So Al Gore picked up his Nobel Peace Prize. He insisted on taking public transportation from the airport, instead of the traditional motorcade. Hmmm. It’s not every day that the words “public transportation” appear alongside “motorcade.” And it’s not every day that someone who lives in a mansion with an attached guest house is lauded for his work on global warming. What, I ask, is the man doing with a mansion and a guest house? How about a guest room? Or pull-out beds? Assuming that his kids are all grown and gone, what’re he and Tipper doing in a mansion, anyway?
Why, you might ask, am I so irritated with Gore? I usually ignore the debates on global warming because, frankly, there are other issues that I’m really depressed about: war, famine, AIDS, homelessness, corruption, and the idiotic belief that charity and wearing t-shirts with the word “Red” on them can make a difference to all of that. The self-satisfied smugness of the mainstream recycling crowd makes me want to run screaming down the street, throwing caution and plastic bags to the wind: “ShutupshutupshutupshutUP!”
I’m prompted to write on this because of a recent “study” claiming that divorced people (read: singles) contribute to global warming. But more on that later. I’m also prompted to write because Al Gore’s silly little publicity stunt makes me realise how sick I am of the topics of global warming and recycling, topics that have combined into a new religion for that part of the populace that coyly refers to itself as liberal/progressive. What, precisely, is this new “green revolution” about, besides generating massive profits for brands like Gap? And prompting wealthy people – or people who’d like to be seen as wealthy – to buy expensive tokens of a “sustainable” lifestyle? (And what's a "progressive" anyway? Someone who might eventually progress towards the left?)
It seems to me that there are two types of recyclers/greens. There’s the insufferable type, best represented by the hordes of women in nearby Andersonville (on the north side of Chicago) who seem to have been cloned by Real Simple magazine: mildly attractive but inevitably boring – and bored-looking –yuppie women, young mothers all, with identical ponytails and children, getting out of their SUVs and walking into their yoga classes with their bamboo mats tucked under their arms. If you believe the recent blather, these are the people who invented the entire discourse around sustainable practices, the only ones who care enough about the earth to go out and buy stuff for it. Or, as in the case of people like Barbara Kingsolver (see my review of her book here) and others, who can afford to move away from their homes and resurrect ancient ways of farming and harvesting to show the rest of us a thing or two.
The other type is best represented by most of my friends, who put up with my wayward ways. I don’t recycle and don’t care where my meat comes from; I can’t pay $21.99 a pound for dead but once-happy lambs. The most I do is reuse my plastic bags as trash bags, and I hang them for that purpose on the kitchen door handle. I’m told that’s what immature frat boys do until they marry and their wives make them buy real trash cans. Whatever. A trash can takes up too much space and is one more household item that requires cleaning.
But to return to my friends: Vegetarian/Vegan or not, they’ve been following their own brand of green politics, from the days when that meant Ralph Nader – and earlier. Their politics around conservation and recycling have always been part of a general radical politics. They organise, in one way or another, around labour; the war; public transportation; keeping the military out of urban public schools; funding public schools; or some combination thereof. None of them would claim to be pure. Some even, gasp, drive cars, and yes, practise yoga (I don’t do that either: I get bored easily from all that sitting around). They protest liberal politicians who waffle on war and/or the living wage; they understand that the two are connected; and some of them get arrested, with alarming regularity, for various acts of civil disobedience. Their earth politics have never been dissociated from politics, period. Not all of them are hard-core recyclers, and their concern is less with buying the emblems of “sustainability” and more about fighting for a radical politics that actually considers the connections between the issues we face collectively. In contrast to, for instance, the Ponytails, who agitate for zoned parking so that they don’t have to circle for spaces when they go to the gym, four whole blocks away.
Recycling in the US is fast becoming an obsessive culture, and the main point seems to be to cart your stuff to a plant that magically makes your stuff go away and return as something else entirely. Which, in many cases, might not be a bad thing, but there’s a fanaticism about removing any evidence that we actually generate trash in the first place. We get to call it something else if we actually have to sort it. I spent an earlier part of my life passing through India, where it was not uncommon to buy hot, fried chick peas in a paper bag made out of someone’s chemistry exam answers. Okay, there are problems with that. There were the occasional news reports about entire sets of exam answers that went missing from a local university. In one case, it turned out that marks (grades) had been handed out but no one had actually read the papers handed in and then, ooops, they were sold to the local rag-and-paper man. A friend swore he found a page from his history exam at a grocery store. And there’s that thorny issue of child labour to consider. And that whole grinding poverty thing. But the point is that no one thought it out of the ordinary that your afternoon snack could also give you some reading material.
That’s unthinkable here in the current climate, no pun intended, about recycling, where mysterious processes erase any signs that your recycled paper was actually recycled from, ugh, old paper (and one has to wonder at the expense of the processes involved in that kind of literal and metaphorical erasure). But more importantly, we’ve revised the history of green politics so that it’s now longer about politics, and we now credit city-suburbanites (people who want the city to operate like the burbs they grew up in) who have lousy politics and ex-VPs who live in mansions with saving the earth.
This new green “revolution,” at least the mainstream version, seems so much easier than a real one. The tougher battles – over inequality and the systems that keep it going – are rarely heard of. Forget green cities – how about funding public transportation so that the average American city isn’t designed exclusively for cars? So that people can actually get to work on time? In Chicago, we’re repeatedly threatened with doomsday scenarios where we lose more bus routes and gain increased fares. The morning weather news is filled with details about how long it takes to drive from the suburbs into the city for work, but we hear nothing about whether or not the #22 Clark bus, for instance, is running on time or not.
In his recent column for the Nation (Dec. 17), Alexander Cockburn (famously cynical about global warming and Al Gore) writes about “what one may term rhetorical, politically correct “mini-progressivism.”” In a far less elegant fashion, I find myself asking: Where’s the Revolution?
And, oh yeah, that bit about single people causing global warming. That’s tomorrow. I'm exhausted and depressed from thinking about the sad state of politics today, and need to go to my local diner for some coffee. The kind that tastes best in a Styrofoam cup.
(This post is part one of a two part series. The second post is "Singles cause global warming: a bad marriage is good for the environment.")