Wednesday, February 01, 2006

a minute for the environment

"do you have a minute for the environment?"

an exchange i overhear as i'm getting a coffee from the cart parked aside the mid-campus quad just a little while ago. and i'm completely disheartened not just for the environment but for the young woman wearing the navy blue US PIRG windbreaker who posed the question. sure people are busy and these activist types are such a freakin nuisance, but people are also selfish and mean and so thoroughly self-absorbed that they can't possibly give a shit about anything but themselves and their own miserable lives.

this exchange tells us a great deal about our present moment. on the one hand the question as formulated demonstrates everything that's wrong with progressive or activist politics as currently conceived and practiced: it's well-intentioned but deceptive, manipulative and reductive. deceptive because the questioner is clearly asking for more than a minute of the passerby's time. manipulative because it is designed to be impossible to refuse (who can't spare a minute for the environment?) and make the refuser feel like a jerk. reductive because, like no-blood-for-oil styled slogans, it oversimplifies a complex set of problems that makes us all too susceptible to our critics.

and it was this especially, the notion that there is a thing called "the environment" for which one could "have a minute," that immediately came to my mind when i heard the above exchange because it is precisely the argument at the center of the "death of environmentalism" debate that i'd been reading about two weekends ago. so i asked the woman from PIRG if she was familiar at all with this debate, sparked largely by a paper given by shellenberger and nordhaus in october 2005. and she said no, she was not familiar with this.

this kinda of shocked the hell out of me. and i'll elaborate more on why this is an important debate not just for environmentalism but for progressive politics as a whole -- if not merely for the fact that shellenberger and nordhaus have also recently chimed in on the "values debate" as it relates to DNC political strategies for the 2006 and 2008 elections. but here is someone supposedly on the front lines of progressive activism who has no knowledge of the hottest debate in her particular field. so i went to my office, printed off a few articles about it by john meyer and walked them back out to her. CONTACT...


Jessica Smith said...

t, i'm not surprised at her ignorance... i used to work for NYPIRG and they really control the information their employees get about any&all environmental issues. they brainwash you. we used to call it "trickle-down knowledge". their idea was that if you knew too much then you would talk too long, get into too deep conversations with people... when you really just need to get in, sell your point, collect the cash, and get out. i quit when a fellow employee and I (Jay) were "caught" researching the new topic we were supposed to be selling and reprimanded.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

I worked for USPIRG one summer--it felt kind of like a cult. They gave employees specific pamphlets and focused on training you to deliver a "rap"--I never got busted like Jessica, but I did quit.