I have mixed feelings about Earth Day as a holiday. The various gestures and campaigns it incites often seem hastily cast towards a brief window of opportunity during which people care about the environment. Fortunately, it’s more obvious with every passing year that the window doesn’t close on April 23. In fact, since last Earth Day, we’ve become obsessed as a culture with quantifying and comparing our year-round ecological impacts, as well as those of our cities and countries, and the companies to whom we’re loyal. We salute the pursuit of a tiny footprint.
But now we face the paralyzing conundrum of how to do it. Many people argue that in the looming shadow of gargantuan crises, small individual actions are inconsequential. One year ago I co-authored a piece with Alex Steffen in which we called for the end of Earth Day and a widespread priority shift from trying to create change at the level of consumer-oriented minutiae, to rethinking systems, governments, and corporations. I still believe that massive change won’t be possible without a wholesale reconfiguration of policy and industrial production. But I don’t discount the importance of pursuing sustainability in your own life. In fact, if the gravity of the situation has really hit home, it’s hard to imagine not wanting to make lifestyle changes.
When we talk about the greening of business, we often cite the fundamental need for a company to clean up its own house and establish transparency before it can truly run a sustainable operation. The same holds true for individuals—if you advocate for sustainability in the world but leave your convictions on the doorstep when you come home, you undermine your own moral authority, whether or not the modest kilowatt sips of your CFL counteract your neighbor’s guzzling incandescent.
Michael Pollan addresses this issue in the most recent Sunday New York Times Magazine. “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice,” he attests. He goes on to suggest that the climate crisis is deeply tied to a crisis of character, citing Wendell Berry’s belief that once we’ve truly seen the connection between our behavior and the planet’s problems, we’d simply be deceiving ourselves to go on living as we have been.
Pollan argues that to make lifestyle changes is to lead by example — an old-fashioned prescription that has the potential to stimulate “viral social change.” I can get behind this idea. I believe in the power of grassroots change and I know from experience that some of these lifestyle changes — once you’ve tried them — turn out to be an improvement on the old ways.
What I can’t get behind is the presence in Pollan’s article — and throughout media — of an unspoken assumption that for every positive environmental action there is an equal and opposite Chinese reaction. “I could theoretically…turn my life upside-down,” Pollan says, “but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car, is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?”
There’s no doubt that China is on a wildly destructive trajectory in terms of the pace and approach of their development, and that the sustainability initiatives they have put forth thus far wilt in the heat of the country’s growth. But there’s a tremendous undercurrent of intolerance around China’s impact on the global environment. While Pollan may simply be stating what many Western environmentalists think, to do so in the context of his article contradicts the basic argument that even in the face of futility, choosing to lead by example can incite an unlikely sea change.
So this Earth Day, as the Beijing Olympics approach and anti-China sentiment builds, perhaps we can ask ourselves how to merge the merits of individual action with the necessity of whole systems thinking. Pitting the US against China on an environmental score arms political administrations with ammunition to prevent the very progress we hope for, and sets up the next generation for a new kind of sanctioned prejudice. China and the US may have different problems and different needs, but we are entwined everywhere from the economy to the atmosphere. There is no such thing as sustainability that is not global.