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. More than 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 envronmental 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 10 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 judge mentality, 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-squarefoot 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.