And Now For Something Completely Different

BlackKnightLike the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we act as if nothing needs to change as we lose limb after limb.

Kulturträger column originally published in Alternatives Journal Vol.37, No.6, 2011.

IT SEEMS CRAZY to me how often environmentalists try to dissuade people from ravaging the planet by appealing to their self-interest. Do you know what I mean? Don’t pollute because you’ll be poisoned; think of the money you’ll save by not driving your car; protect the rainforest for it might contain a cure for cancer. Environmental discourse is rife with arguments based strictly on narrow individual and collective human welfare.

This approach ought to make sense since ours is a culture of self-absorption and self-indulgence. After watching over 2000 hours of cable television as part of an “experiment” for his book, The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben reached what seems an obvious conclusion: The overwhelming message of television is basically, “You are the most important thing on Earth … All things orbit your desires.” So, how better for enviros to appeal to the masses than with advocacy that reflects this flattery?

I’m not saying that such appeals aren’t true, or at least potentially so. My objection is that they embody a fundamentally contradictory logic: How can we hope to get people to stop being so selfish by repeatedly asking them to act selfishly? This collective egomania has been going on for at least 40 years with no end in sight. The latest conceit is something called “ecosystem services” as if all of nature was a multinational utility conglomerate.

So what have we accomplished in 40 years? Some of the biggest gains in policy came in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We’ve saved a few species from oblivion. More recently, we’ve glimpsed technologies that claim to herald a renewable-energy future. And we have so-called green products. But in many ways, things are getting worse for the planet and its occupants. If anything, the misery for other species is intensifying, and we seem closer to global disaster than ever before.

Instead of  celebrating 40 years, we should  be  mourning  the  fact  that  so little progress has been made. It seems we’ve had it all wrong. What if, instead of unknowingly working to reinforce anthropocentric-resourcist consumer culture for the past four decades, the environmental movement had pursued a cultural strategy early on? I’d bet my hand-me-down 40 inch, 400-watt-sucking plasma TV we’d actually be farther ahead than we are now.

Here’s a picture. In 2007, WWF Canada put out an unusual advocacy ad. It involved a series of scenes recalling the 1960s and 1970s. A businessman pats his secretary’s bum when she gives him a whiskey. A family drives down the road in a convertible with the kids jumping around and no one wearing seat belts; they toss garbage onto the road. A teacher mercilessly beats a boy’s hands with a ruler. A woman suntans for hours. A doctor smokes with a pregnant patient. The ad says, “The world has changed. You can too.”

This ad reminds us of how our culture and social norms have indeed improved, in some cases aided by self-interest appeals, and quite quickly too. Things  can  get better; we can get smarter. But on the environmental front, sufficient progress is not going to be achieved using the same questionable tactics. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we act as if nothing needs to change while we lose limb after limb.

There will always be easier ways to pursue self-interest than those that purport to address environmental issues, so let’s try something completely different. Let’s think of the crisis not as a problem to be solved, but as a set of meanings and values, stories and beliefs – our culture – that legitimize unspeakable disservices to the Earth. And let’s engage those meanings and values directly instead of tinkering around the edges of their technological manifestations. Let’s accelerate the change by enacting a more imaginative and sustainable set of stories.

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Kulturtrager #9 Completely Different