Don’t Should on US

Posted on May 9, 2005
Don’t Should on US

In class last week I had my Penn State students read a horrifying article on tree death in America, and then polled them on their gut response. The four choices I offered were:

  • A) This is terrible, and I’m inspired to do something about it.
  • B)Yes, this is terrible, and I care, but I’m not inspired because I am powerless to do anything about it.
  • C) This is terrible, but for some reason I just don’t care that much. I suppose I should care, but to be honest I really don’t.
  • D) It couldn’t be that bad. Besides, science will come up with a solution.

The results of my little poll and the way my students articulated their responses bears great relevance to the much-publicized failure of the American environmental movement today. First, though, a hopeful note: not a single student out of a hundred chose (D)–although probably many would have on the first day of class. Unfortunately, almost no one chose (A) either. Over 90 percent of the class chose the second and third responses, and in the ensuing discussion most of them articulated feelings combining the two. Not caring, it seems, is in part a defensive response for dealing with feelings of powerlessness or despair. It is, also, in part a response to the perceived remoteness of the problem–in the words of Charles Little, “We look out our windows, what do we see? Trees.” Or as one student said, “As long as I can get a Big Mac, fries and shake for less than $5, to be quite honest I don’t care about the environment.”

Somehow, the urgency of the planetary crisis has not penetrated into popular consciousness. If it had, then the environmental movement’s futile struggles, painfully detailed in Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s provocative essay, “The Death of Environmentalism”, would not even have been necessary. On the policy level, there has been no progress on carbon emissions or fuel efficiency, even as the victories of generations past on protecting air, water, and forests have been gutted one by one. Meanwhile, the movement has failed to win the hearts and minds of the public. Most people polled don’t even rank the environment among their top ten most important issues. My students’ sentiments are consistent with those of the public at large. Their grades, their job interviews, their love lives, Penn State football, and so forth all trump the environment as urgent issues in their lives.

More than indifference, though, many students evince an outright hostility or annoyance toward activists of all stripes, right or left. Whether social or environmental, the silence that greets today’s activist messages is often a sullen silence, a resentful silence. Environmental and social activists annoy a lot of people, and I don’t think it’s only because they bring up uncomfortable truths. A deeper issue is involved here, one with enormous implications not only for the strategy of the environmental movement, but for its basic conceptual underpinnings.

One reason environmental activists so commonly meet with resentment or marginalization is because of the implicit judgementality of their message. An unstated judgment accompanies such facts as “We are using more than our share of resources,” or “Our way of life is destroying the planet,” or “The average American’s ecological footprint would require five earths to be sustainable.” The judgment is that you are greedy, lazy, ignorant… in a word, bad. You SHOULD do better. You shouldn’t take more than your share. You should sacrifice some of your selfish interest for the good of other people, other species, and future generations. Stop being so greedy. On the collective level, the same logic pits the economy against the environment, arguing that our society must rein in its rampant materialism and greed. Individually or collectively, we have to try harder and do better.

On the most obvious level, this approach backfires simply because people can always sense judgementality, and they naturally respond to it with hostility. We rarely say it outright, but an intuitive response to anyone who tells us to be ashamed of ourselves is something along the lines of “Screw you!” Alternatively, some people are temperamentally inclined to buy into guilt or shame. The message works on such people, but it cannot spread beyond them.

Even worse, to say that it is our greed that compels us to consume the planet for the sake of our lifestyle, implies that the high-consumption lifestyle is indeed a good thing. To say that the man with the 8,000-square-foot house, and Americans collectively, are selfish is to imply that material extravagance is indeed in our self-interest. That is what selfish means—to seek the aggrandizement of the self at the expense of others. In other words, environmentalists have framed the debate in terms that actually reaffirm the way of life they are trying to dismantle. They reaffirm the delusion that is destroying the world: namely, that the modern consumptive way of life is to our selfish benefit. They assume that the big consumers of the world, the wealthiest and most “fortunate”, are actually better off than the typical peasant in India.

These assumptions prevail across most of the political spectrum. Conservatives think that society’s winners should not be forced into providing for the losers, while liberals think the winners should be legally required (e.g. through taxes) to help those less fortunate. Both agree in principle, though, that the winners are the winners and the losers are the losers, whether this happens through accident of birth or dint of personal virtue.

In other words, much environmentalist exhortation comes down to a demand to sacrifice your own self-interest, with guilt and shame the main mechanisms by which to enforce that demand. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend not to trust people who want me to act against my own self-interest. No wonder the environmental movement has been so ineffectual for thirty years.

Fortunately, there is another way, rooted in the realization that society’s winners are not winners at all. It is rooted in the observation that the 8,000-square-foot house is a breeding ground for loneliness, isolation, and depression, a pathetic sop to the poverty of modern existence. It is rooted in the realization that the consumer thrills of our luxury cars, entertainment technologies, and sports spectacles feed a gaping void caused by our separation from nature, community, and spirit. The emptiness of the modern formula for success is palpable, as is the robbery of life and youth in exchange for money. Yet the assumption that success as conventionally defined is the key to happiness is ubiquitous in our culture. Just one example: the economic term for anything bought or sold for money: a “good”.

The alternative I am suggesting starts by making the point that the rational self-interest everyone buys into is neither rational nor in anyone’s interest. It is not in your interest to work at an unfulfilling job that pays well, to enjoy “security” that isn’t and “goods” that aren’t. Even if we don’t make this point explicitly, it can inform our every interaction in the cause of the environment. When we approach people with the energy of wanting what is truly in their best and highest interest, they will instinctively trust us. Sometimes, to be sure, a person must experience something in order to realize that isn’t what they actually wanted. But the message will stay with them until the time comes for it to sprout. When we act from the knowledge that a person’s “selfish” interest is actually toward simplicity, closeness to nature, and closeness to community, then our urgings lose any judgementality and assume the force of a trusted friend’s support.

Similarly on the policy level, arguments based on the economic consequences of bad environmental policies are ultimately self-defeating, because they reinforce the ideology that for something to be (a) “good”, it must take the form of a commodity denominated in dollars. So immersed are we in this logic that it is hard to even articulate the value of nature otherwise: hence the profusion of environmentalist arguments based on cost-benefit analyses. Why should we save the rainforests? Because of all the medicines that might be produced from the undiscovered plant species there? Because of the economic value of their contribution as a carbon sink? Of their pollinating species? Well-meaning as they are, arguments that try to persuade us to protect the environment based on the fact that the long-term cost to the economy of environmental destruction far exceeds the economic cost of preservation only exacerbate the root problem, which is the basic Benthamite assumption that goodness can be quantified, that the way to make life better is to maximize financial returns, and even more deeply, that nature can be made ours, and yet more deeply, the illusion of our separateness. Such arguments grant the disastrous premise that nature is indeed a thing, best disposed of according to the financial consequences.

Cost-benefit arguments for environmental protection have the further disadvantage that they are usually ineffective even as a short-term tactic. I am inspired in this regard to Gandhi’s exhortation to “appeal to their reason and conscience,” and by Edwin O. Wilson’s invocation of a universal “biophilia”—a love of living beings—innate to each one of us, however deeply buried. In the long run and probably even in the short run, it may be more effective to appeal to people’s sense of beauty and their desire to do the right thing. “Let’s save the environment because otherwise it will cost too much” is an appeal to a baser instinct, greed, and therefore disrespects its audience by assuming that greed is their strongest motivation. (It is especially counterproductive when facing people who in fact stand to gain financially from consuming natural capital.) It is also on some level dishonest: I do not know any environmentalist motivated by the long-term economic savings of environmental protection. Let us instead appeal to what is highest in other people: their sense of rightness, beauty, and justice; their desire to be a good person; their longing to enact their innate love for our beautiful planet. The greed behind the plundering of the planet, and the insecurity and anxiety behind the greed, is after all a product of our money system as well as an inevitable effect of our separation from self, spirit, nature, and each other, and not our true essence.

Charles Eisenstein, 2005