Recrafting the Green Message

Despite the societal progress that some measures of sustainability have made over the past decade, to a certain piece of the populace the message still falls on deaf ears–perhaps now more than ever. Not long ago a poll by the Washington Post revealed that a rising group of sympathetic perspectives was countered by the core resistance being even more entrenched. The voice of the advocates, having long since drifted into desperation, has tried the approaches of educating,  illuminating, protesting, pleading, scolding and denouncing. At this point, the tactic is in need of its next stage of evolution. In order to pierce through generations of cultural norms and social constructs, the migration towards sustainability needs to be discussed in a different dialect that focuses less on blame and more on solutions.

I recently sat in on a lecture by author and activist Frances Moore Lappé. Having never heard her speak or read her writing before, I sat down with no expectations so it would be incorrect to say I was pleasantly surprised, but rather I was deeply impressed. After meeting the speaker briefly I bought her most recent book without hesitation. Therein, Lappé questions not the conviction of the American, environmental proponent, but rather the method of delivering the message. I have argued that those concerned with promoting ecological stewardship should be advocating the benefits of sustainability as a whole rather than the topic of global warming that has evolved into the spearhead of the environmental lobby. However, Lappé goes further.

According to the author, we are hurting ourselves from the start because we are spreading a message in a way that does not promote acceptance, let alone action. The way so many have come to frame our society’s sustainability short falls has grown to be so negative that it drowns out the data and lessons that lie beneath. Over the course of the book, Lappé presents seven dicta that have become part of a largely standardized modus operandi for advocating sustainability, the use of which, she claims, does more harm than good with some being outright misconceptions. She calls them “Mind Traps” and they consist of:

     1: Endless growth is destroying the planet

     2: Consumer Society and our love for “things” is to blame for our woes

     3: We have hit the limits of a finite earth

     4: Saving the planet means overcoming human nature

     5: Environmental success means overcoming our natural resistance to rules

     6: Humans have lost their connection to nature

     7: It’s too late, we’ve already run out of time

Do any of these look familiar? I know that I have mentioned more than one in a conversation before. Their common utilization in the realm of social hype makes for ammunition that is fast and easy, but according to this book not particularly useful. I won’t try to recount the author’s response and justification of each of these points, but one in particular struck a chord with me.

I have often pointed the finger at our consumerism and scolded our society for its misplaced priority of material things as one of the roots of our unsustainable culture. Over time, the ‘American Dream’ has been interpreted to include societal stature and influence as evidenced by the image of wealth. As a result, we build homes with spaces we don’t even use (like formal living rooms and dining rooms) and buy things knowing we will throw them away. When I got to this chapter I was skeptical going in, not sure how she was going to convince me that we do not spend money on things that we don’t need.

As it turns out, Lappé doesn’t say that. Instead, she postulates that the cause of consumerism actually revolves around purchasing things that incite human interaction.

“So here’s the irony: Much of what gets labeled self-seeking consumerism may actually reflect our deep need for connection with others. The seemingly endless purchasing by some modern humans might not be about “things” at all or the comfort or convenience they bring us. Might the urge–be it for a McMansion or cool new sneakers–really be about relationships, our yearning to enhance our status with others?

…If there’s truth here, then an effective strategy for calming our mad shopping may not be to scold us as selfish consumers. Might the scorn only diminish further our sense of self–and therefore backfire? If so much more effective would be to foster new, compelling connections in communities of common purpose instead of common purchases–a shift enabling us to feel more secure and powerful.”

I found this, and the research she offered for it, to be very fascinating. No one likes to be told that their cultural habits make them part of the problem (though we are all, in a way, part of various problems). Instead of telling people to stop shopping we can design our communities–may it be buildings, public spaces, gardens, community program–to reinforce interaction and encourage personal relationships. To me, this immediately points to things like walkable neighborhoods and streets that cater to pedestrian activity.This kind of thinking lets us spend less time pointing fingers (as part of a strategy that is only getting marginal results) and more time trying to design the solution into the DNA of our built environment. The other mind traps receive similarly provocative discussion.

Throughout the book, I only had one real bone to pick with the author. When she talks about people and their connection (or lack thereof) to nature she takes a stance that is markedly anti-urban. As a Vermont native, Lappé is a proponent of the rural, or at least the agrarian, life that is more physically integrated with the natural environment. On the other hand, there are many ways in which cities present a more sustainable archetype for human settlement–arguably creating a network of interactions and reflexively beneficial relationships that are more indicative of natural ecosystems than the counterparts of suburban or rural conditions. The author does note that there are a growing number of ways to integrate nature into cities, but I think the possibilities go much farther beyond that. We have all we need to string ribbons of biological medium through our the urban landscape (while being careful to create green cities, not just garden cities.)

frances moore lappe authorBy now some may have noticed that I have gone through this entire review without actually giving the title of the book. The book is called “EcoMind.” For as much as I love Lappé’s text between the book’s covers, I was not a fan of the title when I bought it and I am not convinced by it now after reading it. Contrary to the material inside, the name seems commercial and too reminiscent of the kind of green marketing that we see too often with consumer products. The truth is that if I had not heard Frances speak, the title may have served as a deterrent to me picking the book up off of the shelf. Knowing this, I present the title here at the end whilst urging not to be swayed by it. Think of it more as a call number of randomly assigned letters that allows you to locate the writing within.

If any others have read or do read this book, certainly share your thoughts.

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