Why Environmentalism Will Fail

At the corner of St. James St and Portage Ave in Winnipeg is a building which has provided the canvas for some massive murals for Winnipeg Hydro. As I passed by the mural today I saw two kids laying back on the grass at the edge of a lake. They were looking up into a blue sky made lighter with the presence of distinct white clouds. It was the classic scenario of seeing ‘something’ within the unique and random shapes that pass by. The clouds, however, betrayed the clear and unmistakable shapes of an energy-efficient light bulb and washing machine.  There are many critiques out there of how capitalism continues to entrench itself within environmentalism providing the therapeutic opportunity to buy and consume your way to a cleaner world and therefore feel good about yourself without having to change anything.  This mural, however, struck me as even more sinister.  Instead of offering a simple sedative to the problem of whatever our environmental crisis may be this mural actually attempts to co-opt the very possibility of imaginative alternatives.  Go ahead and dream of what is possible but the game is fixed, we now the posses the material of your imagination and can mould it out gain.  Am I wrong?  There is a cult growing around environmentalism that I am having little faith in.  It seems disinterested in and detached from the larger issues of equality and social restoration.

I found the image online and as I looked at it again it keeps getting worse.  The lightbulb and washing machine are actually placed as the exclusive variables for a mathematical equation the sum of which equals a green tree.  This is a blatant lie.  The variables in this equation are no different then the variables of an old bulb and washing machine (perhaps with a slightly lower numerical value).  This ad is trying to tell you that these new products are of a fundamentally different order and composition.  They no longer add to disaster but now add to salvation.  This really is bullshit.

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5 thoughts on “Why Environmentalism Will Fail

  1. Just discovered your excellent blog, David, and am looking forward to visiting often.

    (I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the whole “ethical consumption” movement here.)

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  2. Thanks for stopping in Ryan. I noticed your previous connection to Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford. I spent a great year there a few moons back. Where it may have been lacking in academics it more than made up for in community.

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  3. I wonder if the problem here is more with the amoral (or immoral) nature of advertising than with the type of environmentalism that you’re critiquing. Advertising (and perhaps capitalism more generally) is simply about persuading the public to buy a product by any means necessary. Thus, it’s natural that Winnipeg Hydro would want to restrict the imagination to their version of ethical consumption and offer a false equation so you’ll buy their product.

    That said, after attending a colloquium given by a leading climate scientist (David Archer) I suspect “ethical consumption” is important in the short term (~20-40 yrs). His argument was that to actually prevent coastal flooding (the worst effect of global warming) a radical change in behavior or technology is ultimately needed. In the short term, however, he suggested that relatively minor efficiency increases (by factors of two or so) are desirable, such as light bulb changes, a better power grid, and more fuel efficient cars. I can’t recall his exact reason for supporting these minor improvements, but I suspect it’s related to the “tipping point” idea that Robert Hazen (another leading climate scientist) espouses.

    I suppose I’m saying (and I’m thinking “out loud” here) that perhaps “ethical consumption” might be more important in the context of global warming than it is from a general environmentalist perspective

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  4. Fair comment GS. I agree that there is a place for more ‘responsible’ purchasing but it seems to me that as soon as this is embedded in the capitalist machinery of advertising it is bound to be perverted so that people do not actually think about whether or not a particular purchase is necessary or even helpful. And I simply cannot see how minor (perhaps they are not minor) changes in residential consumption will offset the growing global demands for these resources.
    I know one person who is extremely motivated in making all these technological changes as well as reducing his general energy consumption and in the end he can barely notice a change in his energy bill. Not scientific evidence but it makes me wonder.
    It would seem where the thinking you site runs foul in my mind is on the implicit assumption that we need to continue our lifestyle as it is so we must find the best technology to accommodate it as opposed to actually changing our lifestyles.

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