Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Individual and Collective

Reading through the posts at Sustainablog's "Blogging Round the Clock" event, I came across this entry by Dave Roberts, of Gristmill renown. "Hold the Misanthropy" is worth a read; Roberts rightly highlights some of the weaknesses inherent in the ecological footprint concept.

The concept of an ecological footprint is most useful as just that, a concept. Roberts reminds us that the "science" of determining an individual's score is vague, but as a general marker the score will serve its purpose, giving each of us an idea of where we stand relative to the world at large. Like Dave Roberts, my score is a 16 and, barring cessation of plane travel and my swearing off any packaged food products, I doubt I could lower it. (When I last took the ecological footprint quiz, my score was 9, but I have since discovered that my apartment is over 500 square feet; that makes my score jump significantly.) But so what? The fact that I am conscious of my footprint and approaching life with sustainability in mind is a good beginning. If I can become more involved in local conservation projects, I will be well on my way to making a difference, however small it may be.

I find the thrust of Roberts's post agreeable, but one statement didn't ring true.

"Matter of fact, as I'm fond of arguing, individual environmental virtue is at best a curiosity, at worst a distraction."

Most of us have come across at least one loud-mouth egomaniac on a Napoleononic eco-crusade. This breed of environmentalist is a distraction and, though there are not many of them, they garner a disproportionate amount of news time. When I see such people on television or read something they have written, "individual environmental virtue" doesn't spring to mind so much as "insecure publicity hound."

On the other hand, I know plenty of folks who are taking simple, quiet steps to lessen their negative impact. Is the individual who uses canvas tote bags at the grocery store really missing the point? What about the person who swears off automobiles and relies on public transportation or my own vegetarian-unless-I-kill-it-myself diet? I believe such choices should be celebrated; they give individuals something to do other than cheerlead by sending money to conservation and environmental organizations.

Roberts's statement is not entirely inaccurate, though. Individual choices can be (and often are) deemed overly important by those who wish to feel better about themselves. How many times have I left the grocery store feeling superior to the "plastic baggers" all around me? Such a feeling is regrettable, but not uncommon given the "inklings of the divine," as writer Jack Hitt puts it, associated with the environmental movement. Furthermore, the environmental impact of one individual is, as Roberts makes clear, relatively minimal.
"If I could remove my ecological footprint entirely, the earth would endure 0.000000000000167% less insult (or assuming I have five times the average footprint, 0.000000000000667%)....Big whoop."

"Despite the near-obsessive focus of some environmentalists on "what you can do," it is collective action that will make or break our future. Changing group behavior -- through advocacy, activism, politics, research, however -- is our calling."
Taking these considerations into account, the personal choices can seem vain, even irrelevant, when compared to "deep structural changes in our material and social milieu," but individuals can and do change/lead by example. If Seinfeld taught me anything, it's that eating a candy bar with a fork and knife can become the socially accepted norm, even a sign of sophistication. The structural changes that Roberts calls for are aided by "individual environmental virtue," not hindered.

1 comment:

Mikhail Capone said...

As I wrote in the comments of the sustainablog post, I don't think that doing the math on one's own ecological footprint is all that useful; the point of individual action is that it's what you have control on. You can't do much about what other people are doing, you can't influence the government all that much, same with industries...

So work on what you can and lead by example. On an individual basis, it's not much, but if you put together everybody who does that, it adds up.

Otherwise, everybody could just think: "Well, so what if I buy a mansion and a 10 mpg SUV, have 8 children, etc, I'm just one person and only add 0.0000000039%, etc."