact-vs-pain curve. What lies in the sweet spot between easy and effective?
3. I'm not sure I'll enjoy it. Or at least not dislike it.

So I'm wondering is whether you think pain is a necessary part of being a good environmental citizen. Is there a way for me to change my life to have less environmental impact, without noticing I've done it? Or will it always require a sacrifice to make an appreciable difference? Or is it more zen, where once I make certain changes I'll come to terms with them =)

I think it has to be a combination of sacrifice and zen. Recently I've been getting interested in eating more locally, which to an extent is a sacrifice because it's often more expensive. Then again, it's also often healthier, so it's more of a tradeoff than a sacrifice. That's the sort of change I'd love to be able to make more often; something where I don't have to do it simply for feel-good environmental karma points, something I can recommend to other people without a guilt trip. Maybe that's dreadfully selfish of me... but c'est la vie, you have to be honest with yourself if you're going to get anywhere.

Any ideas/advice on this front?

Spike Curtis said...

What I've started to wonder about, and I'm afraid I don't know enough about economics and environmental impact to know the answer to this, is whether or not making an effort to "consume less" is realistically helpful.

What I mean is this: say I resolve to take shorter showers, or I buy a hybrid car that uses less fuel, or I decide against taking an international flight this spring or whatever, I use fewer resources on that part of my life, and as a result I save myself some money. Sounds good so far. But what do I do with the extra money? I spend it on something else--maybe a new gadget that uses toxic components from China or some Brazilian wine that gets shipped across the world, etcetera, etcetera. By shifting my consumption, have I done any good? If I use my money to tip my waiter at a restaurant, I have no idea what that person is going to do with it--maybe they'll use it putting fuel in their beater that leaves a trail of blue smoke as they go down the road.

It seems to me that the amount of resources you consume has much more to do with the amount of money you have than the choices you make in how to spend it. Maybe some things are better than others: buying organic pumpkins from you local farmer's market, or stuff like that, but it seems the very rich can't really get away from consuming tons of resources on themselves short of simply giving their money away to charity. And again, once they give it away they no longer have control over how it gets used.

Depressing, maybe. Anyone know whether this perspective has any truth to it? Maybe they should just buy carbon credits for the rest of us, or fund research into clean energy technologies.

TeddyBouch said...

What I love about being an engineer is that I don't have to get involved in the eco-debates. I am a conservative, I think that the whole global warming thing is blown way out of proportion, and I have no problem with Hummers. All that having been said, I can see all the ways that we can improve the environment and at the same time save money and improve our enjoyment of things. So why shouldn't we do it anyway?

I want a clean environment not because I think the world is going to kill us all in 50 years otherwise, but because I don't like the smell of pollution. I want to do away with industrial byproducts not because I think they are responsible for every disease on earth, but because all beauty finds its source in nature, and it's a shame to be throwing waste into our waterways.

I guess this is completely tainted by the fact that I'm an engineer, but I really do believe that society's salvation, at least in many respects, lies in technology. Whether you want a hybrid car to cut emissions, save gas, or because it's a cool piece of technology, the result is the same. I think what frustrates me most is when people polarize a debate so much that they can't see all the benefits. Most Hummer drivers see lower emissions as such a tree-hugging hippy platform that they don't give it the time of day to find out other benefits. Screw 'em.

Here's how to change things. Make friends with the people you disagree with. Don't preach at them, stay off the soapbox - I know, I'm one to talk. Then drive them somewhere in your hybrid car, being sure to show off all the nifty gadgets inside and the mpg meter. Cook them a meal, and when they ask why everything tastes so much better, show them your garden with its fresh vegetables. Preaching at people will turn them off, but tempting them with cool stuff is just fun.

Mel said...

1. It's getting late, so I'll confine myself to 3 sentences, including this one.

2. We can only change our own behavior as an example, but I'm pretty positive you totally know this already. ;)

3. People get into seemingly illogical positions one seemingly logical step at a time - humans are high-pass filters.

Kat Kim said...

Seems like I'm a little late on the comment, but I thought I'd add some thoughts:

Laura, I love you. I definitely feel the eco-rage every so often (especially being an eco-hippy living in Texas...), and it has to do with my perception that people don't think or care about their effect on people directly around them and on a global scale.

I definitely agree with the earlier comment that you have to show by example. I bring up my worm bin, my weird-reuse projects, and the fact that I walk to places all the time in conversation and people are surprised by my unique lifestyle, but it gets them thinking. People follow trends and if the mentality is simply focused on reducing waste, emissions, and energy (granted not always an easy task), we will make a difference.

Laura said...

I thoroughly apologize for the prozac comment, it was off the cuff and not well thought out.

And yes, Nikki, we are all selfish and I bet a lot of those disadvantaged farmers would jump into hummers if they could. I've been thinking for a long while about how to make sustainable solutions as sexy as the western lifestyle is now...seems like the whole world wants to jump on the US bandwagon, including mass consumption with the related physical and mental health problems. (Wow, I'm a certified ranter, now.) Actually, I think that's what I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing--making sustainable sexy for the exploding third world populations because, you know, blah blah blah if everyone lived with the same standards as Americans we'd need five planets blah blah blah. And for me, happiness is a big part of sustainable, which gets pretty twisted in the West.