perfectability impossibility: on the virtues of nuance and compromise (and also radical anarchistic revolution, yo)

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Here’s what I like:

Holding two completely diametrically opposed ideas in your hands and your heart at one time and rushing out into the world, thrusting both in front of you, living as hard as you can through both of them.

I’ve come to like, in truth, being a big giant hypocrite: I talk such talk about not compromising, drawing lines in the sand, and purity, but every second of my life, pretty much by definition, is a compromise on shifting sands of impurity.

I live in the world, therefore I fail just a little. Most of the time this doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to understand that a nuanced worldview and commitment to focusing my energies where they will be best utilized is more important than slavish attention to purity. The purity game is a fun one, most of my 20s was spent in its clutches, but in the end it’s a sad, small way to spend a life.

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Striving for perfection—while simultaneously recognizing its impossibility: that’s my game these days.

These rather abstract ideas have been floating around in my head more so than usual the past few days because of this great article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert . The always-brilliant Kolbert writes about how silly and absurd those gimmicky blogs (and the books that inevitably follow) are where someone painstakingly catalogues their vainglorious attempts at eco-friendly perfection.

Specifically, she’s talking about that No Impact Man blog (which at least the dude, Colin Beavan, admits was a stunt all along), as well as two extreme-sports 100-mile dieters (who wrote a blog, then book, chronicling their year eating food grown within 100 miles of their apartment) and that woman whose blog I actually pretty much like who resolved to do one “green life-style change every day for a year,” ranging from selling her car to not using toothpicks.

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Let me say this first: there is a place for them in the world. Useless extremism can teach us something, for sure. But as a genre I’ve been irked by all this for a while now. Not only because, as Kolbert so adeptly points out, they are all 100% stunts manufactured for publicity and book deals—I believe the authors all genuinely believe in their missions despite their complicity in the capitalist system, and though this might out me as a ridiculous Pollyanna, that’s OK—but mostly because they are actually doing the environmental movement, in the long run, a disservice on two fronts.

The first problem is the problem of nuance: lack thereof. The second is that the ingrained inequities and malfunctions of our beloved late-stage capitalism really don’t allow for your giant eco-leaps to mean much to the society as a whole. Yes, admitting that kinda sorta invalidates my entire lifestyle, but it’s a good reminder to me that all my organic jeans and local produce and composting don’t give me a free pass to stay home when I should be out smashing the state like a good anarchist.

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First the first: Maybe they are fun books and blogs to read for those of us who consider ourselves grassroots environmentalists, but for the culture at large, to whom they are almost exclusively aimed, I think their projects backfire. If you teach someone that eating locally involves growing and grinding your own wheat when you can’t source it near your home, no one is going to want to eat locally.

What, exactly, are these capers meant to show? Why do they irk me so? I guess it’s a certain self-righteousness (and I of course, Ms. bicycle-powered-washing-machine and whatnot, don’t like competition in that department) and…what? It’s just media-savvy lefty thoughtful people trying to draw attention to a giant problem, right?

I think it boils down to this: nuance as a methodology for long-term sustainability.

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Pop culture, by definition, cannot accept nuance, so we get these wild extremes. But if we truly want long-term solutions, we need nuance. We need, for example, salt. No one wants to live without salt, and it shouldn’t be seen as a virtue when you decide you’re going to go for a year without salt. Or, for that matter, cumin and coriander and cardamom and cloves (did you ever notice how many spices start with “C”?)—in short, the richnesses of the world. Having spices literally broadens our horizons and enriches our lives. There are smart ways to harvest and transport that which cannot immediately be grown in your neighborhood, just as there are smart ways to reduce your environmental footprint without reducing your life to such a tiny circle that one day you find yourself, as No Impact Man and his family did, to climbing fifty-four flights of stairs a day and eating endless amounts of, as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it, “cabbage slaw in the dark.”

Perhaps no one looks at these books and thinks, as I fear they do, “It’s too hard, I won’t even start.” Maybe your standard American housewife will buy Sleeping Naked is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days and will be inspired to walk to work more or turn down her thermostat, or something. Perhaps these quirky personal stories, a bit of medicine with a good deal of sugar thrown in, are what we need to turn our brain-dead populace into something closer to thinking, consciously consuming upright citizens. I sort of doubt it, but who knows.

On to my second point.

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As Kolbert brilliantly points out (she can’t do anything non-brilliantly, have you noticed?) in the sort of commentary I’d expect to find in The Nation, not The New Yorker*, the primary problems are structural, not personal, and therefore personal solutions aren’t always (or, let’s be honest, ever) the best solutions (Ms. the-personal-is-political, are you listening?).

She puts it so much better than I ever could that I’ll just do a little copy and paste action:

So committed is Beavan to his claim of zero impact that he can’t—or won’t—see the deforestation for the trees. He worries a great deal about the environmental consequences of Michelle’s tampon use and the shrink-wrap around a block of cheese. But when it comes to his building’s heating system, which is apparently so wasteful that people are opening windows in the middle of winter, he just throws up his hands.

A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.
What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. On the last page, he observes:

Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.
So, what are you going to do?

If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly—or perhaps happily—it isn’t. The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.
What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

Totally, totally, totally.

But! This is not to say, I don’t think, that personal solutions are no solutions at all. I think the trick is a mix of personal responsibility (cutting consumption, buying mindfully, etc) and massive societal structural overhaul. Sadly, I don’t think any of these books and blogs contributes all that much to either.

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*The blow job to Bloomberg in the issue before reminded me what I was reading though, don’t worry.

9 Responses to “perfectability impossibility: on the virtues of nuance and compromise (and also radical anarchistic revolution, yo)”

  1. Joshua May

    Personally, I think you had it right with:
    Let me say this first: there is a place for them in the world.

    I think, largely, it’s quite cynical.

    It feels to be a similar argument to when vegans complain that another vegan (or restaurant) fucked up and accidentally ate (or supplied) Shellac in the sprinkles on their donuts. Yes, red sprinkles are probably a waste of time, but there are, er, bigger fish to fry. You know, hassling people to skip that sausage and chomp on some tempeh instead, or (to draw a direct parallel) lobbying government for meat tax.

    No one’s perfect, and no one’s ever going to be. And no one will ever address all the issues everywhere ever.

    And, well, like you say. It’s aimed at pop-culture, so it’s going to sacrifice some substance to sell its message. (you have to crack egg, make omelette, etc. I’m sure there’s a more vegan analogy to use here)

    If it’s any consolation (and I fear it reduces what little credibility I may have had with you), my girlfriend became vegetarian and now vegan (in part) because of No Impact Man. Not literally because of what he did, but as part of a blended message that began to make sense to her, which opened her eyes to other issues. (And when vegans state things like “environmental vegans aren’t even _real_ vegans” it does no one any good. Again, bigger fish to fry and all that.)

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Very interesting. You are most likely right that I am a big cynic. I guess it just makes me sad in this Holden Caulfield way, thinking about the authors planning their eco-feats and signing their book contracts. Sigh.

      No loss of cred here — anything that makes anyone vegan is fine with me! I might hate a PETA ad, or get a funny feeling from these kinds of stunts, but in my heart of hearts I’m still glad they are doing something, even if it’s nothing I would do.

      Vegans who are so for environmental reasons are awesome vegans, who says such weird things? Let’s beat them up.

      Reply
      • Joshua May

        Yeah, it’s definitely worth being sad about in some aspects, but I’d rather see a guy like him spreading some kind of positive message than seeing corporations pushing stupid greenwashing (“organic bottled water!” kind of thing, where consumers learn nothing out of the experience).

        As a total aside (and a complete hypothetical), would you be happy or sad if he listed you (and this blog?) in the ‘thankyou’ section of his book? (You’d get more traffic, and get to spread your message further. And if even 10% of those people go vegan and start to give a shit, does the end justify the means?) Or would you decline the offer all together?

        Vegans who are so for environmental reasons are awesome vegans, who says such weird things? Let’s beat them up.

        I guess it’s the animal rights folks, more than anything (specifically: Bob and co over at http://veganfreak.com/). Arrogance (and almost ignorance) like that gives veganism a bad name, y’know? (“He’s perfect for the job, but he’s vegan so he’s probably an asshole”)

  2. r

    Hi Lagusta,

    um this is probably totally the wrong place to ask you this, but I am not sure what your email address is? I am trying to make a cake with white frosting (a person can only eat so much ganache, you know?), but I haven’t had much luck because most recipes call for Earth Balance and I think Earth Balance is totally gross. And since you don’t seem to be a huge fan of margarine either, I thought you might be a good person to ask to get me pointed in the right direction?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Christy

    You know, I’m not sure that if Beavan and fellow tenants did install a more effecient heating system in their building, or lobby lawmakers for better mass transit, that it would have more of an impact than his social experiment, and its expression through all its sundry media outlets. While Kolbert’s article is smart (all critics are clever), does it take into account the power of narrative, and how sorely needed the stories of sustainabilty awakening are in our culture? A story with different particulars, different faces, and voices, booked, blogged, movied, and podcasted, until it is accessible, and pervasive. There is a battle for that pervailing narrative. The other side is so effective at blasting their corporation sustaining narratives out there with billion dollar lobbying, and advertising campaigns. While I see your point, that we need more substance and less spectacle, this story, of awakening, renunciation, even personal sacrifice, is powerful, and valuable, and I think we will be seeing some of its magic (e.g. Joshua May’s girlfriend).

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Argh, right right right…why are you all so sane and not ranty? You’re totally right…but I think your rightness doesn’t diminish my right to be irked!

      Reply

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