Second Thoughts on Christmas

December 26, 2007

By Nelson Harvey

I’ve been pretty down on Christmas lately. I’ve seen exhausted fathers on the subway toting massive boxes full of the latest must-have plastic toy. I’ve heard my own younger siblings pester my parents about the loot that they expect. And I’ve heard 3560 versions of the song “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio.

Why, then, did I catch myself glancing at the clock at 11 pm on Christmas Eve and counting the hours until morning? As a child, I would lie awake on that night and dream of tearing wrapping paper, hoping that my parents had gotten me the things I’d asked for. These days, I often find myself wishing for less stuff, not more, so my anticipation seemed strange.

What was it that had me watching the clock? Everything about Christmas morning except the stuff. I love sitting in the living room with my family, making breakfast, and seeing people happy about what they’re getting or giving. I look forward to these things, even though a central part of Christmas– getting heaps of stuff–has lost some of its luster for me.

As I see it, reconcieving Christmas requires the same approach as  dealing with environmental issues like global warming. It’s less about changing the things we desire than it is about finding out what those things really are, then discovering more environmentally sensitive ways to obtain them. Renewable energy technologies can satisfy our basic needs (heat, light, etc) with a fraction of the impact of fossil fuels. We need a parallel solution for our higher order needs, like satisfaction, belonging and community. When we open gifts on Christmas morning, I think it is these things–rather than more stuff–that we really hope to find.

Looking Past the Footprint

November 29, 2007

By Adam Brock

What happens when you’re done with shrinking your footprint?

I ran out of honey yesterday and swung by the natural foods store to pick up some more. There were a dozen or so types to choose from, and, one by one, I examined the labels for maximum greenitude. One looked like it was made upstate – but it was in a non-recyclable plastic container. Another one was certified organic – but it was imported from Italy. A third was organic, domestically produced, and in a glass jar – but when I looked at the price tag, I scoffed.

Suddenly I realized I’d been comparing jars of honey for five minutes. This was absurd. What difference, really, was all my deliberation going to make? A pound of carbon? An ounce of pesticides? Or perhaps no difference at all: the honey was already on the shelf. Somebody, inevitably, would purchase the other jars, and my little message to The Market would be canceled out.

As I continue to learn more about my ecological impact, episodes like the one in the grocery store are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Every choice I make – what I buy, how I go about my daily routine, even the way I talk – is now laced with an awareness of its diffuse effects on the biosphere. In many ways, it’s been a rewarding shift, bringing me closer to natural cycles and sustaining my mental well-being. But sometimes this newfound awareness feels like it’s bordering on an unhealthy obsession. How productive is it, really, to fret over a jar of honey when the global climate is spiraling out of control? Have I lost the forest for the trees?

Perhaps. Like so many other verdy souls these days, I seem to have gotten caught up in footprint mania. From Colin Beavan’s recently-concluded No Impact experiment to the cheery exhortations of last summer’s Live Earth concerts, reducing our personal impact has come to dominate the sustainability discourse over the last year. Inundated with statistics about food miles and embodied energy, we’ve found ourselves wandering the endless labyrinth of product backstories, discovering just how far-reaching the consequences of our everyday actions have become.

To be sure, footprint shrinking makes a great pastime. Like going on a diet or saving up for a vacation, it’s a goal-oriented challenge, with progressive steps that we can measure (or at least approximate). There’s also a certain therapeutic element to it: as several bloggers have pointed out, minding our own impact makes us feel a little less helpless in the face of the massive problems confronting us. The biosphere might be headed towards the brink of disaster, we say to ourselves, but at least I’m doing my part by buying local apples and turning off the tap.

I think we can do better. Personal actions might ease our conscience and make us healthier, but they can only go so far towards improving our collective impact. Even if the entire country made an effort to reduce their footprint – something that seems exceedingly unlikely – we’d still be stuck relying on unsustainable systems that are beyond the scope of any single person. Most suburbanites simply can’t get by without a car, while residents of our country’s poorest neighborhoods don’t have access to sustainable food. And nearly all of us are forced to participate in systems that compromise the planet’s health simply to earn a living.

It’s these large-scale systems, the ones that are transcend individual choices, that are responsible for the vast majority of green sins – and it’s these systems that we should be focusing our energy towards reforming. Shrinking our collective footprint means chipping away at the infrastructure, both physical and cultural, that inhibits the sprouting of a sustainable society. It means taking political action, especially on the local level. It means rebuilding face-to-face community by connecting with our neighbors. It means reevaluating our professional roles, and engaging our friends, family and colleagues in thinking about the future of our culture.

None of this will be easy. Whereas greening our personal lives takes knowledge and willpower, taking it to the next level requires courage, political savvy, critical thinking, and a great deal of patience. But it’s doable – and it’s got to be done. We’ll be confronting some tough realities in the years ahead, and a lot of things we take for granted will be called into question. But as the old, wasteful way of doing things starts to slowly unravel, we’ll be sustained by the power of what we are creating: something that brings people back together, that gives our lives a sense of purpose, that treats the natural world as an equal partner… the regeneration.

What happens when you’re done with shrinking your footprint? You start walking.

Photo credit: flickr/ricketts_fish

More Art than Science?

November 7, 2007

by Nelson Harvey

These days, when we wonder whether something is true or not, our first instinct is usually to ask the scientists. But according to a new book by Jonah Lehrer, artists and literary figures often arrive at important truths about human nature long before the science is there to back them up. I saw Lehrer speak tonight on the Upper West Side, and it struck me that a version of his thesis is often true in the environmental realm as well.

The book, titled Proust was a Neuroscientist, contains case studies of 10 famous artists (including writers, chefs, and others) who made discoveries about the human mind through their art that science would come to confirm only years later. So, for example, when Proust famously described eating the madeline cookie in Remembrance of Things Passed, he revealed much about the connection between smell and long term memory that has since been corroborated through modern neuroscience. He was able to do this not because he had scientific training, but because he was intensely focused on the nature of his own experience.

The pattern can be extended to environmental issues by looking through the prism of climate change. Initial public concern about the issue did not build from scientific reports, but from anecdotal evidence. Inuits in the artic or fisherman on the great lakes knew the climate was changing long before the IPCC released its latest report. Observing the land was part of their way of life, even if they lacked the training to quantify the changes they observed. Numbers aren’t always necessary to know that something is wrong.

To further illustrate this, I imagine a case where the science showed that climate change would be benign enough for humans to adapt without major systemic shifts, but it would still practically eliminate Fall as a season by mid-century. There may be few practical reasons why Fall is important to the survival of the human species, and yet, a world without it is not one in which I’d like to live. Crisp autumn air has far too many associations for me to do without it.

Lehrer’s central point was that truth is larger than science; it can be arrived at through myriad other avenues. Science (including the social science of economics) should be a tool in decisionmaking, not the sole basis for our decisions. Particularly where complex environmental decisions are concerned, there is a place for philosophy, ethics, and even art. For us to address global warming, it doens’t necessarily have to be cheap or unambiguously dangerous. If global warming offends our (non-market) values, then we ought to do something about it.

Three Shades of Green

October 26, 2007

By Adam Brock

Soon after starting WGY, I developed the “Three Shades of Green” to describe what I saw as the main approaches to sustainability. The framework has been useful shorthand for identifying different sets of verdy values, and it’s become an integral part of my thinking about the regeneration.

But, like any metaphor, the original Three Shades didn’t quite capture the way things really work: by positing them as a hierarchy, I’d fallen into that perilous and outdated trap of linear thinking. What follows is an update of the Lime, Grass and Forest spiel with a slightly more integrative perspective.

Sustainability is shaping up to be the buzzword of the decade. Global warming is now an acknowledged crisis – one that seems to be happening more swiftly than any scientist could have anticipated – and we’ve finally begun a public discussion about how (and how much) to cut our greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.

Still, a fundamental question remains unanswered: what, exactly, are we trying to sustain? A growing economy? General human happiness? Biodiversity? Ask ten different environmentalists and you’ll get ten different answers. But while there’s hardly a consensus on the kind of sustainable society we’re trying to build, there do exist certain patterns in the way environmental thinkers tend to group themselves. I’ve identified three such patterns, given them cute names, and called them the Three Shades of Green. Here goes:

First up is Lime Green – or, if you prefer, “sustainability lite.” The Lime Greens, whatever their conventional political affiliation, can be considered the conservatives of the regeneration: they’re trying to sustain as much as possible of the world we currently live in. You can count most corporations and national governments in the Lime camp, as well as everyday citizens just becoming exposed to environmentalism. Lime is the color of institutions going green for the brownie points, as in this recent ad touting Chevrolet’s green cred: “The environment and your commute. Can’t we all just get along? It’s as simple as driving a more fuel-efficient car.”

Ahh… if only it were that simple. But while Lime-colored solutions like hybrids and carbon offsets can provide crucial gateways into greener ways of living, most sustainability thinkers contend that these solutions simply won’t be enough to avert the planetary devastation we’re currently experiencing. Instead, creating an ecologically integrated society will demand much more fundamental shifts: in our politics, in our systems of production and consumption, and in our attitudes towards nature.

Enter Grass Green, the middle shade. Grassies are trying to sustain the best parts of our current way of life – material prosperity, personal freedom – while reinventing the institutions that have led to our current social and environmental devastation. They embrace zero-waste production systems, open-source technologies, innovative new materials and progressive government initiatives: think Cradle to Cradle, nanotubes, and carbon taxes. Compared to the Lime mantra of “more of the same, only greener,” the Grass approach offers something truly substantive: a marriage of industry and ecology, one that promises to provide us with ever-rising standards of living while simultaneously healing the planet.

Yet there are many environmentalists who would call even this vision nothing more than a deranged fairytale. Our pursuit of technology and economic growth, these folks claim, are themselves a product of our dominating attitude towards nature, and we can’t achieve sustainability until we leave them in the dust. These are the Forest Greens – the revolutionaries. Instead of dealing with climate change, social inequality, and peak energy one by one, say the Foresters, we need to cut to the root of our problems and “solve for pattern.” This means leaving behind our current mechanistic, rational way of thinking, and beginning to see ourselves as part of an infinitely complex, ever-changing system. Oh, and we’ll also need to localize our economies and drastically reduce our levels of consumption in the process. In short, the Forest Greens want to sustain the web of life – and they’re willing to rethink some of the basic assumptions of human civilization in order to do so.

As the most radical shade, Forest Green isn’t without some serious limitations of its own. For one thing, its purism often renders it utopian and unrealistic: whatever you happen to think of Forest Green theory, at the moment it’s pretty hard to put into practice outside of ecovillages and backyard gardens. Also, it’s traditionally been a rural movement, and therefore not very applicable to the cities in which most of us live.

It’s tempting to see these three shades as a competition, with each one vying for their place in the sustainable future. But thinking about which shade is “better” is like asking which species of frog is “supposed” to be in the rainforest. The truth is, the Three Shades of Green are as interdependent as anything else in nature, and we’ll need all of them to get us through the next few decades.

Sure, green consumerism might ultimately be a dead end – but right now, it’s the only force that can start shifting attitudes on a society-wide scale. Sure, the Grassies might have a misplaced faith in technological progress – but they’re bound to come up with some truly worldchanging stuff in the process. And sure, the ecocentric outlook of Forest Green might not work for most of us as a way of life. But it can provide valuable guidance as we move away from our 20th-century consumerist habits, and towards something better for ourselves and the planet.

So don’t fret too much if you think you’re not “green enough” – the fact that you’re even wondering if you’re green enough means you’re on the right track. Instead, pick a shade, any shade, and get to work. We’ve got a lot to accomplish together.

Photo credit: flickr/shakkai

This week’s guest post comes from La Marguerite, a fellow green blogger who writes sincerely (and frequently) about the psychological dimensions of the regeneration. The article below probes deep, highlighting the all-too-common tendency among environmentalists to commit to one act of resistance and think that it’s enough – when in fact, each one of us needs to begin reorienting our entire lives towards a new paradigm of healthful sufficiency. 

About resistance

Jim stopped me right in the middle of our supervision. ‘Do you really think I have the time to read all your notes?’ I was shocked. I had been so proud of myself, taking meticulous notes on all the sessions with my patients, complete with thoughts, feelings, transcripts, interpretations, and many questions for Jim. That was years ago, I was a social work trainee at Loyola University of Chicago Doyle Center, and I still remember Jim jolting me with his comment. Jim went on to interpret my behavior as a form of resistance. According to him, I had unconsciously inundated him with material, to avoid doing some of the harder work that would inevitably take place, if we focused on only one issue.

Resistance: ‘The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance (Widerstände) on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain (Unlust), and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it. It is for you then to interpose in this conflict in the patient’s mental life. If you succeed in persuading him to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, he has rejected (repressed), you will then have accomplished something towards his education. For it is an education even to induce a person who dislikes leaving his bed early in the morning to do so all the same.” (Sigmund Freud, 1959/1904, pp. 261-262, parentheses in original)

Blogging as a form of resistance

This is not unlike my circling process of these last few months, looking at every angle of my life as a Green Girl Wannabe, of which this article is yet another manifestation. Blogging away to avoid making any behavioral changes. While I write about the details of my hours, I do not have to act. And I can stay in the illusion of thinking that I am doing some good, discussing the details of my green soul searching. I am rationalizing by saying that I want to spend time understanding the psychological underpinnings of my resistance to change, with a twist of grandiosity, consisting in wanting to extrapolate my findings to the general population. One person who is not fooled, is Green Guru.

The power of interpreting

There is a paradox to this. I do believe there is some value to my work of self-exploration, and I do think it can be used as a source of greater insights into the why and hows of human behavior relative to the climate change problem. It is also important to not kid myself, and to call attention to the reality of my non actions. The reality is that it is much easier for me to come up with great insights, than to, let say, go out and buy a $2 clothes line, and stop using the dryer. Blogging has become my primary form of resistance. From that interpretation, may come the possibility of real change.

The pain underneath

The intensity with which I have been blogging, is also symptomatic of the level of resistance, and the pain involved. What is being asked of me – and others as well – , is a profound alteration of my lifestyle, not just in one area, but in all aspects of my waking life. This cannot be underestimated. For every green hero, there are thousands for whom the perspective of such a change is simply daunting. I have used blogging as my ploy. For others, it could be denial that there is any problem to begin with, or bargaining and rationalizing certain behaviors in the face of ‘all the good work I am already doing for the environment’, or subscribing to a catastrophic scenario and following a ‘why bother, we are all doomed anyway’ logic.

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