The other week, I got in a goodhearted little email tiff with Michael Shellenberger, who as you know if you read this blog, is a co-author of Break Through: The Death of Environmentalism and the Politics of Possibility. Our email dialog turned out to be really interesting.
In the first part exchange (which you can read here on No Impact Man or here on Michael's blog), Michael adamantly asserts that reducing our individual and cultural environmental footprints in the way I've done in the No Impact Man project are much less important than investment in the development of sustainable materials and energy. Below is my reply to this first shot across my bow.
God bless you, Michael, if you're optimistic enough to think industry will change fast enough. God bless you too if you think we can recycle enough materials to put three TVs in every Indian and Chinese household and a car in every garage. God bless you if you think that will make people happy. God bless you, too, if you think just one approach will do the trick.
What would make America great again is introspection. Enough introspection to see that since World War II it has headed down a path that has made its people richer but far from happier (see illustration above). Anything that keeps them working so hard and so disconnected from community is not going to make them happier.
And there are ways we could be much happier and at least slow our growth in resource use while at the same time looking for the technological solutions you talk about.
Let me tell you about my approach. It isn't necessarily to convince people to live the way I have been, though--it's true--I offer it as an option, if people are interested.
But more importantly I share my experiences living with lower resource consumption to show that using less doesn't have to feel like deprivation, and to illustrate that, often, living a lifestyle that is better for the planet is better for the person or the culture, too. (On a cultural level, think of the correlation between reduced car use and reduced obesity. On an individual level, think of the increase of family time and strengthening of relationships if we rely less on consumer items like video games and TV).
Also, my approach, as a writer and communicator, is to take a storyline that engages people—the No Impact project—and to use it as an opportunity to expose them to the things that policy analysts like you talk about.
The difference between my approach and your approach, to be pointed, as you put it, is that your approach is to circulate your ideas, for the most part, amongst a bunch of other people who are already thinking about our habitat and climate change problems. You are not taking, in other words, a popular approach to the distribution of your ideas.
Nor are you taking an approach that everyone can get involved in. Your environmental strategy itself—calling for huge investment in renewable technologies—is something that most folks feel they have any power over. And if they can't take an action on it, how can they really take it to heart? I agree with your approach whole heartedly but it is not enough.
The time has passed for just having policy wonks involved in the discussion. We need the entire country to take an interest. And my hope is that the approaches of people like me, who find ways to popularize the discussion, will reach a wider audience. People like you can make use of people like me, by using us to help disperse your ideas, which is part of my mission.
My approach helps me to convince people that they can make a difference. And if people believe they can make a difference with their lives, maybe they will believe that their vote and more substantive political engagement makes a difference.
for answering your observations about my privileged background being
the only way I can claim no impact (Are you always so literal, by the
way? Are we trying to save a planet in which we no longer enjoy irony?), I've answered these questions many times before. I hope you don't mind, this time, if I don't.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.