Behind ecologically conscious people’s professed love of the earth lurks hatred of their fellow humans.
Yesterday, after schlepping around town in the heat to attend to some business, I ducked into a food co-op of fond remembrance for refreshment. I brought my ethical, cage-free, hormone-free, fair-trade purchase to the cashier, an apparent Rastafarian whose name badge read “Jomo.” With a neat wave of his hand, he activated the checkout conveyor to convey my items to his waiting scanner. I offhandedly remarked on the ninja-like economy of his deft little gesture.
His face grew serious. “Yes,” he replied. “But what a terrible waste!”
Not understanding what he meant, I just smiled as I began riffling through my wallet for small bills. He explained that the waste in question concerned the electricity it took to set the conveyor in motion.
“Do you know that we [by which I assumed he meant Americans] comprise less than five percent of the world’s population, yet we consume 25 percent of the world’s resources?”, Jomo asked, the expression on his face suggesting that his chit-chat wasn’t simply just.
Caught somewhat off-guard, I chuckled wanly. “I’m surprised we don’t consume more,” I replied.
Jomo nodded gravely as he went to bag for my items, but I snatched them up quickly so as to indicate that I dare not add one calorie, watt, BTU, or what have you to the decadent West’s utility bill.
I stepped back into the blazing heat and dazzling light somewhat discomposed as a result of my exchange with Jomo. Social misfit that I am, I couldn’t help but resent the way he spoke to me. The whole public-service-announcement vibe of it made me feel as if I was one of those unwitting dupes gulled by some Situationist-inspired prank, typically involving tobacco, meth, or HIV, caught on tape for turning into a thirty-second TV spot paid for by the Ad Council.
My postmodern paranoia notwithstanding, I have to say I found Jomo’s eco-consciousness peculiarly acute. His easy command of digestible ecological factoids, not to mention his laid-back pedantry, made me feel as if I was on the business end of a teachable moment. I supposed that Jomo’s position at the co-op provided him a platform from which to proclaim the gospel of Gaia, of voluntary simplicity, of “small is beautiful,” or of whatever eco-meme happens to be buzzing beneath his dreadlocks. Of course, most of the folks who relied on Jomo to tally their goods rank among the already converted. I imagined Jomo and them bantering back and forth baleful scientific findings couched in picturesque terms: “You know, the average American bowel movement adds four cubic feet of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”
I consider my existence already rather low-impact: I drive a sixteen-year-old car that averages 30 miles to the gallon on the freeway; most clothing and household items I purchase second-hand so as to avoid contributing to future demand for slave-made junk; I make my own window cleaner, my own toothpaste, my own laundry detergent — all with non-caustic, naturally derived agents. Of course, I developed this lifestyle as a consequence of slightly different convictions than those Jomo seems to hold. A self-respecting Gen-Xer, I repudiate the cult of consumption as false doctrine, and try to hold at arms length its insipid rituals. Shopping has long been for me a tedious, joyless necessity, at once dull and exhausting. This attitude cost me a marriage, which should go to show how firmly it’s rooted in my personality.
“Anything with a carbon atom is organic.”
My modest carbon footprint remains, then, simply a by-product — or, more accurately, an epiphenomenon — of a way of life directed to other ends. I have never really enlisted myself to the “green” movement, in other words, at least not in any formal sense. My parents raised me with some of their 1960s sensibilities, which to some extent lingered undiminished in their consciousness as the years wore on. (My mom still prides herself on never having swaddled any of her children in a disposable diapers.) But, because these sensibilities wove themselves into the fabric of my family’s daily life, they seemed wholly ordinary, never achieving that mix of ostentation, narcissism, and overweening conformism which informs today’s politics of ethical consumption. Eco-sensitivity had not yet marched in from the margins when I was a kid. In terms of food sources, there was the neighborhood supermarket, then … I dunno … restaurants, backyard gardens — and then perdition. A health-food store was rumored to exist somewhere miles from our leafy suburban bower, but the prices and selection discouraged the journey. No, back then “green living” was a fugitive, outré thing: a domain, you imagined, belonging to your elementary school’s art teacher and her hirsute familiars.
This changed, of course, with Whole Foods’ march toward hegemony. My father, a scientist whose consciousness was shaped more by the political than the environmental legacy of the 60s, has little truck with Whole Food’s ideological game, which, truth be told, seems wholly bent on extracting rents through creating premiums that are in turn based on certain impressions conjured by the marketers enlisted by Whole Foods. “Anything with a carbon atom is organic,” he likes to proclaim. Though I don’t profess a similar gastronomic latitude, I do admire it as an expression of benign indifference to a concern that, judging from some people I’ve observed in the co-op, Whole Foods, and elsewhere, elicits a dietetic hyper-vigilance I would find crippling. Instead of liberating us, food these days has mired us even deeper in the trivial, demanding a greater share of people’s attention than it would seem to warrant. In this it finds such willing mouthpieces as writers Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who invite readers to consider a hamburger not as a means of securing protein or even a bit of pleasure, but as the end-product of a vast network of relations flogged to near exhaustion in order to deliver this tidbit to the table. Upon a Whopper hangs the fate of nations.
How to reduce the traumatic impact of a hamburger upon this network of relations would appear to be the question. But with Schlosser and Pollan, you get the sense that this question is easier asked than answered. An air of fatalism hangs about their books. They would have you think that a hamburger is destructive a priori, a foodstuff whose very composition betokens a social formation of dizzying yet fragile complexity. Thus the problem lies not with hamburgers, which are merely symptoms, but precisely with the social formation’s complexity. After all, the more complex a system is, the likelier it is to have something go wrong with it. And hamburgers, if Pollan and Schlosser are to be believed, are a sign that something’s gone horribly, horribly wrong.
When someone utters words like “sustainability” and “sustainable,” I hear “intended to technologically progress no further.”
The subtext of writings like Pollan’s and Schlosser’s, along with the myriad others they’ve inspired, I interpret as one of technological pessimism coupled with an ill-defined atavism, a vague longing for some bygone era. The first, technological pessimism, usually gets expressed euphemistically, its watchword being “sustainability.” When someone utters words like “sustainability” and “sustainable,” I hear “intended to technologically progress no further.” Think about it: An orchestra cannot at the same time sustain one chord and strike another. The one sustained chord thus signals the entirety of the musical piece, its beginning and its end. So, if someone presents you with a piece of sustainable technology, you can be certain that you grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren will be using the same kind of device in the same kind of form.
This is where the second subtextual element, ill-defined atavism, comes in. What immediately leaps to mind is the European Dark Age, a period during which technology remained largely unaltered from generation to generation, from century to century. In this respect, the Dark Age was eminently sustainable.
So those who want to foist sustainable technology on the laboring multitudes, would they also like the class relations made sustainable, too? I would venture to say that the answer is probably “yes,” because I suspect that the ultimate power of Pollan and Schlosser’s respective polemics resides in the fact that they both construct and confirm what one could only call the bourgeois-bohemian Imaginary, in which MacBooks, Kindles, Priuses, and other signifiers of affluence not only exist in harmony with a radically simplified and purified social formation, but actually serve as the means of its implementation — and, naturally, its enduring sustainability.
Après iPhone, le déluge.