David Roberts+ Your Authors @drvox Seattleite transplanted from Tennessee; now blogging for vox.com/ about energy politics. Climate hawk, deficit dove. Not a doctor. Feb. 24, 2019 6 min read + Your Authors

1. All right, I view the argument over personal carbon-cutting behavior as a toxic distraction, taking place almost entirely *within* the already insular climate community & mostly furnishing ways for ppl in that community to bash others in that community. And ...

2. ... the last few days reinforced that tenfold. So I want to share one last anecdote & then hopefully leave the subject behind. Pull up a chair.

Back around 2007, Al Gore's first movie came out & green was briefly "cool" in pop culture. Magazines had glossy "green issues."

3. "Green" popped up in commercials, movies, & sports events. And, most memorably for me personally, NBC instituted a "green week" during which all their programming would be, in some vague & poorly specified way, "green." It was a strange & heady time.

4. "Green week" perfectly captured what went so horribly wrong with all this. The thing is, though Gore made climate "trend," as we say these days, the vast, vast majority of people, including the people making pop culture, didn't understand it.

5. Most people had no frame of reference whatsoever other than the simple fact that this was "environmental" -- the latest thing environmentalists were going on about, some new kind of pollution, some new set of threatened critters, something something.

6. Lacking any guidance from NBC, or any user-friendly resources to learn more, the creatives behind NBC shows, forced to incorporate "green," simply fell back on their pre-existing impressions & associations & stereotypes. And what were those? Funny you should ask.

7. I can't claim to have watched all the programming on Green Week, but I watched a lot of it, and in every single case, the manifestation of "green" was the same: into the show was introduced a preachy, hectoring, morally superior enviro obsessing over every little daily thing.

8. Nagging other characters about their plastic straw, where their clothes were manufactured, what they eat, etc etc. A few things were common in all these characterizations. First, the enviros were never characterized as *wrong*. The virtue of their ultimate goals ...

9. ... was always grudgingly accepted. It's just that they were *annoying*. Second, the changes the enviros advocated were inevitably cast as irksome sacrifices that made life more difficult & less fun. Living green was very clearly presented as a drag. And third ...

10. ... the episode ended w/ the annoying enviro either going away, or the character who had briefly been gripped by environmental sanctimony "getting over it." (That's what happened in How I Met Your Mother: Ted got super preachy & annoying, then returned to "normal.")

11. There's a lot to say about this chapter. It was obviously disastrous for NBC to force "green" into their programming without any guidance. But at the same time, it was a stark & disturbing revelation of exactly what cultural associations currently cling to "green."

12. To put it bluntly: in US popular culture, greens are seen as humorless, sanctimonious, uptight moralists who find fault in every little thing, who are incapable of relaxing & enjoying things, and who, however noble their goals, are insufferable to be around.

13. You can argue whether the caricature is fair or deserved. You can argue about whose fault it is. But, unless you've lived entirely inside the green bubble from college forward, you can't deny it's out there. It's pretty obvious.

14. It seems pretty self-evidently true to me that the ubiquity of this social stereotype is bad for environmentalism & environmental causes. It makes environmentalism seem like a full-fledged Identity, or a religion, a whole package of behaviors & signifiers & commitments.

15. That raises the barrier to entry. If I want clean water, am I going to speak up about pollution? Not if, in order to do so, I have to adopt a certain style of dress, listen to certain types of music, accept certain associations, *be a certain kind of person*. It's too much.

16. In US environmentalism, writ large, concerns about public & ecosystem health, about public policy, come packaged with a lifestyle & a bunch of behavioral & cultural commitments. Personal virtue & progressive policy have gotten hopelessly tangled.

17. This seems disastrous to me. And -- the whole point of all this -- I really, really don't want to see the same thing happen on climate. I do not want climate subsumed into "environmental," taking on all the same cultural baggage & associations. It'll just be another niche.

18. I want for there to be space for people to engage with climate change as a policy matter *without* being forced to also sign onto a lifestyle or identity. This is why I came up with the term "climate hawk" -- to help create that space.  https://grist.org/article/2010-10-20-introducing-climate-hawks/ 

19. Which brings us to the present dispute. People are saying that those who advocate for smart climate policy are obliged to engage in showy green lifestyle choices -- take vacations on trains, buy an electric car, put up solar panels.

20. Putting aside the class implications -- these lifestyle choices are largely available to, & chosen by, the affluent, who nonetheless remain the highest emitters -- it just seems to me to replicate exactly the mistakes that have so diminished environmentalism.

21. The WORST thing that could happen is Americans see climate as just another version of environmentalism -- a kinda well-meaning if annoying personal devotion to critters & trees. That impression leads to catastrophic misunderstanding & complacency.

22. It seems to me that those attempting to connect climate advocacy & personal behavior are working to *reinforce* the association with environmentalism, to make climate seem not like a policy problem but like a full identity w/ associated behaviors & cultural commitments.

23. Showy behavioral displays might "inspire" other members of the tribe, by reinforcing tribal bonds, but it will only raise the barrier to entry to people outside the tribe. "If I speak up on climate, I'll also be expected to do X, Y, and Z ... so, meh, I just won't."

24. My nightmare is that if NBC did a "climate week" today, it would look exactly like their "green week" of old -- a bunch of well-meaning but preachy & annoying people nagging others to give up little things that make their daily lives easier. Ugh.

25. Climate is not like conventional environmental problems. The scale, speed, & severity are of a completely different magnitude. One person's contribution is not a drop in a bucket, it's a drop in an ocean. ONLY rapid, large-scale collective action promises any hope.

26. Everybody needs to be freaked out about climate change. Anything that raises barriers, that confuses or distracts or complicates the process of understanding & grappling with the need for collective action, is bad in my book.

27. So, again, live however you want. As I've said a dozen times now, there are tons of reasons to ride bikes & eat less meat that have nothing to do with climate. Exemplify & advocate for clean, healthy living if that's your thing.

28. Just, please, don't get climate tangled up in that. Don't reinforce the association between climate & green lifestyles. That will only harm climate's political prospects. This is the most intense & urgent collective action problem in our species history. Keep the focus there!

29. Sigh. Sorry y'all, didn't mean to make this so damn long. Especially knowing that it's futile, as the last 4352346 rounds of this same argument were. But I am what I am, so whaddya gonna do? </fin>

30. Oh jeez, this is like when Woody Allen ran into Marshall McLuhan in the movie line ...

I was misremembering HIMYM, it seems, including what network it was on! In my defense, this was over a decade ago, before my premature senility set in.

You can follow @drvox.


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