Wednesday, May 28, 2008


In a recent post (well, not so recent now) to GristMill, Adam Werbach provided the text of a speech delivered to the Commonwealth Club of California. In it, he advocates that the next movement after the environmental movement is ready to start where that left off.

I've spent some time wrestling with what he's saying and my reaction to not only his words, but also to who he his and what he has been doing. I find that his idea answers fairly closely to the problems I've had with figuring out my place in the world of environmental activism. I've settled for being informed, purchasing products as best as I can and doing a little bit of writing for now, but as I've said in conversations, I find that many "green" folks are too shrill and too narrowly focused on ecological issues and ignore the realities of asking people to change their behavior and their resistance to change.

I see that this could go a couple of ways. His proposed BLUE (can you hear the capital letters?) movement becomes just another in a long list of things we want people to do, like FairTrade, Sustainable, Organic, hormone free, free range, grass fed, ad nauseum. Or, if I suspect he has his way, it could become an umbrella that encompasses all of these and more. This would make it easy, and ideally give shoppers a way to find out why the choice for one product over another can make a difference and is important.

His vision is for a 1 billion strong movement of people who are doing what is best for themselves. This movement will be driven by people's adoption of practices that are easily made a part of their lives, and that each such practice will have a benefit for the world at large. Each individuals contribution may be small, the strength of the movement will be based on the vast number of people continually adopting practices that reduce consumption and improve their lives in some way that provides happiness to them. This is presented in contrast to the consumerism, the idea that buying more of everything will make us happy. Following onto the lack of power of a consumer movement, read a response by Ryan Mickle at Triple Pundit.

What he's asking for makes sense to me, it is essentially nothing more than being an educated and conscientious consumer.. Such practices allow each individual to take the action that fits best in their life, without haranguing them for not doing more. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't address the enormity of the issues. As has been pointed out elsewhere, its very anticlimatic to watch An Inconvenient Truth and then be told to change your light bulbs. Having people be better educated and more conscious of the products, services and goods they use is certainly a desirable goal and could definitely lead to better use of resources.

It isn't unlike my current situation with transportation. Ideally, I wouldn't need to commute for over an hour to my job, but the job I want didn't exist in the location I wanted. Luckily, I am not forced to drive and can continue my mostly automobile free existence through the use of commuter rail. But, I'm also perfectly willing to use a car, despite the GHG emissions and oil use that entails should I feel I have a need that can't be satisfied using public transit, feet or bicycle. But the nice thing about this is it forces me to think about the decision to use a car, since I have to make several purchases each time, once for the service of the car, another for the purchase of gasoline. I'm sure there are ways that I haven't considered that this is also "bad", but it makes me feel like i'm doing something for the world.

Werbach and his ideas have taken a lot of criticism since being posted
(see the flame fest on the Grist transcript), largely in the realm that consumerism isn't a valid way to improve the planet. He also drew a lot of fire from his association with Wal-Mart, accused of selling out to such a corporate behemoth. I choose to take him at his word, and that this is not just a grand marketing scheme to get a different set of products on the minds of consumers. I don't think that this effort of transforming consumers (shoppers) into self-actualizing, educated citizens will be enough to resolve all of the various issues facing the USA or the world, but if more people are given to understand the severity of the problems and take an active interest, perhaps they'll be more willing to make their voice heard and ask for structural change from their governments. In Werbach's words, "we need to invest more time in making a difference through our routine activities and the things we buy every day."