Why the American mainstream is worth fighting for

I'm a fashion magazine editor, and I've been mulling how I will make the transition from my current life -- which involves producing nothing more concrete than articles (some of them quite frivolous) and which is firmly entrenched in the rhythms of suburban/urban America -- to a lower-energy, higher-resilience existence. It's exciting to contemplate but it's also daunting, as basically no one around me has heard of Transition or Peak Oil. And I live in a relatively enlightened suburb of New York City! 


My goal in this blog is to ponder ways that the mainstream can be engaged in the ideas of Transition (whether we call it Transition or something else), and the absolute necessity of doing so. I have been thinking a lot about the basic failure of the modern environmental movement to change the behavior of the American consumer class. As accelerating global warming and Peak Oil have made our situation more dire, I've noticed attitudes of cynicism and even nihilism from environmentalists directed toward people like, well, me. Listen, I get it. If I'd been banging my head against the wall for 30-some years yelling, "If you don't change your wasteful ways soon, we will all be doomed!" and the response was that everybody went out and bought millions of giant SUVs, I'd be grossed out too. For example, read this exchange between Harry Balzer, a fed-up-sounding food marketing researcher, and Michael Pollan in his recent piece in The New York Times Magazine about how disengaged we are in this country from our food. 


Pollan: "It's hard to ever imagine reforming the American way of eating, or for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans... are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen." 

Balzer: "Not going to happen.... Why? Because we're basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don't see it."


And yet: to give up on us Food Network-watching Americans is to give up on the human race. We are just too many to ignore, and our bad habits and excesses will ultimately bring the world down with us. What excited me about Transition was its optimism, its focus on creating resilient people out of a culture of that's become utterly dependent. Rather than attempting to scare or bully me into living sustainably, Transition made it sound fun and that I'd actually like the new, reskilled, resilient me better! 


To gauge the 1. knowledge, 2. curiosity, and 3. cheap-and-laziness of my compatriots, I sent an email to basically everyone in my address book asking, "What are your questions about the environment?"  I was overwhelmed with replies. Here's a small sample: 


Can I recycle milk cartons?
Can you recommend the most energy-efficient refrigerator under $1000? 
Can home owners in a community pool resources to install alternative energy producing devices (e.g. solar panels) so that installation costs are lowered? 

What is Product Life Cycle analysis? 

What is co-housing?

How can I get rid of insects in my garden without using pesticides?  

I take my lunch; which is better for the environment, Ziploc bags, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil? 

Do I save more water by hand washing my dishes rather than a dishwasher? 

If I am buying a new computer, how do I ensure that it's made from recycled materials and how much can be safely recycled? 

Are those new eco garbage bags from Glad really biodegradable?

What’s wrong with GMO food? Is it an environmental issue or a health issue or a corporate overlord issue? Or all three? 

Can you help me to make sense of the numbers on plastics?
Which gas station should get my business? 

If I had to choose between local and organic, which way to go? 

Can I keep honey bees in my yard? 

What can go into the compost pile?
Are the energy-efficient light bulbs really saving energy and money? I seem to be replacing them frequently (or am I using too much light?)


What this showed me was that a lot of people have a real desire to do better, to consume more sustainably, and that they have some very good questions. It also showed me that they have no idea where to turn for, in some cases, very basic answers. This is a giant failure of environmentalism and a giant opportunity for Transition. The Boulders, Ann Arbors, Portlands,  and Santa Barbaras of this country have a surfeit of progressive thinkers in them; I hope they and Transition will expend a little energy on those of us in the suburban backwaters. 



1 comment

David Eggleton wrote 10 years 51 weeks ago

In the age of Google, it's

In the age of Google, it's very interesting that your addressees waited for your inquiry.  Their questions weren't aired and burning until you blew on them.  This could be an important lesson for us:  start with our ears, not our certainties.

My sense is that mainstreamers need a steady stream of varied invitations to find security in new places, namely in their respective locales, among their neighbors of all species.  People want security; most do not have it.

I'm not buying the "cheap and lazy" characterization until the captivity and distraction factors are mentioned in the same breath.

Please register or login to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup


User login