My husband and I have been on a bit of a kick lately, when it comes to cooking whole foods, getting excited about organic farming (more along the lines of when we might return to the US, because in the Chinese context because we know so little), and evaluating some of our lifestyle choices. I loved reading The Dirty Life, as well as issues of whole living magazine, and a lot of the blogs that I follow make some compelling arguments for alternative lifestyle choices.
But both of us have always been hampered and discouraged by the stark realism that one less purchase of pork at the market or one more plastic bottle in the recycle bin isn’t really going to make the difference.
So, apparently is Gernot Wagner, whose recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (“Going Green But Getting Nowhere”) has got me thinking, and whose book, But Will the Planet Notice?, comes out in October. In the Op-Ed, Wagner makes the argument that individual sacrifices not only fail to make the impact necessary to curb the damage we’re doing to the environment, but they also engender something called an “action bias,” and society, rather than we as individuals, pays the price for our costly everyday choices.
What we need, Wagner argues, are regulatory systems that limit and phase out harmful practices, rather than ‘getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices… doomed to fail.’
This argument really appeals to me, in that I’m someone who believes systems that foment injustice need to change, in order for change to happen. This is very much the perspective a former employer of mine, Bread for the World, takes in fighting hunger: they work to build a constituency for poor and hungry people, a body of folks across political parties, races, ages, and faiths, who will lobby their members of Congress (in their spare time), so that the needs of the least of these will be represented, heard, and accounted for in the policies our country develops.
But this isn’t where Wagner takes his argument. Instead of empowering people to contact their members of Congress to lobby for regulatory laws that will lead to environmental change, he presumes that self-interest is the only real motivator to change. He spends the bulk of the short piece convincing us of the negligible impact of our everyday choices that are not reflective of what he calls, a “serious environmentalism.” But perhaps, most unfortunately, he doesn’t take into account the effect whole living can have on one’s health, one’s family, and one’s experience of life.
On the contrary, what appeals to me about making choices where one contemplates the effect one has on his or her environment is the commitment to living sustainably, which goes well beyond one’s environmental footprint, to the creation of a community, in which one is interconnected with other human beings in ways only human beings can be.
The increasing awareness that buying and acting locally causes an individual to not only become conscious of the impact of his or her environmental choices, but also the impact that we as human beings can have in the lives of one another is something that just can’t be quantified.
But now, I’m getting all preachy.
What I’m trying to suggest is that we might hold these two together: we can take Wagner’s critique seriously, and commit to developing a national constituency for drastic regulatory changes in governance that will help our environment, and we can continue to create sustainable local communities, and make good choices for the wellbeing of our human relationships, health, and environment.
Wagner says as much in his Op-Ed conclusion, but I’m afraid those who live alternative lifestyles may feel so offended by his critique, that his points about economics and governance will fall on deaf ears. Let’s hope the book lends both a critique and charge, so that an effective constituency emerges from the folks who are already walking the walk.