The green bubble: why environmentalism keeps imploding

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In "The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding" [the New Republic, May 20], Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of "Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists," say that a few years ago, being green "moved beyond politics." Gestures -- bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizingwindows -- "gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance."
Green consumption became "positional consumption" that identified the consumer as a member of a moral and intellectual elite. A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because "it makes a statement about me." Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshapedits 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius. Nordhaus and Shellenberger note the telling "insignificance," as environmental measures, of planting gardens or using fluorescent bulbs. Their significance is therapeutic, but not for the planet. They make people feel better: "After all, we can't escape the fact that we depend on an infrastructure -- roads, buildings, sewage systems, power plants,electrical grids, etc. -- that requires huge quantities of fossil fuels. But the ecological irrelevance of these practices was beside the point." The point of "utopian environmentalism" was to reduce guilt. During the green bubble, many Americans became "captivated by the twin thoughts that human civilization could soon come crashing down -- and that we are on the cusp of a sudden leap forward inconsciousness, one that will allow us to heal ourselves, our society, and our planet. Apocalyptic fears meld seamlessly into utopian hopes." Suddenly, commonplace acts -- e.g., buying light bulbs -- infused pedestrian lives with cosmic importance. But:
"Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world's poor; they neglect to mention that the poor alsohave the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous." Now, say Nordhaus and Shellenberger, "the green bubble" has burst, pricked by Americans' intensified reluctance to pursue greenness at a cost to economic growth. The dark side of utopianism is "escapism and a disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green orfinancial." Reengagement with reality is among the recession's benefits

The New Republic
The Green Bubble by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
Why environmentalism keeps imploding.
Post Date Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sometime after the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, environmentalism crossed from political movement to cultural moment. Fortune 500 companies pledged to go carbonneutral. Seemingly every magazine in the country, including Sports Illustrated, released a special green issue. Paris dimmed the lights on the Eiffel Tower. Solar investments became hot, even for oil companies. Evangelical ministers preached the gospel of "creation care." Even archconservative Newt Gingrich published a book demanding action on global warming.
Green had moved beyond politics.Gestures that were once mundane--bringing your own grocery bags to the store, shopping for secondhand clothes, taking the subway--were suddenly infused with grand significance. Actions like screwing in light bulbs, inflating tires, and weatherizing windows gained fresh urgency. A new generation of urban hipsters, led by Colin Beavan, a charismatic writer in Manhattan who had branded himself "NoImpact Man," proselytized the virtues of downscaling--dumpster-diving, thrift-store shopping, and trading in one's beater car for a beater bike--while suburban matrons proudly clutched copies of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and came to see the purchase of each $4 heirloom tomato at the farmer's market as an act of virtue.
For those caught up in the moment, the future seemed to promise both...
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