PRINT April 1993


Weather Report

Unlike Deee-Lite, I have never dreamt that I was falling through a hole in the ozone layer, though I often wonder whether the appearance of equally large holes in our daily environmental consciousness should be attributed more to the dreamwork of psychosocial fantasy than to any shortage of public information. As I was visiting a cousin of mine in Sydney in December, he announced that he and his wife would not be serving up turkey for Xmas dinner this year because turkey makes you fart, and they did not want to add to the hole in the ozone layer (which, at that time of the year in Sydney, is about as big as it gets over urban areas of the southern hemisphere). It wasn’t much of a joke, even by the standards of my cousin, who fancies himself an Australian Woody Allen. I assured him that even if he were a rancher with ten thousand cattle, the combined yearly flatulence of his bovine stock would not add one centimeter to the hole in the ozone layer, whereas, theoretically at least, it might add something to the greenhouse effect. My cousin was visibly disturbed by my response, perhaps because I had shown that he was less than fully cognizant of the causal distinctions between the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer. No doubt he also resented being corrected in this way by a relative who doesn’t always laugh at his jokes.

The conversation, of course, reminded me of the perilous business of pursuing politics with family members. It also made me think about the unstable rules governing discussion, even among casual acquaintances, of everyday conduct in relation to environmental hazards: deciding what to say, when to say it, and at what cost to the codes of courtesy and/or guilt-tripping. Families are already at an advanced stage of this game, since many parents face the daily prospect of being policed by their ecofascist children. It’s relatively little publicized, for example, that recycling may not actually be the wisest course for a consumer society; unlike the policy of reuse, which facilitates local distribution, recycling promotes centralized production,long-distance distribution, and the perpetuation of the consumerist ethics of disposability and obsolescence. But try telling that to a self-righteous child who has just caught you tossing a soda bottle into the nonrecyclables bin.

Consumer companies and their ad people have known for some time that they can easily recruit children into the task of policing household economies. On the one hand, children don’t disavow knowledge as cravenly as adults do—they appear incapable of saying to themselves, “Make me chaste, but not yet.” On the other hand, they seem easily persuaded that they are the privileged ecological agents of an ethically cleansed future, being all too capable of saying to themselves, “Tomorrow belongs to me.” The generational identity often ascribed to environmentally conscious youth of the ’90s is partly shaped by corporate interests—green consumerism, after all, is among the few games in town with a healthy life-expectancy. Among other things, the ecokid’s claim of a “right” to inherit a healthy planet is an expression of capitalism’s anxiety about the future maintenance of property relations, an anxiety dressed up in the rhetoric of humanitarian entitlement. Given the cumulative burden of individual and governmental debt, and the awesome social costs deferred by decades of industrialization and militarism, the rhetoric of the bourgeois legacy would be closer to the mark. Indeed, we are incessantly reminded that the carnage of two decades of social polarization has left today’s youth of whatever class with the likelihood of depending more upon inheritance than personal achievement as the vehicle for their life’s opportunities.

In this milieu of shrunken horizons, the generational mission of “saving the planet” often serves as a compensatory ideology. Its heavily Christianized language of sacrifice and redemption recalls a long Western history of justifying poverty and inequality by making promises about the future kingdom come. Every recessionary moment—and the present one is no exception, with the Clinton administration making a big-time pitch for belt-tightening—sees a revival of this language in the form of demands for concessions and forfeits, usually from those with the least wealth and power. In recent years, environmentalism has made these demands a semipermanent presence in our lives, but this is not to say that they are any more evenly shared.

Take my cousin’s decision to eschew the turkey: not only are voluntary acts of sacrifice the historical prerogative of his class, but his generation pioneered the cause of voluntary poverty as part of the middle-class youth counterculture of the ’60s. However sardonic, his poultry renunciation was part of a history of deciding freely to go without. In the baby-boomers’ youth, such decisions were seen as endorsements of what Herbert Marcuse called the Great Refusal of Western consumerism’s “cruel affluence.” In the 1990s, they are the symbolic acts of a class (he’s a corporate lawyer) that can well afford the luxury of self-sacrifice.

In the meantime, Western reporters filing their Xmas consumerism stories were telling us the recession was biting so hard that many families were being forced to scale down plans for the traditionally abundant Christmas dinner. No turkeys this year. Here, the cancellation was being taken as a sign that the recession was not only enforcing deprivation in the daily lives of middle class and working class consumers, it was also threatening to erode the customary foundation of the West’s predominantly Judeo-Christian societies.

In still another part of the globe, the new world order was also talking turkey in December, as U.S.-led forces occupied famine-struck Somalia. The occupation provided its own Xmas media-copy in the spectacle of troops distributing grain (turkey feed to them) to eternally grateful third worlders. In contrast to the Gulf War, fought explicitly over control of natural resources, Somalia was supposed to be the kinder, gentler face of new-world-order politics: humanitarianism (not human rights) as the new interventionist ideology, the U.N.’s international-relief NGOs as the new police force, and food aid as the new geopolitical commodity. Never mind that the strife in Somalia was the consequence of over a decade of cold war client-state manipulation, or that the famine was primarily the result of the U.S.’s exploitation, through its grain surplus, of the international hunger industry. Never mind that. There was something environmentalist about what the troops were doing. Smells Like Eco Spirit, so give peace a chance.

The link between the turkey stories and the events in Somalia may not be self-evident, but it is an important one to consider. As much as anything, Operation Restore Hope is a public-relations exercise in demonstrating the West’s capacity for self-sacrifice. But these days, the spectacle of famine in an African country lies somewhat closer to home than it used to do. It is now almost a commonplace to say that the North American economy is increasingly creating conditions of domestic underdevelopment akin to those of third world societies. With 34 million Americans living below the poverty line, and 100,000 children homeless, hunger in some distant, “famine-prone” sector of the globe can no longer be talked about in the old-school rhetoric of the survival of the fittest—not when the fittest are no longer North American. With the drastic erosion of a domestic culture of abundance, it is no longer so easy to obscure the economic forces that sustain the disparity between affluence and poverty in the first and third worlds.

What concerns me, however, are the ways in which environmentalism is used to reinforce the current recessionary messages about self-sacrifice and deprivation in our daily lives. After all, it is a common conception of green politics in general that the aim of the ecology movement is to make people satisfied with less, and that the green code of voluntary simplicity squares with the need to respond to what is perceived as real material scarcity. Let’s remember that people do not respond best to coercive messages that invoke guilt and self-denial. They respond best, believe it or not, to messages about social fulfillment. These days, it’s more important than ever to imagine a world where scarcity is not an operative concept. Getting rid of scarcity is not the same as getting rid of hunger and poverty, though it may lead to that. Getting rid of scarcity is part of the cultural work that is necessary in order to make a world in which hunger and poverty are not necessary. And in that very different world, not everyone will want turkey on the table.

Andrew Ross