Ask Not What Your Environment Can Do for You…


You hear cynics say that bringing your own grocery bags to the store isn’t going to make a difference. That we need to get industry to stop polluting and government to commit to renewable energy. And then they say, with none-too-little smugness: “But hey…go ahead and do it if it makes you feel better.”

Why, thank you, I will!

However much we do need more government and industry commitment, I find this attitude not only infuriating and condescending but also dangerous. Yes, dangerous. This is just the kind of talk that makes people throw up their hands and say, “Screw it, I’m not going to compost. It’s messy and a lot of trouble and it doesn’t do any good anyway. I’m going to buy bottled water and throw away the bottles while I’m at it. And I’m going to drive the biggest car I can find and eat an 8-oz. steak every day.”

Smug: we could use less of it.

The fact is, this attitude that it’s somehow “not our job” or futile to “do our part” is relatively new. Americans used roll up their sleeves to do the hard work. Do World War II, rationing, and Victory Gardens ring a bell? In that case, the government did inspire the people. In our current situation I think the people need to inspire the government. But however it happens, this stuff worked and can work now. (At one point, Victory Gardens supplied 41% of the produce consumed in the United States.) Now that’s collective action at work. Isn’t the survival of the planet at least as important as winning a war?

I didn’t know until I started writing this, but Michael Pollan recently covered some of the same ground. Here’s what he says. What do you think? How much do individual environmental choices matter? Or are they only really good for making us feel better?

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Image: Thiru Mirugan

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.