Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Channel Crossing - Sylvia Plat... | We're All Gonna Die! »

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For Earth Day, Please Don’t Buy a Bamboo Shirt

posted by on April 22 at 16:59 PM

Hey, it’s Earth Day! As usual, that means it’s a day for you, individual American, to take a few small steps to “save the planet” while political and corporate America do absolutely nothing to fix the society-wide structural problems that are actually destroying the environment in the first place.* (See also: Al Gore’s “We” campaign, the P-I’s list of “52 tips for living green”—clean your coffee maker with vinegar! don’t dump your toxic electronics in the trash!—and any number of green-lifestyle web sites).

For example, check out Michael Pollan’s piece in the New York Times’ “Green Issue” last Sunday (which, by the way, is chock full of exactly the sort of “little things you can do” that make people feel better but don’t really have much impact, such as making a slow-cooker out of hay, buying organic bamboo clothing, and stopping junk mail.) In it, he attempts to answer the inevitable (and reasonable) question about such individual efforts: “Why bother?”

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit.

While Pollan acknowledges, several pages in, that “some … grand scheme may be necessary” to prevent environmental catastrophe, he adds that until someone else comes up with that scheme we can all occupy ourselves by setting an example for other individuals. We can do that, Pollan argues… by planting a garden.

Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind. […]

This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym … Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

All of which, I can assure you, is true—I myself have spent much of the last several weekends destroying the lawn and planting a garden, and not only is it gratifying, tough, enjoyable work, it does indeed keep me from, say, dinking around on the Internet or sitting inside watching a movie. But a frugal, healthy, rewarding hobby does not an environmental revolution make. If it’s true that, as NASA climate expert Jim Hanson has said, we only have about eight more years to start cutting (not slowing the growth of—cutting) the amount of carbon we’re emitting, planting a garden—“bothering,” in Pollan’s term—may give us better food and something to do on the weekend, but it won’t do a damn thing to ensure that we don’t destroy our climate and our planet.

To be clear: I don’t think Pollan is wrong when he suggests that people plant gardens. Gardens are good, especially at a time when food prices are soaring. But they aren’t the answer to the question “How can we save the planet?” (Or even, for that matter, to Pollan’s own question, “Why bother?”) As an environmental leader at this moment in American history, it would be nice to hear Pollan suggest more radical changes—new regulatory policies; incentives and disincentives to push land use in a more sustainable direction; a massive education campaign aimed at schoolchildren who will inherit the climate we create—instead of blithely suggesting that planting a garden will raise other people’s consciousness enough to make a quantifiable difference.

*Footnote 1: I am not saying that a “thousand little things” can’t make some difference; just that individual efforts won’t, on their own, stop us from burning up the planet. If you don’t believe me, check out the debate going on over at Seattlest over the Global Footprint Network’s new carbon footprint calculator, which makes it basically impossible to have a “carbon footprint” of less than two “planets.” Put another way, even if we make all the individual changes we can, we’re still using resources at a level it would take two planets to support. Seattlest concludes that this is a “downer,” but I think it’s a message: Real change will have to come from the top down as well as the ground up. As a (very small piece of) evidence of that, the Times didn’t even print its “green” issue on recycled paper. Bet you that, until some percentage of post-consumer material is required by law, they won’t.

*Footnote 2: Elsewhere in the magazine, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (the Freakanomics pair) argue that fixed rates, cheap gas, and free roads hide the “negative externalities” of driving—all the costs of driving that the driver doesn’t actually pay. These include congestion, emissions, and traffic accidents, among others. Added up, Levitt and Dubner estimate, those externalities total more than $300 billion every year—about ten cents a mile. Instead of lobbying for individual drivers to drive less, Levitt and Dubner make the case for top-down change: higher gas taxes, tolls and other forms of congestion pricing, and pay-as-you-drive insurance. Those are the kind of solutions that change behavior. Planting a garden, in comparison, is just a pleasant, harmless hobby.

RSS icon Comments


Wish I could tear up my landlord's land to put in a planter box or something. well, sucks to be me

Posted by vooodooo84 | April 22, 2008 4:56 PM

Lifestyle politics operate on the same principle as voting: from the individual perspective, neither will significantly alter the outcomes of the massive systems they're intended to impact. But they do, in some infinitesimal way, put the doer's values into practice and set an example for others.

They also both have the side effect of assuaging guilty liberal consciences. But I don't think that's as trivial as some imply.

Posted by shub-negrorath | April 22, 2008 5:03 PM

"it won’t do a damn thing to ensure that we don’t destroy our climate and our planet."

Stop the fear! We aren't going to destroy our planet. The planet will be just fine. I'm tired of the fear-mongering. Even the worst case predictions do not envision planetary destruction.

You are of course correct that these little things are nice, but won't make much of a difference. But please, stop scaring folks. Things will change, people may be displaced, etc., but the planet will not be destroyed.

Global warming may not be a hoax, but the hyperbole and hand-wringing make it easy to claim it is.

Stop the Fear!

Posted by Medina | April 22, 2008 5:05 PM

tearing up the grass and putting in a garden or even just native plants will go some ways to helping increase biodiversity of species in your area.

Posted by Jiberish | April 22, 2008 5:07 PM


I have now decided that Erica, despite being a washed up bizich, is way more moral and definately better than me and most other human beings.

Posted by ecce homo | April 22, 2008 5:07 PM

Hate to say it Erica but it's hard to find a newer apartment with a balcony let alone access to a shared space for gardening. We can't have it both ways. We're either going to have suburban growth or or we're going to have urban density. The latter making ground square footage so expensive that nobody would ever think to relinquish any as a community garden. The frustration almost makes me want to move to an LDS compound.

Posted by El Seven | April 22, 2008 5:08 PM

Thanks for killing the salmon with all the chemical pesticides.

Yeah, that means you.

Urban residents use way less energy per capita and impinge on the environment way less in the first place. Don't kill yourself trying to garden, just use the compost recycling in your yard waste instead.

Posted by Will in Pesticide Seattle | April 22, 2008 5:11 PM

Well, the point about China is valid (in case you don't want to click, the link is to an article about the newly affluent in China wanting gas guzzling cars)

Systemic change is needed. Our thousand little things in the US we're doing right now to make us feel better is nothing but a fart in the wind compared to what needs to be done globally to combat the problems.

Posted by PopTart | April 22, 2008 5:16 PM

ECB, I disagree with you. Change starts with the individual. By dismissing personal responsibility, you are saying that it is some other entity's problem to solve--corporation, government--each of whom look to the voter or the consumer to move forward.

For example, I just sat in a luncheon today where a large, commercial developer with over 5 million square feet of real estate, said "Our focus groups show us that green building is not something that is important to our tenants, therefore we have no reason to make these costly changes in the way we build." This person, along with every politician, takes cues from individuals. Consumer habits are tougher to change than laws yet laws won't change without them.

For a great example of this phenomenon, check out "Blue Vinyl". It's a great film.

Posted by me | April 22, 2008 5:17 PM

The Levitt and Dubner Freakanomics piece is very interesting. It definitely points out what sure looks like a huge (Iraq war sized!) subsidy for car travel.

This suggests that at the end of the day, the real problem is corruption - the ability of some folks to dump costs on others. Maybe Larry Lessig is right about more than copyright policy....

Posted by bakfiets | April 22, 2008 5:24 PM

@9 totally right, we need to make the small changes and work to turn them in to the systemic ones

Posted by vooodooo84 | April 22, 2008 5:31 PM

The small changes are only going to create SOME peace of mind and keep the population AWARE of how fragile the planet is.

The REAL solution for the total downer is RESEARCH.

In the mid 1800's scientists and philosophers started crunching numbers and came to this realization that if the population of people kept continuing to grow, there wouldn't be enough food or resourses to provide. Along came the industrial revolution and advancement in technology, and now the human race continues to propogate on borrowed time.

Now for the past 30 some odd years we can't ignore the fact that our new borrowed time is up, that we have become addicted to our energy consumption lifestyle. Not only to live but as a reason TO live.

So now science and technology will inevitably step in and save our asses again. Hopefully it will be more lasting this time.

Posted by OR Matt | April 22, 2008 5:40 PM

The Chinese doppel-ganger as described in the quote is importantly misleading. No one is waiting around to scrupulously undermine my personal environmental efforts; no one is waiting to eat each pound of meat I choose not to eat or drive each mile I choose not to drive. There is no weird sadistic Chinese doppel-ganger like that. Nope, this meat-eating car-driving Chinese person that the author has in mind will eat however much meat and drive however many miles, not just waiting around for the meat and miles I forego.

So either my doppel-ganger drives and eats meat and I do the same, or my doppel-ganger drives and eats meat while I change my lifestyle. Or maybe, just maybe, we both change our lifestyles. But what is definitely not happening is the defeatist suggestion that there is somebody out there explicitly counteracting my actions.

Posted by ben | April 22, 2008 5:49 PM

At least China is developing solar, wind, and hydro power as fast as they can crank them out - and financing a lot of research into them and biofuels ... even if their system of government then proceeds to make the biomass projects fail.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 22, 2008 6:02 PM

I also think it's fucking insulting to talk about "my evil twin, the Chinese doppelganger" to describe someone who, gasp, wants some of the comforts and opportunities we take for granted.

Posted by banjoboy | April 22, 2008 6:29 PM

I thought it was kind of hilarious that one of their suggestions wasn't, "stop getting daily delivery of the paper and read it online instead."

Posted by Davida | April 22, 2008 6:55 PM

It's too late. The tipping point has tipped - Siberian permafrost melting, oceans rising. Fact is, with climactic doom just around the corner we should just screw trying to be green and enjoy the little time left for us and our children. I'm going to leave a BIGGER footprint of carbon, unrecycled garbage, polyesters and round up sprayed on my weeds.

Party like it's 2099.

Posted by Bob | April 22, 2008 7:07 PM

I bought a fucking bike Thursday and the rear tire blew out today. I'm doing plenty for the fucking earth right now.

Posted by Gitai | April 22, 2008 7:34 PM

Erica, you're consistently the most lucid writer at this paper and I love it. It's absolutely true: if we depend entirely on individual effort, then we're fucked, because even well-meaning folks like my mom aren't going to totally change their lifestyles to the extent necessary if it's totally up to them, sadly. Unless you want to keep your head in the sand like Medina and hope that everything turns out ok, in which case good luck to you.

Posted by lorax | April 22, 2008 9:55 PM

"higher gas taxes, tolls and other forms of congestion pricing, and pay-as-you-drive insurance. Those are the kind of solutions that change behavior."

Or just make the poor walk.

Posted by Dianna | April 22, 2008 10:18 PM

"Or just make the poor walk."

Oh, don't be so negative.

The poor will be walking, harnessed to the chariots of their overlords. Just "walking" is wasteful.

Posted by Tiktok | April 22, 2008 11:53 PM

@17 - that only works for the Canadians posting on here - with their massive supplies of clean water, clean energy, and an ice-free Northwest Passage.

It's not going to be easy in America.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 23, 2008 12:27 AM

higher gas taxes, tolls and other forms of congestion pricing, and pay-as-you-drive insurance.

Amen. Include charging for plastic bags too. No one will do a damn thing that isn't superficial until they actually experience the costs themselves.

Posted by F | April 23, 2008 12:26 PM

Whether or not I install a CFL or stop using plastic bags when I go shopping will make an impact on global warming isn't really the point. The point is that we all need to change our attitudes. When we do that, and more people start demanding to our elected officials that they enact laws and policies that reflect our changed attitudes, things that will make a big difference will happen. That stuff won't happen until the people demand it.

It's going to take a huge effort to affect climate change and we all need to change our attitudes and behavior. The small stuff leads to the big stuff.

Posted by gillsans | April 23, 2008 1:03 PM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).