By this point, the radical movement cultures of the 60s and 70s had all but completey given way to the amorphous soup of post-modernism. Adam Werbach stands at the pinnacle of this process as it relates to the environmentalist movement. Werbach's critique of environmentalism is very much couched in the language of the post-modernists who are always declaring an end to one thing or another.
Werbach tells us that the environmentalist movement needs to broaden its appeal and become consumer friendly. He would have the movement packaged so as to promise Americans that they can have their cake and it too. He would have us believe that self-sacrifice and hard policy choices are unnecessary. True, many of the things Americans value are not mutually exclusive with environmentalism. However, Werbach’s feel-good analysis is so superficial that it doesn’t even matter.
Broadening the environmentalist movement conceptually is one thing, but watering it down to the point of meaninglessness is quite another. Doing this allows a disastrous side-step of the necessary dramatic shift in policy and consciousness that will keep us from ruining our ecosystems. To me, broadening means connecting the dots so that working people see the connection between the exploitation of their labor AND the exploitation of the environment. It means a New Deal-esque marshaling of federal and state resources to retrofit homes and buildings, invest in alternative transportation and seriously reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, foreign or otherwise. It means empowering people to take on the big corporations like Wal-Mart who trash workers rights around the world and recklessly fuel what is possibly the biggest environmental threat in the coming decades: China. Adam Werbach should be teaching people how to lead attacks against multinational companies, not how to be co-opted by them.
Environmentalism shouldn’t be a stand alone issue, it needs to be nested in other parts of our civil society. But cozying up to the multinationals is not the way to go. This only serves the status quo and allows them to blur the deeper connections between the destruction of ecosystems and the perpetuation of poverty and exploitation. It allows these connections to be replaced with a big yellow smiley face. Instead, an empowered progressive or social democratic movement needs to take up the banner and bring the cause back to the streets and out of the board rooms.
A lot has happened since Werbach became Sierra Club president (An Inconvenient Truth, Hurricane Katrina, $100 dollar a barrel oil). Yet as environmentalism is replaced with everybody’s new favorite word, sustainability, it runs the risk of becoming some thoughtless catch-all panacea for the general psychic unrest of the current zeitgeist. I get worried when everybody starts saying they want to be more sustainable. Everybody can not possibly know or agree upon what sustainability means. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are not going to prevent the next Katrina. Cars running on discarded fry fat aren’t going to bring down the price of gas or reduce dependence on oil. But as long as we nod our heads and applaud in approval at these things, we’re only going to keep on kidding ourselves.
We can’t shake ourselves of this pesky little global warming thing unless we start ripping up highways and replacing them with light rail, rapid rail and high-speed rail transit systems that will cost us BILLIONS of dollars, or without moving back into cities with corner grocery stores so we don’t have to drive two or three miles for a gallon of milk and pop-tarts.
And I know Schoharie County folks aren’t going to like this one, but we can’t do it without making real commitments to alternative energy, like wind power (as ONE example). Americans are going to have to learn to live with the inconvenience of windmill blades swooshing all the night.
Our current landscape: sprawled out, automobile-dependent and increasingly alienated is NOT sustainable, no matter how much we wish it so by applauding the use of the word sustainability. Our current landscape is not just ecologically unsustainable, it is economically and socially unsustainable as well. Proactive steps are not really needed; these problems will begin to force our hand as gas hits 5 dollars a gallon and people go broke driving to the supermarket to buy food at its inflated prices (due to fuel costs). Feedback loops will resound through our entire society, much louder than the swooshing of wind turbine blades, I’m afraid.
And what would Wal-Mart say? How about: Take those rebate checks (paid for with deficit money borrowed from China) and gas up the SUV and (with whatever you have left) pack it tight with useless junk from…Wal-Mart (useless junk manufactured in China!). Don’t think about how much extra you’re paying to ship your consumer goods all over the damn planet or to gas up a massive hunk of metal to drive all over the place or how much more sensible it would be just to live, work, and shop in the same small walkable community that we manufacture our crap in and grow our food in. That would be too utopian and it might scare people away from becoming good consumer-environmentalists. And we don't want that.
I don’t know, maybe Adam Werbach is right. Maybe if I buy some more fluorescent light bulbs I’ll feel better.