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The Green Bubble May 22, 2009

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The Green Bubble

Via ICECAP

May 21, 2009

By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Sometime after the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, environmentalism crossed from political movement to cultural moment. Fortune 500 companies pledged to go carbon neutral. Seemingly every magazine in the country, including Sports Illustrated, released a special green issue. Paris dimmed the lights on the Eiffel Tower. Solar investments became hot, even for oil companies. Evangelical ministers preached the gospel of “creation care.” Even archconservative Newt Gingrich published a book demanding action on global warming.

Green had moved beyond politics. Gestures that were once mundane–bringing your own grocery bags to the store, shopping for secondhand clothes, taking the subway–were suddenly infused with grand significance. Actions like screwing in light bulbs, inflating tires, and weatherizing windows gained fresh urgency. A new generation of urban hipsters, led by Colin Beavan, a charismatic writer in Manhattan who had branded himself “No Impact Man,” proselytized the virtues of downscaling–dumpster-diving, thrift-store shopping, and trading in one’s beater car for a beater bike–while suburban matrons proudly clutched copies of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and came to see the purchase of each $4 heirloom tomato at the farmer’s market as an act of virtue.

For those caught up in the moment, the future seemed to promise both apocalypse and transcendence in roughly equal measure. The New York Times and San Francisco magazine ran long feature stories on the uptick of upper-middle- class professionals who worried to their therapists about polar bears or who dug through the trash cans of co-workers to recycle plastic bottles, as though suffering from a kind of eco-OCD. At the same time, folks like Pollan and Beavan provided a vision of green living that seemed to offer not just a smaller carbon footprint but a better life. Amid the fear was the hope that the ecological crisis would bring us together and make us happier.

And then, almost as quickly as it had inflated, the green bubble burst. Between January 2008 and January 2009, the percentage of Americans who told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that the environment was a “top priority” dropped from 56 percent to 41 percent. While surveys have long showed that enthusiasm for all things green is greatest among well-educated liberals, the new polling results were sobering. For the first time in a quarter century, more Americans told Gallup in March that they would prioritize economic growth “even if the environment suffers to some extent” than said they would prioritize environmental protection “even at the risk of curbing economic growth.” Soon thereafter, Shell announced it would halt its investments in solar and wind power.

Of course, environmentalism itself has not disappeared. Earth Day was celebrated last week, magazines and marketers continue to use green to sell to upscale audiences, and legislation to cap carbon emissions, albeit heavily watered-down, could still pass Congress. But the cultural moment marked by the ubiquity of green self-help, apocalypse talk, and cheery utopianism has passed. It is tempting to reduce this retrenchment to economic pressures alone, with concrete short-term concerns trumping more abstract worries about the future. But a closer look at the causes of the green bubble reveals a more complicated story, not just about the nature of environmentalism but about modern American life itself.

Green anti-modernism brings with it other contradictions. Despite the rhetoric about “one planet,” not all humans have the same interests when it comes to addressing global warming. Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world’s poor; they neglect to mention that the poor also have the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous. They are already subject to the droughts, floods, hurricanes, and diseases that future warming will intensify. It is their poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them more vulnerable than the rest of us. By contrast, it is the richest humans–those of us who have achieved comfort, prosperity, and economic security for ourselves and for our children–who have the most to lose from the kind of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios that have so often been invoked in recent years. The existential threat so many of us fear is that we might all end up in a kind of global Somalia characterized by failed states, resource scarcity, and chaos. It is more than a little ironic that at the heart of the anti-modern green discourse resides the fear of losing our modernity.

Nonetheless, it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development–never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty. The convenient and ancient view among elites that the poor are actually spiritually rich, and the exaggeration of insignificant gestures like recycling and buying new lightbulbs, are both motivated by the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneously believing that not all seven billion humans on earth can “live like we live” and, consciously or unconsciously, knowing that we are unwilling to give up our high standard of living. This is the split “between what you think and what you do” to which Pollan refers, and it should, perhaps, come as no surprise that so many educated liberals, living at the upper end of a social hierarchy that was becoming ever more stratified, should find the remedies that Pollan and Beavan offer so compelling. But, while planting a backyard garden may help heal the eco-anxieties of affluent greens, it will do little to heal the planet or resolve the larger social contradictions that it purports to address. Read much more of this insightful look into the Green Bubble.

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