Nothing’s Easy

“Rethink,” begged the large type on the official Harvard posters advertising sustainability events last week. The implication of this slogan was, no doubt, that environmental action is no longer the province of corrective prescriptions but of wholesale reconstructions. Hiding unseen but implied behind “rethink” was another “re” word: “revolution.” The conclusion—sometimes explicit but mostly tacit—is that tackling climate change is the definitional struggle of our generation.

The more inspirational apostles of the environmental movement like to place the problem of climate change in the same historical file as pivotal historical moments like the promotion of democracy at the American Revolution, the invention of a new economy at the Industrial Revolution, or the expansion of the franchise during the suffrage movement. The comparison is legitimate: Confronting the vast ecological problems we have already occasioned on ourselves and simultaneously preventing them from getting any worse is, if anything, of even greater historical import than any of these examples.

But revolutions invariably involve some people giving up on what they strongly believe, which usually involves getting badly hurt. The American Revolution hurt loyalists; the Industrial Revolution hurt artisans; the suffrage movement hurt those with a strong attachment to male hegemony. In each case, the social decision selected progress of the whole at the expense of a dislocation of the part. This, after all, is what a claim to progress implies: in some cases, obstacles to change must be steamrolled.

People haven’t yet been honest about this when talking climate change. The environmental movement remains a carefully-positioned velvet revolution in which nobody will be hurt, nobody will give anything up, and everyone will be carried upwards in the universal tide of a post-carbon society. This narrative is not only disingenuous—it is untrue. It is a falsehood largely borne on the shoulders of environmentalists, who, delicately careful to make platforms seem as palatable as possible, have twisted over backward in order to obfuscate and excise the sometimes jarring side-effects of comprehensive environmentalism.

There is, of course, no romance in pain. An acknowledgement of the environmental movement’s losers is not about laying claim to a certain brand of sexy radicalism and it is not about venting a moralistic and paternalistic thirst for power. Neither is it about identifying an enemy for a rhetorical and performative assault. It is, instead, about being honest when it comes to what, exactly, people are going to have to sacrifice in order to build an environmentally responsible society.

The central privilege people will have to give up is the culture of unlimited consumer choice. This doesn’t mean that everyone have to move to hemp farms and clothe children in newspaper diapers. It does, however, mean that people may not be able to eat beef at every meal. It may mean a flight between New York and Los Angeles will become a once-a-decade expense rather than a once-a-week one. It may mean more shopping at the secondhand store. At the heart of this is an epistemological reconfiguring of the current pyramid of economic values—namely, that we cannot always have what we want when we want it.

No doubt the consumer economy’s perceived location at the core of Americana is what has lead many environmentalists to duplicitously suggest that people will not have to give it up. But there is nothing axiomatic about consumerism in the American ethos. It is, in fact, a relatively recent addition to the American canon of values. Assuming that it is unassailable and that attacking it will doom any environmental program to marginality is to confer more legitimacy onto it than it actually deserves. There is an old Yankee maxim that goes “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” At one time, this resourcefulness was a fixture of the American cultural constellation—and there is no reason it cannot be brought back.

The exclusivity of the male franchise was once an assumption of American life. The scions of the suffrage movement, however, didn’t try to swindle their way out of an uphill battle by offering society a sweetened pill. There was no way they could avoid recognizing that those committed to the male-only vote would be hurt by their movement. Instead, they decided to attack the moral and intellectual position of the anti-suffrage movement—and eventually won.

There is a similarly clear imperative for steamrolling the opponents to comprehensive environmentalism. What’s more, the promises and improvements of a post-carbon society will vastly outshine the archaic values which will have to be cancelled. But the environmental revolution requires at least something of a revolutionary rhetoric—not because it is appealing but because it is true. Some will be hurt by environmentalism. Many more, lucikly, will accrue its benefits.

Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.