Left-wingers conserve like this, right-wingers conserve like that…

In a Grist interview, Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) muses over the question of why some critics seem eager to cast his project as a poor alternative to political activism, rather than as a complementary step:

> I didn’t realize it when I started the project, but part of the reason is this: collective action is at the root of liberal ideology and individual action is at the root of conservative ideology. To straddle individual and collective action feels like, whichever side you’re on, you’re betraying your political heritage. To suggest that we should do both is strangely radical. It’s almost like you need a whole new political party.

Now, I’m broadly sympathetic to this sort of reasoning. Carbon offsets themselves have over the years come in for some criticism in part because they don’t slot very well into any ideologically convenient categories.

That said, Beavan’s characterization of the situation just seems wrong. Liberal environmentalists have traditionally placed probably too much emphasis on the agency of individual people or corporations as the cause of or potential solution to environmental problems. On the flip side, there really isn’t much of a coherent conservative environmental movement in the U.S., but to the extent that there is, it seems to favor market-oriented fixes such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. These are broad generalizations, yes, but the point is simply that Beavan’s own broad generalization points in the wrong direction.

I think the real reason some have raised an eyebrow toward Beavan’s project is concern that its gimmicky nature trivializes an urgent issue. Further, the project plays into various unflattering stereotypes about environmentalists. Finally, many are no doubt frustrated by the disproportionate media attention paid to lifestyle issues, despite the fact that political action is the more important goal.

None of these criticisms is necessarily fair to Beavan, who himself seems to hold nuanced views of these matters. But, you know, such is the nature of public debate, and Beavan is at least fortunate to have a pretty big soapbox to shout from. (Rumor has it that Will Smith will star in the No Impact Man movie. Seriously.) In general, Beavan places too much emphasis on the importance of cultural change and underweights the importance of technological change, but I do think he gets at something important here:

> I don’t believe in individual action over collective action. I believe in both. It’s what I call engaged citizenship, a combination of both living your values in your own life and also living those values in your community life, volunteering for nonprofits and putting pressure on your political representatives.

It strikes me as implausible that people will push for political action unless on some level they value the environment, and it further strikes me as difficult to value the environment without engaging the question of one’s own impact. This has always been one of the motivating principles behind TerraPass, and I guess it’s something we share with the No Impact project.

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  1. Vinson - September 30, 2009

    You write:
    “Finally, many are no doubt frustrated by the disproportionate media attention paid to lifestyle issues, despite the fact that political action is the more important goal.”
    But the whole point is to change our lifestyle and consumption habits, thereby lowering our individual use of resources, right? We vote every single time we purchase something, sometimes dozens of times a day (food shopping, for instance).
    What could be more political than that?
    Vinson Valega
    Consilience Productions

  2. michael - September 30, 2009

    I think we need to seperate the self-aggrandizing profiteers from reality. But the Conservative vs Liberal spin borders on laughable

  3. Mark Schaffer - September 30, 2009

    I have an oblique comment about volunteerism.
    Some years back I had a T shirt with the saying “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber”.
    We need to pay people good wages when they are helping others and lousy ones for jobs that harm others. Volunteering undermines the ability of caring individuals, who want to make a genuine contribution to their communities, to make a living. In Las Vegas our economy runs by the reverse Robin Hood principle, taking from the poor and middle class and giving to the wealthy, while gambling companies encourage community service helping people who are victims of that very same industry. This is crazy!

  4. Peter - September 30, 2009

    I am shocked by the tone of this article. Here is a family that has gone way beyond everyone else to tread lightly, and you question their philosophy? Give me a break. The point is ACT and show others what can be done. If your actions encourage others to engage, you should be admired for trying.

  5. Mike Malone - September 30, 2009

    Left-wing this way, right-wing that way?
    There was a mantra going around in the 70’s (60’s?) which said:
    “Think globally. Act locally”.
    One of the implicit messages was to negate the idea that “I’m just one person. What possible difference can I make?”. In other words individual(ist)s can make a real difference if they, in effect, act in concert by living a set of values which happen to be shared.
    Seems to me that bridges left and right wing philosophies quite neatly.
    Oh, wait! We first have to convince the right that there is an issue to be addressed here.

  6. behrl - September 30, 2009

    Right vs. Left Conservation. Nonsense. For example: “there really isn

  7. Bob - September 30, 2009

    [Please do not respond to this troll.]