First they stopped coming for the plastic bottles, and I did not speak out —
Because I don’t use many plastic bottles.
Then they stopped coming for the cardboard, and I did not speak out —
Because I can burn my cardboard in the chiminea in the backyard.
Then they stopped coming for the aluminum cans —
And since I drink cold beverages from cans, that’s when they stopped coming for me.
The end finally came. My city has just announced that, after years of gradually cutting back the items it would collect from households, it’s now cancelling its curbside recycling program completely.
Many of my eco-aware neighbors are distraught. Wasn’t our town supposed to be progressive? Without recycling, how are we supposed to make a difference on the environment now?
Some members of our city council even wanted to increase the real estate tax rate in order to boost the budget for keeping the recycling trucks on the streets. Selling our garbage — sorry, our potentially valuable empty beer cans, Amazon boxes and Aquafina bottles — to recycling companies that send it to China hasn’t paid for itself in years.
The global recycling market is collapsing. How’s it going in your town?
Across America, if it hasn’t already joined the dearly departed, curbside recycling is in hospice care. That’s spread angst on cul-de-sacs from Hacienda Village, Florida to Hacienda Heights, California. After decades where curbside recycling was considered a core service in nicer communities, comfortable Americans have gotten used to doing their part for the environment by reducing their contribution to the local landfill.
And that’s exactly the problem, according to a slim new book designed to annoy many avid recyclers, along with Prius drivers, takers of short showers, and farmer’s market shoppers.
We just bought a new Prius — a plug-in hybrid, no less. So you can bet I’m among the annoyed.
You Can’t Save the Planet from Your Kitchen
Deceptively inviting, Stop Saving the Planet! An Environmentalist Manifesto (affiliate link) by Jenny Price looks like a bathroom book. This fun little volume is formatted as a couple different lists, with lots of cute icons thrown in. List items are printed on pages that are half blank, which makes for quick reading unless you decide to jot down your thoughts (“Scribble Zone: write, draw, ponder…”).
It’s partially ironic but also deadly serious. Price’s lighthearted approach coats the pill of assumption-busting with enough sugar to help the medicine go down.
Her language ranges from snarky to mildly fed up and can be summed up by Point #30, “Tell a Frickin’ Joke.” Price puts fun to good use to puncture the gloom and self-righteousness of much environmentalism. “Seriously: funny can be a lot more powerful than yelling & lecturing–especially when the other side is screaming & ranting.”
It matters not just because being self-righteous and lecture-y has made environmentalists unwelcome at dinner parties.
More important is that the movement to save the Earth has failed to stop people from destroying it. “More than half of the 1,340 Superfund sites have been listed for 30-40 years,” Price writes. “The air in thousands of communities across the U.S. remains exceptionally dangerous to breathe. And can our climate-change policies even begin to save Miami?”
A lot of the problem of traditional environmentalism is the belief that big problems like climate change and toxic pollution can be solved by small personal lifestyle changes like buying a Prius or Tesla or recycling more.
Yet, as Price told Grist, nobody thinks that you can solve the Middle East crisis from your kitchen. So why should we act this way about the environment, and especially about global heating, which, by definition, is a worldwide problem?
Price has a few theories.
Stop Looking in the Mirror. Look at Exxon Instead.
First, the real polluters like oil and plastics companies have successfully deflected blame from themselves to consumers (“We’re all in this together!”).
Second, too many environmentalists live in a white suburban middle-class bubble, ignoring the everyday impacts of dumping and pollution on people of color in low-income communities like Cancer Alley in Louisiana.
Third, too many of us also wrongly believe that the “environment” is something “out there,” unspoiled nature found in protected or untouched wilderness like Yosemite but far away from the places where we live and work.
Trained as a historian, Price is an interdisciplinary public intellectual–artist, activist, birdwatcher and writer. Her previous work includes a book on how nature and civilization are intertwined, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, and a not-quite advice column “Green Me Up JJ.”
In Stop Saving the Planet! Price reminds us that humans are part of nature, and that environments (plural) are found everywhere, including big cities and suburbs, and inside our homes and offices. Humans cannot help but alter their environments. Price wants us to dump the assumption that the best or most sustainable way of running the economy would be to be as hands-off on the environment as possible.
Instead, she wants us to recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with changing our environments and then to embrace the goal of changing them well, not badly. That means making the economy clean, cutting out pollution anywhere and everywhere (but especially cutting pollution near people of color who are affected most) and ensuring social equity.
Forget Recycling and Start Lobbying
In the end, says Price, there’s no conflict between the environment and the economy. A successful economy must do more than make a few people richer while the rest of us just limp along financially and have to suck up the pollution. She supports a Green New Deal and suggests a bunch of alternate names that show the many reasons why it’s needed, including:
- The Toxics Be Gone New Deal
- The War on Greed and Pollution
- The Huge Fat Initiative to Massively Rethink a T Shirt
- The You Shouldn’t Have No Choice but to Work in Jobs That Are Ruinous to People and Environments Great New Plan
To help readers make a real difference, as opposed to doing things that feel helpful but really aren’t like buying a Prius, Price does actually offer a few personal life changes, like buying less stuff or buying higher quality stuff at lower quantity. For example, “Love the stuff you’re with. ‘Cause the greenest car, toaster, or vacuum cleaner if most often (if not always) the one you already have.”
But most of her ideas are about thinking differently about the environment–such as Redefine Economy or even Redefine Extremism (greedheads, not environmentalists, are the real extremists). Or getting active in public policy–from the strikingly simple “Vote!” to “Join up locally–government & economy R us.”
Activism can be national. Price advises joining such groups as Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Youth Climate Strike and Zero Hour.
Activism can also be local, whether voting or volunteering to build local resilience:
Share & create democracy: food co-ops, public & community banking, credit unions, lending circles, electricity co-ops, public policy advocacy, community land trusts, local business support, all sorts of worker co-ops, rural ride sharing, agricultural co-ops, tenant associations, high voter turnout, backing candidates for public office (rock the planning commissions), farm shares, & what else.
Starter toolkit: New Economy Coalition’s Pathways to a People’s Economy.
A welcome corrective to the trend of years of published guides that boil down to “X Easy Ways to Save the Earth that Won’t Threaten the Rule of Polluting Corporations and Other Greedy Rich People,” Price’s book welcomes the reader with a smile but strikes hard against bullshit from PR flacks for oil drillers and plastics makers all while standing up for climate justice as the only way to really save the climate.
Until Cancer Alley is clean, then no place is clean. That’s just what Americans need to hear right now.
Our Prius Is Fun, but It Won’t Accomplish Much
Making progress on climate solutions or toxic cleanup is going to be harder than sorting plastic bottles by number. It would be better to reinstate old laws requiring drink companies to use glass bottles with a deposit to encourage their return.
And we certainly enjoy our new Prius, though it would have been more eco-friendly to have kept the old one for a couple more years. We gave the car to our daughter, who needed one fast because her old one broke down beyond repair. So it did keep her from buying another used car from somebody else. We know that ours is reliable and it still does get nearly 50 MPG. In the end, money was as much of a factor as going green in our recent decisions about cars. We like saving money on gas. And we are fortunate to be able to afford a lightly used hybrid car.
But as an issue of equity, most Americans can’t afford to buy many eco-friendly products. Again, as with the bottles, voluntary, individual actions by consumers are not enough. It’s not fair to expect individual families and citizens, especially low-income folks, many of whom are people of color, to make private investments so that our whole economy can clean up its act.
And it’s not effective either to expect the industrial economy to be completely rebuilt from the bottom up. Scientists tell us that we no longer have the time to wait to see if we can solve our climate problem through a billion little points of light by individuals. We need big action fast. And that government mandates for companies to change how they make and sell goods.
It would be better if the federal government passed laws to require manufacturers to make more electric cars and start phasing out gas and diesel vehicles. Throwing in better incentives for car buyers to go electric would help create demand. At the same time, it would be more eco-friendly if drivers could squeeze a few more years out of their used car, even if it’s a gas guzzler, than encouraging people to buy new cars before they need to.
It isn’t simple to come up with the specific mixture of policy solutions to get more electric cars or fewer plastic bottles. That takes smart people looking at data.
But the general approach is simple — government action to change the whole economy will cut more pollution and more waste than individual actions by consumers.
It’s fun to plug in our new part-electric, part-gas Prius. It helps us get used to the idea of going electric in an easy way. If we use up the power in the small plug-in battery on short trips we can still rely on the gasoline engine to do more driving without having to sweat finding a charging station.
But I’m still annoyed that our Prius won’t make more of a difference on cutting climate pollution. After reading Price’s book, I’ve decided that it’s OK to be annoyed.
I just want to make sure I’m annoyed at the right culprit. It’s not the person in the mirror. It’s the company whose logo is on the car’s front grille or the label on the plastic bottle.
I adapted this article from a piece on my author blog at ErikCurren.com.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice