Self-congratulatory environmentalism

Back East, folks somehow think it's enough to carry a reusable bag to a farmer's market. That prompts a screed against saving the earth with symbols.
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Back East, folks somehow think it's enough to carry a reusable bag to a farmer's market. That prompts a screed against saving the earth with symbols.

One of the toughest things about moving from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast is the general cluelessness of Easterners about protecting the environment. Recycling is viewed as a weird hobby here, kind of like playing the accordion. Recycle bins in public places are hard to come by. When available, they're usually contaminated by tissues, banana peels, and other garbage. Littering is a common practice, even in "nice" neighborhoods.

But despite this civic ignorance about so many environmental issues, reusable shopping bags are ubiquitous. Everywhere you turn, shoppers are marching in grocery stores and neighborhood shops with their reusable bags like an army of green consumers.

Indeed, every Sunday morning masses of these "environmentally-friendly" shoppers pass by my house on their way to the Takoma Park Farmers' Market. With reusable bags in tow, they line the surrounding streets with their cars venturing from faraway neighborhoods deprived of organic local fruits and vegetables. As I watch them park, I can't help but wonder about the net impact of their shopping trips on the environment.

Does the fact that they aren't using those nearly indestructible plastic bags that plague nature compensate for the carbon dioxide their cars emit on the drive to and from the market? Do the items they purchase from local farms — not shipped across the nation on trucks or trains — improve the air quality enough to make up for their drive across town?

Or are we living in an age of symbolic, self-congratulatory environmentalism?

The media frenzy about climate change is certainly a product of successful marketing, well-connected spokespersons, and the grim reality of what rapid changes in climate could mean for the planet. But I wonder if we can't see the forest (that will soon be cleared for a highway) for the trees (that we will chop down to make paper). We take many symbolic actions like shopping with reusable bags, but how many Americans know that when they "recycle" a new computer it's sometimes shipped to a landfill in China where children dig through chemicals to make a few bucks for their families? Indeed, how many Americans simply throw their old computers in the trash?

In recent years, environmentalism has become trendy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the disconnect between people's actions and the actions people need to take to save our environment is wide. Environmental trendiness was not enough to get people to start using public transit; only $4 per gallon gas could do that. Enviro-hipsterism did not get people to stop buying houses in distant exurbs; troubles in the housing market combined with high gas prices caused that. Last year, NBC hosted a preposterous "green week" in which its sets were darkened to save energy, a ploy to capitalize on this trend that was certainly feeble if it wasn't completely absurd.

There is so much more that citizens could do to protect the environment, including reducing our use of cars, supporting public transit (time to move forward or get off the pot, western Washington) and Amtrak, buying homes near transit centers, supporting the use of clean energy, reusing things by taking advantage of craigslist and freecycle, and conserving what we already have. Perhaps in this time of economic troubles we could even rethink our culture of materialism.

I'm all for a little self-congratulatory environmentalism if it brings about some good, but we shouldn't let symbolic acts completely obscure the reality our planet faces. If we don't do more than carry around shopping bags and put a few bottles in the recycle bin, we may be toast. Literally.


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