I've been following the cap and trade v. carbon tax non-debate debate. And honestly, this choice of reading material has left me dyspeptic and hungdog, with my hands all permanently wrung out.
I feel that I have more than said my peace about why I think Waxman-Markey is worth supporting in the comments of the two great Climate Progress posts about the subject, as well as probably-too-excited-for-publication email to the already-excitable Andrew Sullivan. Kevin Drum is already going Steven Segal on cap-and-trade doubters. There is no reason to keep shouting what he said! This is not going to be a post about whether you should support Waxman-Markey.
I want to take a step backward and talk about why it's important to jump in the policy fray at all, and what it means that most of the discourse is between environmentalists. This blog is about creating a positive and effective culture of environmentalism--in remaking our relationship to our earth in a way that's honest and undogmatic. Public. Guilt-free. Giving a shit about policy debate takes a little effort, but it's a big part of that honest relationship with the earth that we all seem to want. Policy is important for a reason so basic that I risk looking like a simpleton attempting to unpack it.
Policy is important because it's big enough. Policy is genuinely scaled to the crisis at hand. What you personally do about Waxman-Markey is way more important than your Sigg bottle or your lightbulbs or how many times a week you use your car.
This is elementary, right? Of course it's much more important to put a price on carbon in general than it is to worry about how much carbon you, puny human, emit. Duh! And yet it's important to linger here. It's important to use the current debate about Waxman-Markey, whether you support it or some other imagined legislation, as a lever that pries us off of one of the most destructive tropes of the environmental movement as it currently exists: the wrongly-scaled push for you to take personal responsibility for your small-scale consumer choices.
It's critical to stop framing environmentalism in terms of your personal consumer decisions.
That's hard to write. I am a light-shutter-offer myself. I don't countenance waste and have spent a lot of money this year on heat-exchanging whatzits, insulation and other efficiency-builders for my home. I loves me a low utility bill, and I would never deny anyone else that frugal pleasure. That's not what I am talking about.
I'm talking about that person you know who's going or went "Green" and has been a total pain in the ass ever since. It's hard to blame that individual Greenmonger. I have been that person, and you might have been too, and even if you've never personally taken someone else's kitchen scraps home to compost them, you probably love and empathize with someone who has. This behavior used to make sense. In a world where George W. Bush was president and didn't believe that anthropogenic global warming existed or that pollution was bad or that bodies like the EPA did legitimate work, personal consumer choices and small-scale eco-rituals were all anybody who was freaked out about our environmental woes had, and doing something always feels better than doing nothing. The problem with this particular course of action, of course, is that to the uninitiated it read poorly. The harder the individual Greenmonger (myself included) worked at trying to minimize her own personal impact, the more egotistically out of touch she seemed to the people around her. The result was a vicious cycle of very little progress: scores of people who really did want to care were put off by the one co-worker who kept digging in the trash and nagging people about Vampire Power. Environmentalists became the ultimate Debbie Downers--the ones who couldn't stop reminding you that this or that product that you use every day is toxic, talking about the horrors of factory farming when you're trying to eat, or the worst--expounding ad nauseum on the benefits of not buying anything unless the canvas bag was at the ready and otherwise living difficultly. Dick Cheney's evil prophecy was more than fulfilled. Environmentalism didn't just become a matter of personal virtue. Environmentalists became Victorian scolds with a wrongly-scaled sense of their own impact on the world and an impaired sense of humor.
Most people who are bothering to read this blog have probably struggled with their own inner environmentalist. It's impossible to live without anxiety and proselytizing in a world where it's common knowledge that most building materials and carpets and such are for outdoor use only, and yet are being put in buildings where you can't even open the window. I am not interested in mocking environmentalists because they are easy to mock. This mockery is a means to a specific end. I want to understand the cultural milleu of Waxman-Markey, a bill that gets a strong B+ from Climate Progress, and that seems to be getting its strongest pushback not from climate change deniers but from Climatologists and myriad other people who think it's not good enough, or total enough. People who are probably otherwise understand that representative government is better than fascism, but who are writing on Climate Progress right now that the only reasonable course of action is immediate government seizure and shutdown of all coal-fired power plants, no matter the cost. No matter the economic repercussion.
That's a tyrannical thing to think and say. I think it's honestly dangerous to think of climate change as a problem that's above the rule of law, as if the CO2 in the atmosphere was more real than or otherwise trumps government. And the only way that I can begin to understand that totalitarian drive is to admit how totalitarian I can be with myself, and to understand environmentalism as a movement that has for too long been too individual.
When environmentalism is a matter of personal virtue, then it all boils down to a relationship between your personal resolve and this unending series of disgusting threats. And when you've organized yourself as an environmentalist in this way, it's not just hard to think in terms of compromise, it's weak. Compromising with yourself is nothing more than pussing out--it's what you do when you allow yourself to eat the second bowl of ice cream, or sleep too late. Uncompromising, overcoming relationships between the self and an external reality are the stuff of athletes and heroes. Being totalitarian with yourself is a virtue--you are not a democracy. I think that this is why it's such a slippery slope to go from buying the toothpaste that isn't full of sweetener to showering with a bucket so that you can flush your toilet or water plants with your gray water, even though you live someplace that's actually got plenty of water.
This is all fun and games when it's between the ears. But it's no way to work with a group or otherwise think large scale, and our environmental woes, from pollution and climate change to stripmining and the Pacific garbage gyre, are global in scale. I don't want to discard environmentalism's reliance on personal virtue because I don't identify with it, but because I do, and because I know that very little of the material in my own Environmentalist's Internal Dialogue is suitable for public democratic discourse. If I talked about Waxman-Markey in the same language and on the same terms that I use to talk to myself about the lights in my own house, I would sound like a Little Hitler too. And that's a non-starter. And I care way too much about climate change to allow it to continue unabated because a bunch of environmentalists mistakenly believe that democracy is less natural or less real or less of a force than the rising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere.
So I am giving myself a break in the name of fighting climate change. I am going to take the elevator, guilt free, and stop looking for manual doors instead of automatic ones, and stop collecting my usual (and embarrassing) damp sack of teabags at work that I usually bring home to my compost pile, and otherwise curb the relentless urge to eco-ritualize every single choice, and instead I am going to write my congresspeople and the White House and tell all those people that I support Waxman-Markey, despite its imperfection, despite its slow start. I am doing this after rationally calculating how much more effective it is to fight for large-scale compromise than it is to continue this rigid, private, WALL-E meets Rainman meets Bill McKibben kind of life that I used to call "action" in the Bush Dark Ages.
And I sincerely hope you join me.