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