Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who is We?

I was reading an article in a “green” magazine recently about the changes we need to make if we want to save our planet for future generations—nothing surprising, enlightening, or particularly useful.  Old news.  I’ve probably read over a hundred of these kinds of articles in the last few years, and each one leaves me with slightly less patience for then next.  They appear to be increasingly preachy or trite or both, but it is not the tone of these articles that is sapping my stamina.  Nor is it the all-to predictable content. 

It’s the use of pronouns. 

Specifically, it’s the liberal use of we, us, and our as if there were actual meaningful referents for these words.  “It is up to us.” “We have to change the way we think about our relationship with the environment.”

Who the hell is we?  Which us?  Who is the owner of our?  

If the authors are intending these terms to refer to some generic “everyone,” then they’re talking nonsense.  Everyone did not just release a quarter of a billion gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Everyone is not harvesting old growth forests or draining sensitive wetlands to build condos.  Everyone did not strew depleted uranium munitions all over northern Africa.  Everyone is not marketing disposable razors, beverage and processed food containers, and tampon applicators that end up in a giant plastic vortex in the Pacific Ocean.  Everyone is not gouging mountains into oblivion and sending endless coal trains to CO2-spewing power plants.  Everyone is not killing the planet.  Very specific people with very specific agendas operating within very specific power structures are killing the planet.  In fact, a good argument could be made that it’s really no one at all, that it’s the power structures themselves—and not any specific group of individuals—that are squeezing the life out of the biosphere.

Or perhaps the authors really believe that individual people, you and I, are responsible for our ecological woes.  Because my kitchen toaster uses electricity from coal, I shoulder part of the burden for the destruction of the Appalachians.  In my greed for crisp jam-covered bread in the morning, I share the blame for global climate change.

Claiming that individuals (you and I), are part of the cause suggests that individuals (you and I) have some actual power to effect a solution.  This line of reasoning is, of course, delusional.  Neither you nor I have ever had any meaningful choice in the matter.  True, some people in economically “advanced” countries have some trivial options with respect to the volume and nature of their consumer behavior, how much and what type of energy they use; they have some limited say about how actively and how directly they participate in the despoilment of the planet.  But such control is always exercised over the omnipresent backdrop of a large-scale industrial consumer-based system.  It is only because the society you and I live in is the highly advanced planet-killing monster it is, that we have the freedom to titrate our consumption in the first place.  .

But there is something more insidious about the idea that individual people acting with free will are responsible for civilization’s destructive nature.  It is a well-used diversionary tactic that helps to ensure that those entities that are actually responsible are never made to atone for their transgressions.  To put it in psychological terms, it is a subtle form of “blaming the victim.” 

The Keep America Beautiful Campaign was launched In the 1970s and funded largely by beverage and fast food companies in response to the threat of bottle-bill legislation requiring beverage manufactures to reuse their product containers.  It was as a well-planned and highly successful corporate diversionary tactic with the dual goal of equating environmental pollution with litter (effectively diverting attention from less visible but far more deadly industrial pollutants) and convincing the public that a handful of uncaring individuals were responsible for the problem (thus eliminating corporate responsibility for the environmental impact of their over-packaged consumer products).  In many ways, the “green” movement of the last decade is just a larger and more ubiquitous iteration of the Keep America Beautiful Campaign. 

Ecosystems can be saved, the impact of climate change can be diminished if only we would take the initiative and do something about it!

But if by we is meant the everyday citizens of our global corporate civilization, there is absolutely nothing we can do.  Civilization is a hierarchical system for consuming and concentrating resources.  The global corporate industrial complex is a machine designed specifically to consume the planet at an ever-accelerating rate.  That is its purpose, its unspoken prime directive.  And the microscopic proportion of the global human population who temporarily occupy the apex of the system’s power hierarchy, the ones most responsible for our situation, are not free to act in any way that is counter to the prime directive.  You can’t change the rules and play the game at the same time.

There are some things that we can do to that might actually have an impact on our situation—things that you and I can do acting together or alone.  But they are not the kinds of things that will ever find their way to the pages of any magazine that solicits corporate advertising.

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