I’ve been meaning to write something about the new trend towards environmentalism in America for some time now. It’s a tough topic to write about though because of its scale. Contemporary environmentalism ranges from Dick Cheney’s view that “conservation is a matter of personal virtue not national policy” through to Tom Friedman’s global enviro-political outlook. In this post I’d like to focus on environmentalism as a social trend.
Not only is environmentalism something aware and committed individuals are talking about and taking action on, but (and this is a more recent phenomenon) “reducing impact” is something Americans are starting to incorporate into their day-to-day lives. My perception might be a bit skewed because I am living in an affluent and progressive city (Cambridge) and as such I see as many people biking to work as making 100 mile round-trip commute (I’m not going to speculate as to which is more common in America but I would suspect it tends towards the latter). But through my prism of the People’s Republic of Cambridge: shopping at the Harvest Food Co-op, buying used books from the homeless guy in Harvard Square and dodging cyclists on Mass Ave; I see a first-hand bourgeois environmentalism at play.
Bourgeois environmentalism as it is know in academia is an ugly phenomenon. It describes a third world development process of clearing out slums to build things that will benefit the upper class: hotels, malls, golf courses, etc. under the assumption that these are better for the environment than a bunch of poor people living in squalor and contributing human waste to the communal drinking water. Not that I don’t agree with it, but I think that we can re-brand bourgeois environmentalism. It’s easy enough to see that acting green requires either an investment in time or money, and therefore is bourgeois pursuit.
Some may find it incongruous to label environmental responsibility in such a way because bourgeois tends to connote materialism and conspicuous consumption. However, as blogger Seth Godin writes "Zero [impact] is the new black." Buying green, as much as acting green, is status symbol in that it displays moral and social superiority. Buying organic or local foods, spending extra on the electric bill to buy from renewable sources, and hybrid Lexus SUVs are to the 21st century what steak, lobster, cocaine, and BMW were to the 1980s.
If bourgeois environmentalism has a hero, it is “No Impact Man.” Colin Beavan is married with a 2 year-old daughter living in a pre-War on Fifth Avenue in New York City. His experiment, which is being chronicled on his blog and has net him a book deal, is to spend as The New York Times dubbed it “The Year Without Toilet Paper.” A year with him and his family making no impact on the environment. This includes using no electricity, buying no consumer products and the packaging that come with them, having a compost heap in their Manhattan apartment, and not even using an elevator (no small task on the vertical island). Beavan is attempting to show that living in such a way is not just for fringe fanaticals living in the woods of New Hampshire (like the parents of skier Bode Miller) but a lifestyle for the American upper and upper-middle class.