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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

New Environmentalism

<id a bad thing.

It came from me receiving a generous fellowship to travel to Armenia for the summer, and it just so happened that my grandparents in Japan wanted to have me come visit as well. Thus followed a blur of airports and bus stations that took me from Denver to Moscow to Yerevan to Tbilisi to Istanbul to Tokyo to Denver. “There and Back Again,” someone once said.

Check out my carbon emissions for the summer: my flights alone add up to the equivalent of emitting 6.74 metric tons of CO2 (annual CO2 emissions for Average American Joe is about 19 metric tons, to put it in perspective). I don’t even want to touch on the impact of the buses I took, kebabs I ate, etc. It goes without saying that it was also a really fun summer!

But having basically done the equivalent of burning down an entire mangrove forest, I was curious to see what the reaction from my fellow Carls would be regarding my actions. In general, Carleton students are an environmentally committed bunch: we sneer at non-compostable food ware and do our best not to waste the vegetable mush of the day at Wild Thymes, no matter how much it resembles the monster dinners from Calvin and Hobbes. We don’t even want our endowment to be invested in big evil oil companies (though I guess we’re fine with buying the actual products they sell).

But this was the general response of the Carleton community to my Terrible Summer: a big thumbs up. What gives?

I think the root of the issue lies with the fact that the average Carleton lifestyle is not all that green. Surprised? Looking at our friends across the river really drives this point home. As a Carleton student, your share of Carleton’s total CO2 emissions for the year is 12.53 metric tons (study abroad is about 8% of this). A St. Olaf student’s share is 5.5 metric tons.

How can this be? Were our Dorm Wars and STA-dy breaks all for naught? I’m clearly not an expert on this matter so I don’t know if these figures are directly comparable (for example, it is my impression that more Olaf students live in off-campus houses, which may or may not be reflected in their total emissions), but I think the point still stands that we would describe Carleton as more of a brown college than a green college.

The worst part is that Carleton’s figure doesn’t even include student travel to and from campus. For example, if you fly to and from your parents’ home in Los Angeles for breaks, you can add another 6.3 metric tons to your share of Carleton’s emissions (by the way, all of these air travel figures are from a pretty casual looking website, so let’s take them with a grain of salt, but also give them the benefit of the doubt).

It seems like we aren’t even trying that hard. For example, was the environmental toll of air travel a factor when you chose where or whether to study abroad (did that even enter your thoughts in the slightest?). It seems like we are willing to make feel-good changes such as using funny green forks at Sayles, but we won’t make fundamental changes in the “Carleton lifestyle,” which as it turns out is not very environmentally friendly (imagine this: STA tip of the day! Don’t study abroad! In fact, drop out of Carleton right now and attend the college closest to your parents’ home!).

Holden Caulfield would call us a bunch of phonies.

Of course I’m the biggest phony of all in this respect. I support study abroad and Carleton’s educational mission, despite their environmental costs. And I support making changes in small ways, even if the impact is not very great. But I don’t have much patience for this image of the Carl as a “progressive warrior for the environment.” We’re not enlightened saviors. In fact we’re some of the worst offenders that you could find. And stemming from this, here is my theory about why no one at Carleton called me out on my figurative mangrove destruction: there is an aspect to being environmentally conscious that no longer has as its goal the protection of the environment. This splinter environmentalism wages a cultural battle instead, and has focused on the creation and ostricization of an environmental “Other.”

Who is this environmental Other? It’s a stereotype rather than a real person, but we can identify some of its defining traits. It might drive a Chevy Suburban to work, eat red meat, and not bring its own bags to the grocery store, which is definitely not a Whole Foods. But it also doesn’t send its kids to Whatever-ton College thousands of miles from home, and those kids aren’t studying abroad in Ubeki-beki-stan-stan.

Ostracization of the Other frequently masquerades itself as environmentalism at Carleton. This phenomenon was born from the intolerable contradiction between our genuine wish to do something for the environment and the realization that we are too self-interested to make any meaningful lifestyle changes.

So ostracization of the Other offers us a convenient way out. Any activity associated with liberal America is “safe.” Any activity associated with the Other is “unacceptable” and roundly criticized. So not recycling, driving a large car and so forth, are all marked as belonging to the Other. But we make sure that the jewel of liberal America, international travel, remains firmly in the safe section. And unlimited car travel is allowed too, if it’s in a Prius (bizarrely, apparently Volvos and Subarus are safe too).

All this leads to an uncomfortable realization: it just might be that those who are the most environmentally conscious  are also those harming the environment the most.

What should be our reaction to this? I’ve unfortunately partially retreated into a sour nihilism. It’s a bad thing, but maybe you’ll understand a bit.

My worry is that our cultural battle with the Other has become acidic to the point that it is pushing people out of the environmental conversation. These are people who most need to be a part of this conversation. So I have a request: can we stop making the environmental battle about morals? There is an air of moral superiority that surrounds the environmental rhetoric at Carleton that I’m pretty uncomfortable with. I’m talking about that time you yelled at that guy for leaving the lights on, and I’m talking about the vilification of oil companies by the Carleton community during our discussion about divestment last year.

I understand that feeling, but just remember: you personally are the biggest problem. We have no right to that anger and judgment, and in fact it does a very bad thing by shutting people out of the conversation. I get the feeling that people and organizations labeled as the Other are not being roused up to do anything for the environmental movement. In fact, I get the feeling that things like global warming controversy are fueled in part by a reaction to the toxicity of this cultural battle against the Other.

What’s the next step? This is where nihilism fails. But maybe you can do a better job than me on this.

We need to realize a new environmentalism that has at its root our compassion for each other. I think this compassion is the original source of environmentalism, but we may have strayed from it over the years. It should be a flexible environmentalism. It should be a somber reflection by every person on striking a balance in doing their duty to the environment while following the plans for their individual life given from Above. It should be an inclusive environmentalism, in that it should recognize the different approaches that each person creates to solve this difficult challenge.

There is no Other.

We should make sure no one is excluded from the conversation. Hopefully, this will allow us to be united in supporting the big green changes when the opportunities arise, while continuing to make those small changes in various aspects of our lives. We all need to be on board the environmental train. Nothing less than the future of the whole world is at stake.

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