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Getting Down to Earth 

Getting Personal About Environmentalism

click to enlarge Cheryl Hanna
  • Cheryl Hanna

In the mid-1990s, when I joined the faculty at Vermont Law School, people often asked if I taught environmental law, given the school’s national reputation in that area. I used to retort — only partially in jest — that I taught law that was concerned about people, not trees. At the time, environmentalism seemed dominated by emotionally detached men fighting over the wild. It struck me as abstract and disconnected from everyday life. In contrast, I was interested in making a meaningful difference in people’s lives. I wanted to feel a connection to my work. I certainly cared about the environment, but couldn’t get passionate about a wetland.

I clearly wasn’t the only one who had a hard time going green. In 2005, two relatively unknown environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, wrote a controversial essay entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.” In it, they criticized the failure of the movement to meaningfully engage the public. To survive, they argued, environmentalism had to become more relevant to our lives. They noted, “The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into the top 10 things to worry about.”

Of course, all that has changed. Americans now seem in a near panic about the natural world. Indeed, environmentalism has been miraculously transformed from a special interest to a creed for modern living. It’s no longer a movement about frozen tundra I’ll never see, a forest I’ll never hike. What I eat, how I travel and where I shop are decisions that affect the fate of the planet. It really is “all about me.” How empowering is that?

The looming energy crisis and concerns over global warming have certainly fueled the nation’s growing obsession with going green. But some aspects of the transformation have been more intentional. First, the movement took a lesson from modern feminism by connecting the political to the personal. By doing so, it shed some of its overwhelming maleness.

I’ve often heard activists comment that women start to identify with eco-concerns once they have children. This was certainly true in my case. I never worried about tap water until my baby started drinking it. Recognizing this opportunity, environmental groups have quite effectively reached out to the new-mom demographic. For example, the National Resources Defense Council, highly respected for its environmental litigation, has a webpage devoted to “Living Green.” On it, you can find information about eating local and buying smart, and the benefits of taking your kids to the zoo. The site reads like Ladies Home Journal for today’s mercury-obsessed parent.

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Environmentalism has become a perfect platform for the modern mother’s obsession with ensuring her little mini-me out-competes his peers. By insisting on organic baby food, cloth diapers and homeopathic cold remedies, Mom isn’t a neurotic control freak who has lost her identity. She’s an activist who has found her inner Mother Earth.

Some may dismiss the domestification of environmentalism, but that might be what propels the movement’s future. No group is likelier to engage in activism than angry moms. If organized mothers could target toxins in toys the same way Mothers Against Drunk Driving targeted alcohol-related fatalities, we would undoubtedly raise our kids in a safer world.

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Maybe even more noteworthy than the movement “hitting home” has been its ability to transcend its liberal roots to appeal more broadly, based on a shared sense of moral purpose. Recently, for example, the Vatican included harming the environment in its updated list of mortal sins for a modern age. Along with drug dealing, abortion, genetic engineering, being obscenely rich, pedophilia and causing social injustice, the Church added polluting to the “old” seven deadly sins — pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust. Perhaps the Church hopes to ensure its own survival by engaging in the relevant moral challenges of our time.

The Catholic Church is not alone in embracing environmental principles. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment is an association of faith groups that works to make the environment a religious concern. The consortium achieved some notoriety when it tried to persuade car buyers to forgo SUVs for more fuel-efficient cars with a campaign called “What Would Jesus Drive?” How’s that for moral persuasion?

No longer is tree hugging associated with left-leaning partisan politics. Once economic degradation is equated with pedophilia, the arguments against an environmental agenda, such as cost-benefit calculations and free-market choices, will seem disingenuous at best, and, at worst, evil. Businesses and politicians certainly won’t want to be associated with the Dark Side, and thus may be far more willing to engage in a constructive debate over the choices we face.

When I mentioned to a friend that the Catholic Church has made environmental destruction a sin, she said that it seemed hypocritical for the institution to oppose birth control, as population pressures add to the crisis. Her point is well taken, but I suspect there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. After all, hosting a climate-change conference in far-away Bali doesn’t do much to reduce the carbon footprint, either. Thus, my point is not to denounce or belittle the greening of religion. Rather, I find it heartening that environmentalism provides a set of unifying moral principles in a world that is increasingly divided over right and wrong. Indeed, modern environmentalism has the potential to unify the globe in a way that no other movement or cause has been able to do.

For many, environmentalism has replaced the role religion once played in daily life. Our commitment to the planet becomes a way in which to evaluate our own virtue and condemn other people’s vice. The movement will certainly benefit if individuals find a spiritual connection in preserving the Earth. In a modern world plagued with moral ambiguity, it’s comforting to know that one can seek redemption simply by choosing paper over plastic. By the same token, who hasn’t been plagued by guilt after driving a few blocks to the market on a sunny day?

Environmentalism preaches a new set of commandments that seem more relevant than does “coveting your neighbor’s wife.” It becomes attractive to those for whom traditional religion offers little or no guidance. As with traditional religion, however, acting environmentally also means acting on faith — that the choices we make now will someday save the polar bears and humanity born long after our time. By seeking their salvation, we ultimately seek our own.

I think this is a wonderful evolution. When my 4-year-old daughter announces she’s going to tell her grandmother not to buy her any more presents because everything she wants can be made from recycling, I can’t help but feel we’ve turned in the right direction. It’s inarguably true that the choices each of us — including industries and governments — makes affect the world. Alleviating the real human suffering caused by these choices is the greatest moral challenge of our time. I have tremendous faith that living green is living right, especially if we can avoid the corresponding self-righteousness that flows from our own virtue.

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Yet, the environmentalism movement’s greatest asset — its ability to be relevant to everyone’s lives — is also its greatest liability. It is dangerously close to being a movement that is only about me and not meaningfully connected to a larger political and social agenda. Saving the environment is increasingly about spending properly — not just on things such as energy-efficient light bulbs, but on such spurious products as vegan rain boots.

A recent Sunday magazine carried an article on how to throw a “green wedding.” It encouraged buying a dress made from organic silk and giving party favors such as wild honey (no mention of the current crisis facing the honeybee population). Surely, this is not what Rachel Carson had in mind when she wrote Silent Spring. If environmentalism simply alleviates our guilt over excess consumption, then it will have lost its heart and soul.

Unfortunately, we may not be able to prevent capitalist forces from co-opting environmentalism. Just as the true meaning of Christmas has been lost in out-of-control consumerism, so too could the movement be obscured by companies trying to appeal to the better part of us. We already have ads urging us to be a “Green Samaritan” by buying a high-end, efficient washer and dryer, or to save the rainforest by purchasing a certain organic cereal. These products are not necessarily bad. It’s just that we can so easily delude ourselves into thinking buying green = being green.

Ultimately, environmentalism has to be about not just consumer choices but laws that regulate the free market. The great environmental triumphs of our time, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, were successful because of the collective will that resulted in the legislation. If we want to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s not enough to declare that Jesus would buy a Prius; we have to persuade the powers-that-be to impose stricter standards on the automobile industry and, in the absence of that legislation, be willing to sue. We have to convince, and maybe coerce, countries like China and India to establish and enforce environmental regulations. And we have to be willing to make sacrifices ourselves.

None of this will be easy or without cost, but I’m convinced the alternatives will lead us down a path we don’t want to even exist.

Cheryl Hanna is a constitutional scholar and professor at Vermont Law School.

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