In an Age of Eco-Uncertainty

The pleasures, perils, and occasional pointlessness of trying to live green

| September-October 2010

  • Age of Eco-Uncertainty Image

    Jon Reinfurt /

  • Age of Eco-Uncertainty Image

Environmental responsibility, of late, is an increasingly epic-scale pain in the ass. For every pilgrim trying to live true to his or her beliefs, there is some harder-core-than-thou type with a comment on the link between your chosen brand of boots and dying sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, every possible choice from diapers to cremation is overwhelmed by conflicting information about what’s better or worse for Spaceship Earth.

That sound you hear? That’s every ounce of fun being sucked out of your life. And yet there is one choice that we know the cost of perfectly clearly, and that’s the choice of doing nothing at all.

A little while ago I wrote a book with Alisa Smith about a year in which we ate only foods grown or gathered in our local area. The project was a thought experiment and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. Then the book hit the shelves and we entered a maelstrom of pointed questions about responsibility, righteousness, the nature of change, and the number of greenhouse-gas molecules that can dance on the head of a pin.

The one thing that this reaction reveals beyond a doubt is that the question How to live? is a hot button these days. Do our lifestyle choices make a difference? Do they matter in everything we do? Should we encourage others to follow our lead? When? Who? How? I am supposed to have some thoughts about these matters. And I think I finally do.

To begin, remember Cohen’s rule.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen, author of the classic book States of Denial, has made a life’s work of the stories we tell ourselves in order to excuse inaction. Cohen doesn’t go easy on people who shrug off responsibilities, but he also comes to the conclusion that no one can be personally vigilant about every issue that demands our attention.

I raise Cohen’s rule because three ugly clouds roll into view the moment we start to think about lifestyle as part of social change: paralysis, guilt, and judgmentalism. Some of us look at the world’s many problems and just—freeze. Others feel guilty because they commute by bike but cling to their air conditioner. Still others judge friends, family, and perfect strangers harshly because they don’t share an obsession with wind power.

R Cree
9/11/2010 2:39:43 PM

I hear carbon footprint in all of these eco discussions. It is like some electronic medal constantly showing how "acountable" you are---but really it is just a smoke screen back to I am better than you---I AM OKAY, YOU ARE REALLY NOT OKAY Douchebag. With 20% of the people in the U.S. having 85-90% of the assets and probably a very high percentage of the income and income increases over the last 30 years, I wonder, with the economic stress from this massive economic downturn on the 80% that don't have the assets and income, how can we realy do much, if anything to change our carbon foot print? It seems that you have to have disposable money, assets and time to significantly change your footprint--most of us don't have any of those things. It almost seems like the eco agenda is designed to make the poor and middle class feel more inferior than they are already portrayed by the media--and they really don't have the economic ability to change their carbon footprints.

kathryn hansen_1
9/10/2010 3:00:30 PM

I sometimes like to print your articles to read later. I printed this on on eco-uncertainty and your font size is way toooo small to read!! Other sites, like Truthdig, prints in a readable font, so I know it's possible. When I saw the microscopic font, I just threw out the article. No time to read it online. Oh well. Please DO NOT PUBLISH THIS!!! This is for UTNE employees only.

Tim Gieseke
9/10/2010 9:17:50 AM

We, as a people and an economy, are just at the light bulb stage. We are becoming aware of the obvious, that the earth's resources (soil, ecosystems,etc) can provide a limited amount of goods, and that it can only assimilate a certain amount of waste. Think of the parallel of bacteria in a warm, moist petri-dish. We, as a people, have shown greater intelligence than the combined bacteria, but neither group has come up with a solution yet to the limited resource dish and planet. But we can't all spend extra time caring about all these eco-issues, but we will subconsciously spend a lot of time caring about it if it is woven into the economic system. The invisible hand of EcoCommerce is what humans need to reach the plateau above the petri dish.

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