A misguided view of the power of the individual means effective environmental activism has been all but abandoned in the US, says Peter Knight
When a 21-year-old was caught on camera peeing into a lake near Portland, Oregon, he could not have imagined the consequences.
So shocked were the city fathers by the thought of molecules of urine passing the lips of Portlanders that they ordered the immediate flushing of the 8m-gallon reservoir.
For some, this startling story demonstrates the power of the individual to bring about change – small actions, big consequences.
Individual rather than group political action dominates what passes for environmental activism here. Environmental groups have all but abandoned a push for better policies in preference for encouraging their supporters to pursue futile personal green efforts, aided and abetted by marketers flogging supposedly green goods.
People honestly believe that we will somehow avoid climate change by using solar-powered chargers for our iPhones, or fitting LED light bulbs, or boycotting bottled water. A deep belief in the individual rather than group political action has spawned the campaigning clichés that now echo off websites, blogs and tweets. Changing the world, one lightbulb at a time, one organic lettuce at a time, one recycled loo roll at a time.
This country runs on political patronage bought in Washington DC. If you want to get anything done you have to spend a lot of time and money buying the favours of politicians who write the policies. Compared with the murky politics of the UK, the US political system is remarkably transparent and, mostly, the deepest pockets win. Industrialists spend heavily to ensure the right economic climate, such as generous tax breaks and laxer environmental regulation.
The environmental movement of the Silent Spring in the 1960s and 1970s understood the power of group political action. Well-organised campaigners, well connected in Washington, brought about some of the most far-reaching environmental legislation ever passed, such as the Clean Air Act, which removed lead and other nasties from the air.
But then the environmental lobby went to sleep, allowing subsequent regimes in Washington – mostly conservative throughout the double Bush era – to soften environmental laws at the behest of the influential industrial dinosaurs.
The backpedalling has taken on a surreal quality, where the Environmental Protection Agency – the enforcer – has been cast as a villain, restricting America’s ability to compete with China and other heavy polluters. Republicans are doing their utmost to emasculate the agency and turn back the clock. And they are succeeding. Climate change and anything vaguely environmental has been banished from the political agenda.
At the same time – and probably as a consequence – we have seen the rise in the belief of the power of one. I sat through a “debate” on climate change in the Harvard Club in New York City recently where the discussion centred on how a hotel group was fighting climate change by installing highly subsidised LED light bulbs.
When asked about the need for policy changes to encourage energy efficiency, there were a lot of nervous coughs from the panel. In polite society, one does not mention environment and policy in the same breath.
The belief in the political power of individual action is built on the deluded notion that a lot of personal acts will bring about large-scale structural change. This conceit is epitomised in the notion of green consumerism. All you have to do is buy enough recycled lavatory paper and the world will turn into the Jehovah Witness version of heaven with gambolling lions and forever summers.
It is indisputably good that lavatory cleaners are reformulated and rubber gloves come with FSC approval, but no amount of eco-labels and fair-traders are going to bring about the fundamental changes needed to deal with loss of biodiversity and climate change.
We cannot shop our way out of trouble.
I blame those wimpy environmental groups that fail to leverage the personal commitment of their supporters into effective political action. Most environmental groups have lost their connection to their supporters after growing flabby on foundation grants, corporate sponsorship and industry “partnerships” (another name for co-option).
Dinosaur politicians love the idea of personal rather than political action because it removes opposition and acts as an opiate for the green masses. They know that personal action has the potency of pissing in the lake.
Peter Knight is president of Context America.
Activism campaigning CSR Environment sustainability USA