Earth Day Extra: The Commercialisation of Environmentalism?
Happy Earth Day!
Or maybe not. One of the things that concerns me a great deal about environmental – and yes, even social – activism is whether it’s actually worth it. Whether, in signing any of the thousands of online petitions, joining websites, and trying to act and buy responsibly we are doing anything more than salving our consciences while the real issues go unaddressed.
Part of the problem is that the more popular pressure for organic, sustainable and/or environmentally-friendly products rises, the more anxious companies become to reassure us that they are, in fact, very green and by buying from them is beneficial to the environment in oh so many different ways, even if this isn’t the case (a phenomenon known as greenwashing). In short, “environmentally friendly” has become simply another commodity, another attribute for advertisers to append to their products in order to con the well-meaning public into purchasing from them. After all, who doesn’t want to contribute to a clean, green Earth – particularly if it means they save a dollar or two into the bargain? What we need to remember is that just like “Fat Free” and “Sugar Free,” “Environmentally Friendly” buzz phrases don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean. It’s tough to know who to believe when everyone has an agenda.
More than that, though, environmental activism has itself been marketed, advertised and now comes prepackaged for general consumption thanks to events like Earth Day and Earth Hour. While I am aware that getting the word out is half the battle, and I definitely think that individuals can make a difference (would I be blogging if I didn’t?) I read an interesting blog post today that suggests something I have been feeling for a while: just knowing about it isn’t enough. Just acting for one hour, day, week is not enough – not if we forget about the problem for the remainder of the year. As Sharon of Casaubon’s Book put it:
I see Earth Day as the new Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, a Hallmark holiday for us to give lip service to the environment. There are contrary forces, good in the mix – but then there are good things in the mix of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Valentines as well. But the reality of Mother’s Day doesn’t seem to be that it inspires us to be more respectful of the needs of mothers – what comes out of Mother’s Day isn’t more calls for breastfeeding stations and child friendly policies, but a “we told you we loved you last Sunday…aren’t we done yet?” The same is true of Valentines Day – there’s no compelling reason to believe that once a year special chocolates and sex really do all that much to lower the national divorce rate.
I grew up in the nineties, and for a long time practically lived on shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation which used thinly disguised metaphors to expound upon important social issues. Equality, environmentalism, freedom, human rights – all of these things are important to me in part because they were so deeply encoded in my childhood that I simply can’t imagine thinking otherwise. But I have to wonder how much I am really doing. How much does clicking buttons or choosing the lesser of all the well-marketed evils really help?
Sharon suggests that living is like a story, that (quoting Dineson) all suffering is bearable if it’s part of a wider narrative, and the way to get people involved in activism of any sort is to weave a story out of it: a real story, not just an obligatory, one-day-a-year, commitment-free novella. Interestingly, I have often thought that people (myself included) view their lives like novels, with themselves as the main character, their lives a complex pattern of plots and subplots melded together. Perhaps, as she says, the way to make a significant change for the better is to incorporate this new plotline into our lives.
If you want to do something to celebrate Earth Day this year, then let me make a suggestion. Select some part of your life that you think needs to be greener, and do some research on exactly what you need to do to make a real and significant impact for the good of the environment. Don’t be a mindless environmentalist: understand the issues and make your own decisions. Make yourself part of the story. Whether you act on them or not is up to you. But if you do nothing else, remember this:
The problem of living in a culture whose dominant message is that consumption is all – that we are not citizens but consumers, is that we learn to think of ourselves as baby birds with our mouths open. Our job is to create markets, to buy the right things, to spend money. And how you spend your money definitely matters. But it matters in context with how you vote and act and live your life and demonstrate and speak and model a meaningful way of life. More is simply required of us that opening our beaks.
Feel free to share some of your thoughts, contributions and suggestions in the comments!