Sustainability fee merely way to pass on responsibility

Feb 28th, 2009 | By | Category: Columns

Jason McGill


I don’t think it’s a good idea to create a Wyrick-like grant for sustainability from a small student fee. It’s like paying a ticket to sit and watch others take care of the problem.

Consider that ever since we invented language, we’ve been telling stories. Anyone could make up whatever story suited their fancy, but the harsh reality around them kept imaginations in check. You can only keep telling tales about the rain god until there’s a drought. Then you’re likely to have your show canceled.

Today, real life can hardly intrude on our narrative life. We’re awash in a constant stream of content, in the form of games, movies, television and music. We experience at least as much vicarious emotion as we do real emotion.

The narrative life is much more fun than real life. All that is asked of the audience is to experience it, feel the emotions and connect with the hero. If we hang on, and have faith, and really believe with all our hearts, we’re rewarded with a happy ending. If we have to deal with the real world at all, we’d rather do it through the lens of narrative.

This is how we’ve begun describing history, sociology and politics. It’s a kind of learned helplessness. We interpret real life conflicts in terms of heroes and villains. As long as you’re in the audience, you can safely await the resolution.

Rooting for heroes takes the place of action. We root by voting. We root by watching occasional news broadcasts or forwarding email petitions. We root by joining Facebook groups. We root by paying a few dollars into a fund so someone else can do something about the environment in our names.

This flag waving helps to assuage the guilt, to rationalize. We’ve done all that can be done, now it’s up to the scientists, or the technocrats or the free market – some god-like force that is as abstract and disconnected from us as possible. We don’t have to understand how or why, just believe.

Consider Planet Green, an “eco-lifestyle television network,” which helps you to, “start being the change you wish to see in the world … without the jargon or the guilt trips.”

They will show you how to make bracelets out of PVC pipe. They will tell you to reward yourself with mint brownies. It seems like we’re always rewarding ourselves in one way or another. Show us what brand will save the planet, and we’ll buy it everywhere we see it.

And why have jargon or guilt trips? The audience has no control over what happens on screen. Keep that kind of stuff on PBS documentaries and fringe websites where it belongs. We’ll wait for the movie to come out.

The truth is you can’t buy your way out of “guilt trips.” You can’t green wash your way into being a spectator. You can’t root for Al Gore or Jeffrey Sachs enough to absolve your responsibility.

The truth is that the only real act of protest in a consumer society is not to consume. Imagine all the energy that would be saved if Planet Green stopped broadcasting, if their employees didn’t drive to work, if their viewers left the televisions off.

On one level, by not consuming, you’re just some shmoe without an iPod. But it’s the only way to stop adding to the problem. And it’s a lot easier now that everyone is broke. Saving is the new spending. Cash is the new credit. Living within your means is the new bling-bling.

Instead of this grant proposal, how about simply consuming less hamburger? The dining halls have hamburger available pretty much all day. Livestock is a hugely inefficient in terms of energy used versus food produced.

Livestock produces 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, 70 percent of which comes from beef. Switching from beef to chicken would cut livestock emissions by 70 percent. We don’t need any grant money for that.

Our big brains give us infinite resources for innovation as well as rationalization. Sometimes, telling the difference is the tough part.

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