It’s been looming over me for months, sitting there in the corner, growing with each passing week: the stack of New Yorker magazines. This past weekend I finally set aside a chunk of time to go through the back issues I’ve been holding on to because they contain an article I never got around to reading, or a Roz Chast cartoon that particularly tickled me. One of the articles I had sticky-noted is Elizabeth Kolbert’s article Green Like Me from an August issue (I know, I know, it’s from two seasons ago). She examines the trend of books written about experiments in environmentalism—where people commit to making lifestyle changes to benefit the planet, like giving up their car, usually for a year or some set period of time.
Kolbert focuses largely on Colin Beavan, perhaps better known as No Impact Man. Beavan has a book, blog, and movie (no songs, as far as I can tell) about his family’s year-long endeavor to cut out electricity, disposable diapers, toilet paper, and many other amenities to minimize their environmental impact. The premise, points out Kolbert, likely sounds familiar. Authors of various books have embraced some “nouveau-Thoreauvian conceit”, from giving up fossil fuels for goats in “Farewell, My Subaru” (2008) to the self-explanatory “Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet” (2007).
All of these stunts can be seen as responses to the same difficulty. Owing to a combination of factors—population growth, greenhouse-gas emissions, logging, overfishing, and, as Beavan points out, sheer self-indulgence—humanity is in the process of bringing about an ecological catastrophe of unparalleled scope and significance. Yet most people are in no mood to read about how screwed up they are. It’s a bummer. If you’re the National Academy of Sciences or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the Pope or Al Gore, you can try to fight this with yet another multivolume report or encyclical. If not, you’d better get a gimmick.
The nouveau Thoreauvians have picked up from “Walden” its dramaturgy of austerity. Their schemes require them to renounce (if only temporarily) various material comforts—cars, elevators, Starbucks—that their neighbors take for granted. Renunciation sets them apart and organizes their lives in the name of some higher purpose. The trouble—or, at least, a trouble—is that it’s hard to say exactly what that purpose is.
After all, billions of people inherently use fewer resources than Beavan or other eco-stuntmen—most residents in developing countries, or the homeless man you pass on the street. Beavan justifies his experiment by saying that “it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways,” Kolbert writes, but she’d like to see him do more: lobby lawmakers for better mass transit, or devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Indeed, why not use the fame—like climatologist Jim Hansen becoming an activist and risking arrest to draw attention to the need to solve the climate problem; or US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (who successfully landed a plane in the Hudson River last year after a birdstrike) testifying before members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about threats to aviation safety—to try to make a real impact.