Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Plug for Environmental Living from an Environmental Fatalist

If, in the past, you had asked me when I became an environmentalist, I would have told you, never; I’m not one. It’s not that I’ve got anything against the environment. I love the Earth. Seriously. I love the outdoors. I love parks and hiking and walks in the woods. I love clean water and babbling brooks and swimming in a gorge. And I think it would be tragic if people didn’t have access to all the wonderful things that can be experienced out in the natural world. It’s just that I am, depending on your point of view, a fatalist or a realist. I think Al Gore is awesome, and more power to him for spreading the environmental message. But I also think that we are so far past the point of no return that the sum total of all worldwide environmental efforts are just rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. From all that I’ve read, it seems like some of the most informed environmental scientists out there basically agree that even if, overnight, we could zap every Denali into a Prius and squish every McMansion into a tiny energy-efficient, public transport-accessible LEED certified condo, the best case scenario would be that the environmental apocalypse would take place on a Thursday instead of a Tuesday.

All of the current residents of planet Earth can do their part to cut down on their own consumption, but the fundamental source of what we’re up against is exponential population growth and expanding industrialization. Unless we can institute a worldwide ban on procreation and a prohibition on any further industrialization (i.e. moving up from poverty and starvation to the first rung of first world living), we’re going to continue to move faster and faster down the path of destruction. An anti-naysayer might argue that fatalists throughout history have been proven wrong by new technologies. And that’s true. Even if we seem irrevocably screwed at the moment, it’s always possible that some fundamentally game-changing new development will emerge – like the ability to convert dirt into water or poop into food – but I’ll believe that when I see it. And the clock is ticking.

OK. That’s the end of my rant. But not the end of my story. There’s a twist. Despite my belief in the utter futility of the environmental movement, it turns out that I do almost all of the things a good environmentalist is supposed to do. To wit: I live in a small condo in a dense, urban neighborhood within walking distance to everything I need; I don’t have a car; I commute using public transportation; I recycle; and, for good measure, I even bring my own reusable shopping bag with me when I go (on foot) grocery shopping. (I’ll never be able to live up to the true pinnacle of environmental living – Cheryl Crow’s suggestion that people should use just one square of toilet paper per bathroom visit. I am a huge fan of Cheryl’s music, but, for the sake of digestive tract discretion, let’s just say that Cheryl and I must have very different diets.)

Ignore for the moment the fact that none of the reasons for my righteous environmental lifestyle is based on any conscious attempt at being environmental – that I live in a small condo in a dense, urban neighborhood because, in Boston, that’s what I can afford; that I don’t have a car because my wife lives in a different city for the time being and has exclusive custody of our one car; that my office just happens to be on a subway line that goes right to my front door; that the re-usable grocery bag was given to me by REI for free because I bought so much shit there over the course of a year. If you’re doing all the right stuff, the reason shouldn’t matter. And so, because being environmental is hip and stylish, because Cheryl Crow might be more likely to ask me to come jam with her band if she knew that I used reusable shopping bags, and because I think a neutral observer would judge my lifestyle to be pretty solidly environmental, I hereby declare myself an environmentalist.

And just because I don’t really believe in the environmental components of all the environmental things I’m doing these days doesn’t mean that I can’t start being all evangelical about it. No, I am ready to spread the word. But my angle is this: environmental living is fun. Not so much the recycling and re-using grocery bags part. Those aren’t bad, but they’re not fun per se. What’s fun is living in a small condo in a dense neighborhood, walking to the main strip to run errands and taking the subway to work. What all of these things have in common is the simple fact that they lead to interaction with other people. And even with other people I might not otherwise run into on a regular basis. When I walk down the street to run errands, I see neighbors. Sometimes, they are walking around too! Same thing if I sit out on the front stoop with a beer and a book. Because lots of other condos are packed into my dense street, there are usually living breathing human beings out on the sidewalk. And the subway is full of gangstas and geeks and hipsters and businessmen. I might not be best friends with them all, but I see them roving around and talking and reading their magazines and doing the things people do. And that, to me, makes life more fun. If most of my life were spent shuffling between my Denali, my McMansion and my office, I don’t think I’d have the same kinds of interactions as my environmental existence encourages.

But wait; there’s more! Walking is good for you. I haven’t seen the actual statistics yet, but I’m sure there’s research out there that shows that people who walk to the grocery store are 38% healthier, happier and more fulfilled than people who drive Denalis to the grocery store. Oh, and stores that service mostly smaller, pedestrian-accessible areas are more likely to be independently owned. And giving your money to people you know instead of to faceless shareholders is fun too! Who knew being environmental would be such a blast?

So here’s my plug: If for no other reason than demonstrating your keen sense of irony, become an environmentalist! When, in the next few decades, the world ecosystem collapses and the Earth is sucked back into the sun, why not increase the chance that it all goes down in the middle of a neighborhood block party? The apocalypse will be at least a little more fun if you have a few extra friends by your side.

For your further edification, take a look at this terrific 20 minute video by Annie Leonard called The Story of Stuff - a wonderful take on production, consumption, the environment and happiness in the modern world.

1 comment:

Kim Pijanowski said...

I loved this post. I'm futilely using cloth diapers for my baby. My washing machine and or dryer are constantly running, so I'm sure the impact is still huge. But I get the same joy out of it as telling people that I don't get cable. :)
I think it's some sick Ithaca version of Catholic guilt that will not allow me to throw out recyclable materials, even if I have to carry the damn can home with me - and I have to drive my recycleables to the center because my apartment doesn't offer recycling.