I’m permanently undecided as to whether the environmental problem is a consciousness problem (we all need to wake up, realize our resources are limited, and make some changes), or a legislative issue (we need someone to enforce the fact that ruining the planet is not a democratic right). On optimistic days, I lean towards the former. Today is not an optimistic day.
Although I applaud small changes and the attitude behind them (yes! shorter showers matter, if primarily metaphorically), I’m also a pragmatist. Real, measurable change matters more than how it happened. And I see a couple of serious shortcomings with an environmental movement that relies primarily on good intentions.
- Problem #1. Good intentions are limited by our knowledge and/or interest. If we’re constantly told we can save the planet by changing a lightbulb or switching to reusable bags, we’re not going to look further for other stuff we can be — need to be — doing. I understand why the environmental movement has pushed the little, easy-to-do stuff, but I don’t agree with the attitude (good for you! you used a reusable bag! have a gold star) or with the idea that we can stop with the easy stuff.
- Problem #2. As a species, humans are not known for our ability to resist temptation. I read in a study that we end up saving more resources when we switch to efficient appliances than when we try to use our current ones less. Fact: we’re just not very good at self-regulating. If there’s nothing but good intentions to stop me from taking a long shower, odds are decent that on some Saturday morning, when I’m busy working out a blog entry in my head, I’ll go way past my self-imposed 5 minutes. Ahem. Good intentions are easy to push aside, make exceptions to, and otherwise abandon.
- Problem #3. Good intentions will not (generally speaking) push us into making difficult, inconvenient, or unpleasant decisions. I wish I could say that environmental concerns have pushed me into childfree-ness, but that’s not true. I’ve never wanted kids. Environmental concerns haven’t made me get rid of the car, find a job I can walk or bike to, or move to a place where I can garden and compost. And maybe that’s because I’m lame, but I think most of us are lame like that. We’re comfortable, and that makes it hard to voluntarily make big changes.
Good intentions are only half of the equation. We need fewer chances to make bad decisions. I see no reason, for example, why we should not be offered only energy efficient choices for cars and appliances. Why we shouldn’t have to pay higher vehicle registration fees for less efficient vehicles, be rewarded for saving water and fined for wasting it. As my friend Tracey puts it, make it easy for us to be good, difficult and costly for us to be bad, and we might actually get somewhere.
It won’t happen, of course. Democracy means finangling, compromises, filibustering, and all sorts of other issues that keep our government from acting decisively. In some ways, that might be a good thing. But when it comes to safeguarding our future on this planet, not so much.