Beyond Earth Day? by Alex Steffen
Green is the new black. No buzz-phrase better sums up both the excitement many of us feel about the blooming environmental and social consciousness around us and the essential hollowness of the answers being promoted by many newly-minted eco-pundits.
The flood of environmental magazine cover stories, documentaries and advertisements has pushed us over a public-opinion threshold, which is great. But the solutions being touted by many of our new-found allies are themselves creating a new kind of problem—people who should know better are selling a muddle-headed, style-over-substance, “lite green” environmentalism at a time when we need to be rebuilding our civilization to avoid disaster. To be blunt, we’re being sold out.
People are being told to buy organic cotton T-shirts, keep their tires inflated and recycle their beer bottles. But the reality of the situation is that the impacts of these sorts of actions are totally out whack with the magnitude of the planetary problems bearing down upon us. Those of us who care about the future of the planet need to reclaim this moment from those who would have people think that our biggest challenge is picking the most stylish vegan shoes.
With every passing day, we are discovering that things are worse than we thought. Our climate is ripping apart at the seams at a rate that’s surprising even the so-called alarmists. Natural systems are collapsing. The ocean seems headed towards a series of catastrophic tipping points. Economic inequity is producing a planet of billionaires and a billion desperate people. Our political systems are suffering a massive crisis of legitimacy, while insane fundamentalists, violent criminals and two-bit dictators (wearing both uniforms and Armani suits) are stealing or destroying everything they can get their hands on. Everywhere on the planet we find an empty consumer culture so accepted we barely speak of it, except perhaps to make an ironic joke. We have placed a Great Wager on the future of humanity, and the odds are getting worse.
In the face of this reality, recycling a bottle is an act so insignificant as to be merely totemic. Paper or plastic? Who the hell cares?
In the developed world, few of us, essentially none of us, currently live a “one-planet life.” The vast majority of us, even of those of us who have committed ourselves to change, consume more resources and energy than our sustainable share: indeed, it is very, very difficult to live an individually sustainable life, because the very systems in which we are enmeshed—which enfold and make possible our lifestyles—are themselves insanely unsustainable. We’re driving our hybrid SUVs down the highway to the Collapse.
Most of the harm we cause in the world is done far from our sight, created through the workings of vast systems whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us, and over which we have very little influence as single individuals. Alone, we are essentially powerless to change anything that matters. We can’t shop our way to sustainability.
I believe we are bombarded with messages encouraging us to take the “small steps” precisely because those steps are a threat to no one. They don’t depress sales of fashionable crap we don’t need. They don’t bring people into the streets or sweep corrupt politicians from office. They certainly don’t threaten the powerful, entrenched interests who are growing fantastically rich off keeping us locked into the systems that make our lives such a burden on the planet and impoverish our brothers and sisters elsewhere. Buying a hemp hoodie is not a blow for better world, it’s at best a mere gesture towards the idea that the world ought to better. And, here in the Green Spring of 2006, we must finally admit to ourselves that gestures are no longer enough. That to be focused on lifestyle tweaks and attitudinal adjustments at this moment in history is like showing up with a teaspoon to help bail out a sinking ship. If the New Green degenerates into handing out more stylish spoons, we’re screwed.
We don’t need more carpool lanes. We need to eliminate fossil fuels from our economy. We don’t need more recycling bins. We need to create a closed-loop, biomimetic, neobiological industrial system. We don’t need to attend a tree-planting ceremony. We need to become expert at ecosystem management and gardening the planet. We don’t need another unscented laundry detergent. We need to ban the vast majority of the toxic chemicals upon which our lifestyles currently float and invent a completely non-toxic green chemistry. We don’t need lite green fashions. We need a bright green revolution.
To really change the world we need to hand out real tools: rugged, free, collaborative tools for understanding the world and our role in it, for seeing the systems in which we are trapped; tools for learning how to work together to either transform those systems or destroy them completely and bioremediate the rubble. Tools that help us as people make meaningful changes in both our own lives and the world. We need to make people participants, not consumers. We need answers that address peoples’ lives, not their lifestyles.
We need to take back the ballot box. With the exception of a couple small nations like Finland, most governments on earth are now seething messes of corruption, oppression and entrenched privilege, and our government here in the U.S. is worse than many. We need transparency, accountability, genuine equity, real democracy and human rights. No environmental or social issue transcends the need for worldwide political reform, and none of our huge planetary problems can be solved without it.
We need to seize the trading floor. Most large corporations, and most of the markets we’ve established through regulation, incentive and tradition, demand that we participate (as employees, consumers or investors) in ecological destruction, unfair labor practices and an assault on the public realm. We need to grab hold of these economic systems, strip them down to their component parts and rebuild them anew. That means supporting (or becoming) clean energy entrepreneurs, green builders, sustainable product designers, socially-responsible investors, and so on. We need a new generation uncompromisingly innovative and determined regulators, planners, bankers, insurers. We need to take back business as a realm of service and do away with the dinosaurs who dominate it today, and we need an army of people ready to put their careers and investments on the line to do it.
We need to share. There is no sustainable future without a vigorous and lively public realm. We need to defend the commons, from the air we breath to the culture we create together. That commons is everywhere under attack from those who would privatize it for profit and stifle innovation to protect the status quo, the way, for instance, that the music and film industries are trying to take away our ability to freely (and legally) share our own music and videos, because they’re worried not only that someone might illegally share some of their music or videos, but because the explosion of free music and video we’re seeing threatens their out-of-date business models. We must counter-attack, supporting open culture and public ownership, and working everywhere to redistribute the future.
We need better mousetraps. The stuff that surrounds us is crap: toxic, wasteful, unjust, ugly. We need innovation everywhere, real innovation, stuff that isn’t just marginally better or superficially green, but stuff that is actually, right now or as soon as possible, an order of magnitude more efficient, completely non-toxic and closed-loop. We need to support the folks out there trying to design these things. We need to laud their efforts, invest in their inventions, and generally do everything we can to get better design, technology and thinking applied to every aspect of our lives. Then we need to help regular people separate the bright green from the greenwashed.
We need to grow new systems. The systems which surround us are awful. Some of them we can hack. Some of them simply need to be replaced. Suburban sprawl, for instance, is simply wrong: there’s no way to make it sustainable. We should simply bring it to a halt. Farming, on the other hand, needs to be reformed—and through conscious buying, political activism and ethical leadership, we can help steer agriculture away from petrochemical factory farming and towards innovative local sustainable farms. Some of our choices nurture changed systems —those are the choices we need to show people how to make.
We need to help each other. Consumer-based approaches and “simple things” lists tend to reinforce our sense that the only sphere in which we can act is our own little private lives, and that isolates us. But the isolation we all sometimes feel in the face of the magnitude of the problems is itself a major part of the problem. None of us can change the world single-handedly: as Wendell Berry says, “to work at this work alone is to fail.” We need to organize, mobilize, join together, act in concert. We need to seek out our allies and get their backs when they need us. That happens through applied effort, not impulse buying.
We need to admit that we’re at war over the definition of the future. There are a lot of powerful interests spending a lot of money to keep people ignorant, make them uncertain, postpone action, encourage cynicism and apathy, and lock them in the mental prison of thinking that no better future is possible. To the extent they are successful, nothing we advocate can happen. We need to fight back. We need to speak clearly, intelligently, and, if possible, with humor and passion. We need to label our opponents (from climate denialists to apologists for the status quo) what they are—enemies of the future. We need to make the nature of our times crystal-clear for all to see. We need to hew to the demanding standards our actual real situation imposes on us—that we achieve measurable sustainability, honest-to-goodness one-planet living, for everyone, within our lifetimes—and scorn the mental tyranny of small goals. We need to break through the meaningless chatter around environmental and social issues, and point to genuine alternatives, hold real conversations, and create a culture that speaks to the soul of our times.
We need, above all else, to show that another world is possible, indeed, it’s here all around us, though we do not see it. We need to inspire not only our fellow citizens but ourselves with visions of what we’re beginning to accomplish together, visions of what a planet brought back to sanity will look and feel like, visions of how we will live in a bright green future. That future should be beautiful and stylish, dynamic and creative, but it must before all else be genuinely sustainable, or it’s not much of a future at all, is it?
The world is listening. It’s our obligation to tell it a better story.
Exploring ways of building a better future has been Alex Steffen’s work and has taken him around the world an environmental journalist on four continents. That work has also led him to provide strategic consultation to over 50 environmental groups (on issues like the fate of endangered species, the future of “smart growth” and “reframing” the environmental movement) and many foresight projects (anticipating, for instance, paths for a Pacific Northwest transition to sustainability and what green neighborhoods of the future might look like). You can email Alex Steffen at [email protected].