The Spectacle Blog

The Guilt Feels So Goode

By on 6.4.09 | 9:52AM

George Will has a great column today on the psychology of environmentalism, the recession and Mike Judge's new prime-time cartoon, The Goode Family, which is worth quoting at length:

[A] New York Times television critic disapproves. The show "feels aggressively off-kilter with the current mood, as if it had been incubated in the early to mid-'90s, when it was possible to find global-warming skeptics among even the reasonable and informed." That is a perfect (because completely complacent) sample of the grating smugness of the planet-savers, delivered by an entertainment writer: Reasonable dissent is impossible..."The Goode Family" does not threaten Jonathan Swift's standing as the premier English-language satirist. But when a Goode child apologizes to his parent for driving too much, and the parent responds, "It's OK ... what's important is that you feel guilty about it," the program touches upon an important phenomenon: ecology as psychology.

In "The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding" (The New Republic, May 20), Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of "Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists," say that a few years ago, being green "moved beyond politics." Gestures--bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows--"gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance."

Green consumption became "positional consumption" that identified the consumer as a member of a moral and intellectual elite. A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because "it makes a statement about me." Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshaped its 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius. Nordhaus and Shellenberger note the telling "insignificance," as environmental measures, of planting gardens or using fluorescent bulbs. Their significance is therapeutic, but not for the planet. They make people feel better:"After all, we can't escape the fact that we depend on an infrastructure--roads, buildings, sewage systems, power plants, electrical grids, etc.--that requires huge quantities of fossil fuels. But the ecological irrelevance of these practices was beside the point."

The point of "utopian environmentalism" was to reduce guilt. During the green bubble, many Americans became "captivated by the twin thoughts that human civilization could soon come crashing down--and that we are on the cusp of a sudden leap forward in consciousness, one that will allow us to heal ourselves, our society, and our planet. Apocalyptic fears meld seamlessly into utopian hopes." Suddenly, commonplace acts -- e.g., buying light bulbs--infused pedestrian lives with cosmic importance. But:"Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world's poor; they neglect to mention that the poor also have the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous."

Now, say Nordhaus and Shellenberger, "the green bubble" has burst, pricked by Americans' intensified reluctance to pursue greenness at a cost to economic growth. The dark side of utopianism is "escapism and a disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green or financial." Re-engagement with reality is among the recession's benefits.

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