Environmentalism for Dummies

In the hands of the uninformed, well-intentioned ideals can become irksome. Rabble-rouser Kevin Nguyen confronts the recent sustainability movement and its new wave of quixotic tree-huggers.

There are moments when I become angry. Let me describe such a situation.

In the summer, I work as an intern at a Massachusetts state agency that manages parks and protects forest areas. Explaining this to a friend of a friend while waiting for the start of Spider-Man 3, I claim the agency, in layman’s terms, saves trees.

“Saves trees?” she repeats skeptically. “Do you guys use paper?”

Paper? Of course we use paper. What the fuck else are we going to write on?

“Then you’re not really saving trees, are you?”

I bite my tongue and pretend not to hear her, hoping that her brain will explode if she sees Tobey Maguire knock over a trash can. Had this girl done her homework, she would know the trees used to make paper are a sustainable resource.

It’s people like this that I can’t stand—the uninformed environmentalist. They think they’re the shit because they recycle. On top of that, they feel compelled to constantly remind you about how they’re the shit because they recycle. It makes me think of people who go on diets and feel obligated to bring it to the entire table’s attention every time they’re eating a salad. (This kind of attitude, by the way, guarantees that you will be fat forever.)

Historically, environmentalists have tried to guilt-trip people into their causes. While I agree that concern for nature should be a moral imperative, organic architect Eric Corey Freed put it best when he stated that, “guilt is no way to approach environmentalism.” It may be effective on some, but that kind of thinking doesn’t appeal to the majority of us. (There’s no chance I would ever feel bad about using paper, even if it wasn’t sustainable.)

So finally, environmentalists switched up their game plan. That is to say, they finally made environmentalism cool. Allison Arieff, Editor-In-Chief of Dwell, a modern architecture magazine that has recently focused on sustainable design, explains the recent transformation of environmentalism’s appeal:

It seems that environmentalism has fired its old PR agency and the new one is kicking butt. Simply put, sustainability has been sexed up. It has found its way into both fashion spreads and Forbes.

(“Sex and Sustainability,” Dwell, September 2006)

The end result is a country with suddenly greener thinking.

I think the advent of hybrid engine automobiles speaks to this trend. (Admittedly, growth of hybrid car sales, though still substantial, is slowing down, but this has a lot to do with the expiration of associated tax credits.) With Toyota’s redesign of their traditionally modest Camry into a sleeker, sharper model with hybrid options, the car manufacturer is telling consumers that they don’t have to sacrifice looks for a fuel-efficient, Earth-loving sedan. For the month of May 2007, the Camry led Toyota’s “all-time best-ever sales.”

But while hybrid cars are giving off fewer greenhouse gases, they are, as a clever episode of South Park has identified, emitting a dangerous amount of smugness. The girl who took issue with my use of paper is probably staring in the mirror right now admiring her self-righteous demeanor.

The inherent problems with the superficial infatuation with environmentalism is that its popularity will inevitably go the way of the [insert I Love the 80’s topic of your choice]. But at least the issues have been brought into the spotlight for now. Even armchair environmentalism seems to be working.

Last month, the Energy Information Administration reported that U.S. carbon emissions fell 1.3% in 2006 despite economic growth of 3.3% . Add to that the success of the hybrid automobiles and pressure on lawmakers to pass environmentally conscious legislation (led surprisingly by Governor Schwarzenegger), and we’ve got good evidence that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has brought environmental issues to the forefront of America’s concerns.

In the end, dealing with the occasional uninformed environmentalist is probably worth the progress we’ve made combating climate change. Even though the number of them will die out as America’s attention becomes distracted by new, more pressing issues––Paris Hilton in jail, Paris Hilton not in jail, Paris Hilton back in jail––I’ll put up with every pious jerk out there as long as conditions are improving.

Of course, that won’t stop me from occasionally spiting them for my own enjoyment.

So to every self-righteous “environmentalist” out there: I’m going to continue using paper, driving my fossil fuel burning car, and from time to time, litter just for the hell of it.

And here’s a side note for those who don’t believe in global warming:

Last fall, through completely random circumstances, I was engaged in a conversation with a gentleman working for NASA. His job, which he had been doing for the past thirty years, was to record and model weather patterns across the planet. I casually asked him if he had any doubts about the validity of Gore’s documentary. His response was uproarious laughter. He explained that conservative anti-environmentalists often make claims that there is constant debate in the scientific world about the credibility of global warming. In reality though, there is no such controversy. Any respectable member of the scientific community knows that global warming is a genuine threat. He then went on to liken the so-called debate to creationism. Apparently no one believes that crap either.

So if there’s no discussion about global warming, what’re scientists talking about in the lunchroom?

“Probably American Idol,” he answered.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.