The Conundrum: Starting at Hopelessness

I just finished – about a year late – reading David Owen’s The Conundrum (Riverhead 2012). The essential problem that underlies environmental degradation and climate change, he argues, is not that we don’t know what to do to change course. It’s that we do not want to change course. Or rather, we want to change course only in small ways – for example, making air conditioners more efficient – which often ends up making products cheaper and more readily available, so more people partake of them, raising demand such that it cancels out any reductions in consumption that might have been made in the short term.

Owen’s target audience, and the group who receives his sharpest criticism, is not Republican lawmakers or oil company executives. Such folks are far too easy to blame. On the contrary, the party he singles out for complicity are “eco-conscious do-gooders“:  the tree-hugging, latte-swigging, hybrid-driving elitists who believe “the Prius fallacy” that the earth can be saved with nips and tucks – in other words, without any real sacrifice. His target is people like me. (Owen admits that he, too, is part of the problem, having left earth-friendly Manhattan for the suburbs when his family started growing; the finger he points is directed at himself, which makes him a more credible prophet.)

Owen argues that it doesn’t matter what I drive, what matters is that I drive, thousands of miles a year. Not only that, I use air travel for work and pleasure at least several times a year. Though I avoid factory-farmed meat, I do generally consume more food and drink than I need to be satisfied, much of it imported, heavily processed, and/or government subsidized. I don’t water my lawn, but I shower (almost) every day and flush my toilet at will. Though I have only one child, he has in his eight short years already consumed more of the earth’s resources than most human beings ever will. Though I turn out lights when leaving a room, my house is never totally dark because electronics like the fridge give off an ever-present glow. And, oh yes, the lattes I swig surely did not come from coffee beans grown in my home state.

Because this book hit me where I live, again and again, reading it should have been entirely depressing. It left me with virtually no hope for earth’s future, in light of 7 billion (and counting) ravenous humans who all hope for long, comfortable lives for them and their children. Even if, by some miracle, the whole of resource-greedy North America and Australia suddenly converted to living in small apartments, gave up meat and the internet, and never used plastic again, up-and-coming economies like China and India are just getting started. The people who actually have the power to make large-scale changes in the global marketplace will always also have the power to shield themselves from the negative consequences of consumption, while the people who suffer most from the world’s consumption will always be those on the margins of society.

But strangely enough, I found this utter hopelessness invigorating, perhaps because it brought things into focus, removing the amorphous weight of the world from my guilt-laden shoulders. Guess what? I am not the whole world’s mommy, and therefore can’t fix the world’s problems! I am not responsible for every individual in Congress or the marketplace or indeed, even in my own family. No matter what changes I make, I cannot force anyone else to come along – though as a teacher and writer I obviously believe in the power of persuasive arguments, and as a citizen I believe in the democratic process. We are all caught in a broken system, yes, but we also (at least those of us adults who do not wonder where our next meal is coming from) have economic and environmental agency that we must exercise.

This leaves me with a renewed sense of the importance of mindfulness and self-examination. Am I prepared to make any real sacrifices in my ridiculously comfortable life? I am convinced that Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man is the model to which environmentally-concerned people should aspire. Mind you, “reflection” of his sort doesn’t mean navel-gazing while sitting in the dark. He keeps a blog, wrote a book, started an active political movement, and even ran for public office. But he and his family started with radical changes to their own everyday lives. He and Owen have forced me to look in the mirror and see that in my life, it really is “too easy being green.”

What about you? Do you feel hopeless about the earth – or what gives you hope? What sacrifices have you made for the sake of conservation, and how did you work up the will to do it? [By the way, I’ll be back again with more hopeful thoughts from Frances Moore Lappe’s book, Eco-Mind, which is much more uplifting. I strongly recommend it!]

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