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2007's Best: Lifestyle and Consumption
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

The piece Sarah and I wrote, Make This Earth Day Your Last

This weekend, throughout much of North America and across the globe, hundreds of thousands of people who care about the environment will get together at protests, concerts, neighborhood clean-ups and tree-plantings... and accomplish almost nothing. Earth Day, which every year has become less and less the revolutionary event it once was, seems this year to have entered a new phase of meaninglessness. Indeed, this year it appears to have gone into a form of retrograde motion and begun to move actively away from the concept of comprehensive sustainability that drives all rational environmentalism. In short, Earth Day has served its time, and it must go.

The biggest problem with Earth Day is that it has become a ritual of sympathy for the idea of environmental sanity. Small steps, we're told, ignoring the fact that most of the steps most frequently promoted (returning your bottles, bringing your own bag, turning off the water while you brush your teeth) are of such minor impact (compared to our ecological footprints) that they are essentially meaningless without larger, systemic action as well. The strategy of recycling as a gateway drug -- get them hooked on it and we can move them on to harder stuff -- has failed miserably. We can do better.

It is, essentially, the politics of gesture, little different than wearing a rubber wrist band or a pink ribbon, and, such a politics is primarily a means of raising money for large NGOs while making regular folks feel a little better about their relationship to a terribly flawed system. It's a broken model, and we can do better.

If the politics of gesture weren't bad enough, Earth Day is rapidly becoming a firestorm of gestural shopping. Marketers today will shamelessly slap the "green" label on nearly anything, including things that are demonstrably stupid and ecologically steps backwards -- Hello? A solar-powered bikini? WTF? -- encouraging us to mistake shopping therapy for strategic consumption. We've said it before, and we'll say it here again: you can't shop your way to sustainability, and we can do better.

My Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy

BUY A BETTER FUTURE. That was the motto plastered everywhere at last weekend's EP!C sustainability expo in Vancouver. I was there to give a talk, and the talk went well, and we met a bunch of great people and saw some clever green products, but the whole time that phrase kept rattling around in my head, "Buy a better future."

It stuck in my craw, and here's why: You can't.

You cannot buy a better future, at least not the sort of bright green future we talk about here at Worldchanging. That sort of future -- a sustainable one, a future that itself has a future -- is not available for purchase: It doesn't yet exist. You can't find it on shelves, and you can't even order it up custom, no matter how much money you're willing to spend.

You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it's essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won't get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won't get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend -- from your local roads to your nation's army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill -- are still profoundly unsustainable. You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint. The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction.

The reality is that only massive systemic changes offer us the chance to avoid the catastrophes looming ahead. Stuffed animals with recycled filler and natural exfoliating creams are not really leveraging much change in the system. Indeed, the vast majority of the green products around us are, at best, a form of advertisement for the idea that we should live sustainably, a sort of shopping therapy for the ecologically guilty.

My thought piece, Don't Just Be the Change, Mass-Produce It, flooded my inbox with more direct responses than anything else I've ever written

"If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?” asked an email I got recently.

I know the standard answer: Be the change.

This motto -- shorthand for Gandhi's instruction that "We must be the change we wish to see in the world" -- has become ubiquitous. And while a sensible person will appreciate the essential wisdom behind Gandhi's words, in the context of sustainability, this shorthand has become associated as well with another idea: that the being the change is a lifestyle choice.

In this context, Be the change in fact usually means Buy the change. It means living a standard consumerist lifestyle, but varying the products one consumes to include "green" clothes, cars and furniture... or at best going without a few things you didn't need anyways.

Here we crash headlong into one of the most painful, difficult and confusing realities of life today: varying our lifestyles will not create the kind of change the world needs to see. Ensnared in huge systems whose major by-product is destruction, it is nearly impossible -- if we're looking at the problem with clear eyes -- to truly be the change.

...Put another way: Don't just be the change, mass-produce it. We need, through brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory and universal characteristic of our society, not an ethical choice. We need to remake the systems in which live. We need to redesign civilization.

Sarah's The Personal Sustainability Project

If you believe the media buzz, Wal-Mart seems to be catching the whole-picture sustainability bug (along with affiliate Sam's Club). It's the interminable corporate mystery for environmental detectives, trying to figure out what's what as the company announces one intention after another to systematically move through all the chambers of their massive house and clean up some giant messes. It began with fessing up to some nasty practices in overseas factories, then moved to installing renewable energy in their stores, then organic food and organic cotton on their shelves, a plan for a consumer electronics scorecard, and now they're taking a look at the "personal sustainability" of their labor force. At least their U.S. labor force...

They call this "360 sustainability" -- what they characterize as an integrated view of positive change, and a willingness to proclaim the intention to do better, even while still admittedly guilty of some serious ecological and social transgressions. The social conditions of their workers overseas, and the socioeconomic conditions of the community members in small towns where Wal-Mart stamps a giant footprint, don't necessarily factor into the Personal Sustainability Projects (PSPs), but nevertheless, it's a plan with some excellent goals to improve the health and habits of store employees. And as the mail sorters at the Reno post office demonstrated, when individuals' personal sustainability improves, the bottomline gets a boost.

We tend to shy away from "simple steps" posts, but Nathan Acks' Water in the American West - 10 Things You Can Do is a worthy exception, since what he essentially proposes is that we change the way we think about our connection to water, as well as how we use it.

10. Finally, and perhaps most generally, find ways to fight sprawl. While cities are by no means water-efficient utopias, suburban and exurban development is by far the more thirsty affair. Swimming pools. Golf courses. Thirsty, photogenic lawns of Kentucky bluegrass. All of these things are emblematic not only of the West's water woes, but also sprawl. Slowing, and eventually halting, this pattern of development is probably one of the most important things we can do in the long run as a society to conserve water (and the environment in general!). It is also politically, and personally, one of the hardest. Many of us live in the suburbs ourselves, or have friends and family that do. People want to live there, developers want to build there, and nobody wants to face up to the fact that sprawl is a pattern of growth that embodies all that is wrong in our relationship with the Earth. Raise your voice and vote with your feet.

I love this piece: Frybrid: How to Run Your Car on Grease

What do you get when you cross hybrid transportation with local economic support and resource reuse? Frybrid. A small company in Seattle has developed a simple system for running any diesel automobile on vegetable oil discarded from the grease traps of restaurants. This is not biodiesel -- in which vegetable oil gets transformed into a highly viscous substance through transesterification; this is what many people call "straight vegetable oil" or "waste vegetable oil" (SVO/WVO) -- a direct line from the kitchen to the car.

In order to take advantage of this immediate and abundant fuel source, the car at the receiving end needs to be properly equipped to heat (and sometimes filter) the otherwise thick oil. That's Frybrid's specialty. They offer custom mods, DIY kits, and online instructions to get your diesel vehicle grease-ready. I went to visit Chris Goodwin and Forest Gregg of Frybrid in their shop in Seattle's Capitol Hill to get a tour of the conversion process and some inside info on the advantages of fryer fuel and the growth of the VO user community.

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