|Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, via Wikimedia Commons.|
I was interested to see this piece by Umbra Fisk on Naked Capitalism about how "withdrawing" and living "off the grid" were bad solutions to environmental problems.
When I first saw it, I confess that in true modern style I had expected it to confirm some beliefs I already had: that living in cities was environmentally friendly, that living in the country often involves a lot of driving and so on, and that spending a lot of time doing outdoorsy activities could be harmful.
I wrote about some of these issues a couple of years ago. For one thing, it turns out that if you think of elevators as a way of getting from one place to another, they are very energy efficient, because of counter-weights. As the New Yorker put it back in 2008:
"Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete."
I love that image, of the elevator saving people from oozing out all over the earth's surface -- like we're some kind of skin disease or something.
Another interesting thing is that as reported in the NYT, hiking and camping and related activities are "the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."
To a certain extent, the NC piece did confirm my existing beliefs. Because of public transportation and other kinds of infrastructure, living in cities can be more environmentally friendly than living "off the grid" or moving into a tiny house.
But in another way, the piece actually pushed me to realize ways that I had failed to take my thinking to the next step. Because the main gist of the piece is really about the relative pointlessness of all those small individual habits we form, the limitedness of thinking just about yourself and your consumer activities, when really you should be trying to think more in terms of community and contributing to large structural changes. The theme of the essay is "get to know your neighbor."
And I realized I really had been framing my thinking about this in a highly individualized way, thinking of myself as a consumer, and then considering what my obligations were in terms of my individual choices.
It's not that that kind of thinking is wrong. Of course it's good to carry your water bottle, and repair your things and, of course, take the bus (like I do!).
But to frame the problem as an individualistic consumer obligations problem is a mistake. It's a mistake we're all likely to make, because we live in a society that for complex reasons is constantly reminding us of our position as individual consumers and never reminding us of our position as anything else.
So yes, ask yourself about sustainable practices for your life. But as the essay says, don't forget to also ask: "How do you cultivate respectful, meaningful relationships with the people who will help you fight fossil fuel infrastructure?"