Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Struggle to Consume

Readers of Sunday's NYT were--I speak from experience--surprised to confront a two-page in-your-face ad from Harley-Davidson  "We don't do fear.  Screw it. Let's Ride"--all wrapped in an American flag.

It's a rhetorically cunning strategy, tapping post-9/11 populist defiance to beef up the prospects of a luxury-market item as down-home as a Hummer.  What it says, among other things, is that consumerism won't go down without a fight, that--at least for the marketing and PR departments--it stands for Americanism, the death-defying, don't-bother-me freedom to buy.  Given that Harleys are already associated with denial and mid-life indulgence, partaking of the same cowboy self-image that brought us the financial crisis, it's probably not surprising that they would take this road. 

In the same vein, the NYT reports, the "first great song of the bailout era," John Rich's Shutting Detroit Down.  A bit more authentic, perhaps--a bit more grief, not quite so much swaggering denial--but no less attached to an image of consumer sovereignty.  There will need to be some mourning, some working-through and readjustment, before less consumption is not encoded as "lower standard of living," deprivation and a loss of freedom.  

 Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, long a critic of excessive consumption (he wrote Luxury Fever back in the 1990s) has a suggestive article in The American Prospect on what "post-consumer prosperity" might mean.  Sensible as it sounds, though, it will take a while--and quite a few cultural struggles--before it translates into common sense.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Encyclopedia of Earth

Here's another interesting site: the Encyclopedia of Earth. A combination of on-line reference, science-education and activist portal, it's edited by some people at Boston University and boasts an impressive-looking community of scholars and writers.

I found the EoE while searching for ways to think about bioregionalism in Ohio. There's not much out there. Like some other powerfully suggestive concepts, it seems best adapted to particular regions--like the Pacific Northwest--where the distinction between different regions is sharply marked: geography itself there seems to call forth conceptual work. Elsewhere, the gradations are subtle and somewhat arbitrary: what should count as a bioregional marker? An encyclopedic mind--one that wants to have everything covered--would look for a uniform labeling system, by disembedding our knowledge of bioregions from our lived awareness and embodied practices. To be effective, I think, there must be something directly compelling about our vision of the earth: it may be refined by experience, but it has to be grounded.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sustainability Myths and the Green Agenda

Thanks to Maria Manta Conroy for pointing out this Scientific American article, the Top Ten Myths About Sustainability.  Among other things, it points out the difference between being "green" and working on sustainability--probably a key distinction for defining what responsible environmental citizenship might entail. 

Sustainability is not an identity-category, for one thing, so while it might involve lifestyle choices and decisions, it's necessarily a social goal, only achievable collectively and by being embedded in institutional decision-making.  Sustainability originally comes out of the development agenda of the Brundtland commmission, meaning that global justice issues are rather more significant than a green reading might allow. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food and Fuel--the gathering revolutions

The door to significant change in the American food system is starting to open.  As the NYTimes reports, between the new White House vegetable garden, the new Agricultural Sec'y's surprising openness to organics, and Congressional interest in local initiatives, a critical mass seems to be gathering.  The Danton of the Food Revolution, Michael Pollan, worries that the movement may not be quite ready to take advantage of the moment, and it's unclear whether the economic winds are favorable or the contrary, but after years of percolating, there looks to be something promising brewing.

Of course, the promise is punctuated by an even bigger question mark about how to make the transition from a carbon economy to a more sustainable, diversified energy system.  As usual, Ohio sits squarely in the middle of this national question, with Sherrod Brown puzzling about how to square a commitment to the future with the realities of the state's dependence on cheap energy, i.e. coal.  The Dispatch's Jonathan Riskind has been following the Senator's deliberations as well as efforts to persuade him, and reported on Friday that the Environmental Defense Fund has weighed in with a website detailing the Ohio companies that stand to benefit from a serious investment in green technology.  That's pretty savvy, but Brown's worry is whether companies looking to reduce costs wouldn't move out more quickly than the new companies could ramp up. 

There's an interesting parallel with the food debate, too.  The NYT article quotes a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association: "We think there's a place for organic, but don't think we can feed ourselves and the world with organic.  It's not as productive, more labor-intensive and tends to be more expensive."  (Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation remarks ruefully: "The idea of the true cost of food? That's the last thing consumers want to hear right now.").

That's the argument from scale:  organic (and alternative fuels) can't "feed the world."  The local can't be global.  Pollan's response--and it's not clearly worked out yet--is to think regionally.  Meanwhile, at a moment when we're facing rising unemployment, the idea that a process is "labor-intensive" is not necessarily a strike against it.  The new Census of Agriculture reports more than 100,000 NEW small farmers in the past decade, and Vilsack wants to help them grow into regional networks.  Is there a parallel in the energy field?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tom Friedman says, Enough.

NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman has long been one of globalization's great cheerleaders, riding to the commanding heights of punditry with catchy titles like The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat. More recently he's been turning a shade of green (more in nausea than out of a sense of conviction, I'd say).  Even so, it's remarkable to see him raising some fundamental questions about the whole growth model in his March 8th column:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.
When the prime exponent of economic coupling--the prophet of what Niall Ferguson called "Chimerica"--sees the writing on the wall, there's reason to think we're at or close to a cultural tipping point.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Green Networking

A basic premise of Web 2.0--social networking--is that certain tools and techniques become more valuable the more people use them. When only a few people had email, you couldn't count on reaching anyone and its uses were limited. Once it became widespread--a default option--the possibilities and importance increased. Facebook, MySpace, Ebay, Twitter--all examples illustrating this expansion.

Greenies and environmental groups have been trying to figure out how to operate through these new media; Grist, for instance, is doing a great job building communities around environmental issues. A somewhat newer initiative is WiserEarth, which has some unique features, including map-based searching that identifies groups and agencies in a particular area. Enter your zipcode, for instance, and there's a Googlemap pinpointing, by street address, a whole range of activist institutions. WiserEarth also has interest-areas and discussion groups that allow you to follow out topics, connect with others and learn as you go. It's a Creative Commons initiative, so open to all. It should be better known, larger and more valuable.