Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Is No Impact Man Bad for the Planet?

A story by Jeffrey Ball in today's Wall Street Journal asks whether Earth Day is bad for the planet - the argument being that it creates a cozy feel-good picture that that fools us into thinking we're actually making progress, and distracts us from the massive (and expensive) changes we need to make to fight global warming.
It made me wonder whether - in a different way - No Impact Man is bad for the planet.
It's not that I don't deeply admire Colin Beavan, who set out to spend a year living in New York City without making any environmental impact. He's heroic; I consider myself a pretty good environmentalist, but I couldn't do - or rather do without - half what he did.
And that's my point. The fact is, just about none of us (even Colin, who's now only Low Impact Man) can do what he did long-term. And probably only a few of us are willing even to come close. No TV? Handkerchiefs instead of tissues? No take-out (because no plastic containers)? Buying food only from farmers markets and bulk bins in health food stores? Collecting used paper from other people's trash and using the other side?
I fear that presenting uncomfortable personal steps like this as a way to help preserve the planet feeds into the Dick Cheney take on global warming - that what environmentalists really want all of us to do is live in dark, cold houses, sell our cars, and risk visits from the trash police if we don't separate our garbage properly.
If that's what it's going to take to stop global warming, I'm pretty sure global warming won't be stopped.
There's a real public relations problem here. The uncomfortable truth is that anything any of us can do individually is a drop in the bucket to what needs to be done. We need huge shifts in technology and infrastructure that can't be brought about except by an enormous, sustained government-corporate effort that will look more like the New Deal than like some nice suburban tree-planting.
In other words, this is going to cost a lot of money. This is going to raise your taxes. And the reason we need to do it (setting aside the fact that keeping the earth habitable for humans is arguably a Good Thing) is that the cost if we don't do it will be unavoidable and exponentially greater. Don't like $3.50 a gallon gas? Try $10 a gallon gas.
What's scary is that pundits have been making exactly that argument about Social Security and Medicare for decades now, and they haven't been able to persuade any government, Democratic or Republican, to take even such a comparatively simple step as eliminating the social security tax cut-off.
I don't know how we make our case in a way that actually gets the job done. But I suspect it's at least possible that a massive deployment of technology (aimed at saving the world, no less) might be more exciting, to more people, than composting their garbage and hanging their laundry on the line - worthy, and even pleasant, as those activities are (and just for the record, I do both).
The US government has a penchant for declaring war on abstractions - like drugs, or terror. A government that would declare all-out war on global warming - and then follow through - would get my vote. And maybe a lot of other peoples'.

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