eco-stunts, book deals, and their effects on the rest of us

August 28, 2009

Hmmm, a major motion picture now, eh? Im glad he was doing it for the right reasons.

Hmmm, a major motion picture now, eh? I'm glad he was doing it for the right reasons.

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert has a wonderful undercut of the so-called eco-stunts, or living an extremely environment-friendly lifestyle, and the publicity surrounding them. Her primary targets are bloggers-et-book writers Colin Beaven (No Impact Man) and Vanessa Farquharson (Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days), both of whom adopted extreme eco-lifestyles for a period of time, blogged about it, and then got a book deal. After describing all the measures they take, like going without a refrigerator, toilet paper, and cars/trains/buses/subways, her closing paragraph sums it all up particularly well:

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.”

Seriously, take the fifteen minutes to read this article. It’s good.

I’m going to take her criticism of such publicity stunts (she reminds us that Colin Beavan’s idea of living a no impact life arose from a lunch conversation with his agent about his next book project) one step further: not only are they inane and self-promoting, but they trivialize environmental measures the rest of us — in the real world — take.

Notice that once the book deal is finished, these authors revert mostly back to their original, planet-killing lifestyle. If I were to read such a book, I would probably feel some mixture of shame — that my own life was not more environmentally efficient — and humor — because the life described by the authors sounds so crappy.

Such accounts of “extreme” lifestyles seem to trivialize the things the rest of us do to help out, like switching in CFL bulbs, recycling, and turning the lights off. Compared to the “extreme” lifestyles, some might think that these small measures don’t have as significant an impact and thus aren’t worth being as diligent about. What a shame, because those small measures we all take work into our life are by far the best sources of energy efficiency.

Someone needs to write a book about reinsulatining his house, riding his bike more, installing a smart electricity meter, going to the farmer’s market, and installing solar panels on his roof. The book needs to span a year, and then another, and then another, and another. That stuff doesn’t make us feel bad about what we do. It makes us think, “Hmm, that sounds pretty doable.” The key part is that there’s no end point to “experiment.” It’s a sustainable (ahh…wordplay) lifestyle.

Of course, such a book would be quite boring. But that’s the point, isn’t it. It’s not about selling copies. It’s getting us to change our lifestyles — for good.

One Response to “eco-stunts, book deals, and their effects on the rest of us”

  1. You present a situation that reveals many dimensions of a flawed American character, when it comes to both basic problem-solving and cultural introspection. An important, but largely unexplored, caveat of Kolbert’s insightful essay is our obsession with “extreme” anything, readily visible in all genres of entertainment, in particular the wildly improbable “reality” shows that consistently earn top ratings (despite my private prediction years ago that the trend would wane). The biggest irony of extreme scenarios in the context of environmentalism grows out of the basic difference between mere voyeurism and emulation. We amuse ourselves by watching morbidly obese people try to lose weight in all sorts of extreme ways, but we struggle to improve our own health in very simple, modest, and most importantly, private ways.

    It’s worth recalling, too, that there was nothing extreme about Thoreau’s “experiment” in 1845! Living simply, on the land, from the sweat of one’s brow, may have been a stunt for a young, urban intellectual, but it was an altogether banal reality for most people in the mid-19th century, even for most Americans. Our slavish consumerism and economic shortsightedness are a much more recent phenomenon, I’m afraid. That brings me to the best part of Kolbert’s fine critique, which is the addendum you provide in your post. Meaningful changes in behavior don’t have to be extreme to have serious environemental impact. In some cases, the smaller the better, if only because the more likely to be emulated by people who aren’t big on self-sacrifice. Perhaps the biggest weakness of our middle-class, liberal, environmental movement is that it is too often motivated by guilt and not plain commonsense. Guilt is not a very productive emotion, least of all in the long time horizons required by true environmentalism. Positive change requires a clear mind and a quiet commitment to efficiency.

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