Conservation Conversations & Quandaries: Voter Apathy (1/4)

In the spirit of Roderick Haig-Brown, I’m inspired to share a few comments on conservation from an exchange with Camila Thorndike.

Part the First, in which I creep on Camila’s Facebook wall.

I first met Camila, currently Director of Engagement for “COAL: The Musical,” during the Sitka Fellows Program in Alaska last summer. I was immediately impressed by her knowledge about the world and her passion for environmental activism.

A few weeks ago, she posted something on her wall (which I would dig up to quote directly, if it weren’t for the fact that my on-again, off-again relationship with Facebook is off, again) about audience apathy. Specifically, she said something about audience questions and comments that it would be too hard to reverse the damage we have done to the planet to date, and therefore efforts at any type of conservation were doomed and / or futile.

Needless to say, I did not “like” this post, but I did ponder it for some time. While I was taking the recommended * quick * shower at Hosteling International in Portland, a place with a green mandate to compost, conserve resources, and so forth, I thought about how people complain that it is too hard or too late to reverse the destruction of the planet, and how that’s such a cop out.

[Caveat: my moral indignation is subject to cognitive dissonance when set against my lived experience.]

A professor once told a story of some students in the 1960s, who gave him a shirt about how the world was ending (and yet here we are, fifty years later….). He said that “end if the world” rhetoric is no good because it encourages apathy. “Well, if the world is ending,” one might think, “I’d better get my kicks in.”

For example, in Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, the main character journals the following sentiment:

[…] I saw this documentary about how codfish have been gill-netted into extinction in Newfoundland in Canada, so I went out to Burger King to get a Whaler fish-wich-type breaded deep-fried filet sandwich while there was still time.

Dare I say, that is a bad attitude, but one emblematic of some (noticeable) patterns of (conspicuous) consumption. As Bill Bryson puts it in his sometimes dreadful The Lost Continent:

I read once that it takes 75,000 trees to produce one issue of the Sunday New York Times—and it’s well worth every trembling leaf. So what if our grandchildren have no oxygen to breathe? Fuck ‘em.

Another way of thinking about this came to mind from The Rebel Sell, in which Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath argue (among other things, convincingly or not) that SUV ownership is basically an arms race against not wanting to be the smallest / least safe vehicle on the road. (Forgive me if that’s a pat synopsis – I read it long ago.)

The “end of the world” and “it’s too late” sentiments remind me if the SUV arms race (or even, you know, a regular arms race – like people getting surgery so their arms look like Michelle Obama’s, maybe?). “The world is ending, but I want to take long showers, guzzle fuel, travel around the globe, have a huge resource-guzzling home, eat overly processed crap, Google cats on my iPad, and generally enjoy myself until it ends,” is one way that attitude might express itself.

All that to say, I am disappointed but not altogether surprised by her audience’s lackadaisical response to her message of environmental activism and pursuing sustainable lifestyles.

I get overwhelmed, too, and lazy some days, but Camila (and many colleagues, friends, and family members) inspire me to fight the good fight. After all, we only have one planet, at least until, as sci if warns us, we find another one to destroy.

There are two alternate endings to this post, both sweet encouragement tempered with crotchety realism (at least that was the goal):

Be well. Keep fighting! Live well. Compost! Take shorter showers! etc.

It’s not the end of the world! It’s the beginning of change and wonderful things and attentive care for the planet! At least if people decide that it is. But people are notoriously terrible at making decisions.

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4 Responses to Conservation Conversations & Quandaries: Voter Apathy (1/4)

  1. Judith Hazlett says:

    Amanda, thanks for this post. We need need your encouragement to keep fighting.

    The problem for me is that for every family taking short showers, and using the reclaimed time to perform the endless chores of washing and sorting their garbage for recycling, there is a corporation throwing away vast quantities of the world’s resources. For instance, the local Urban Outfitters keeps its doors wide open to entice passersby into the air-conditioned interior. Now how many families would have to forego hot water in order to compensate for that one large store sending out all that air conditioning into the street. Since the legal duty of corporations is to make as much money for its shareholders as is possible, the only thing that can matter to the corporation is the bottom line. If the people they entice into the store spend more money than the store pays out for the increased energy use, the corporation has no mandate to actually stop throwing away resources or ruining the environment.

    Admittedly, the private companies are not legally required to make as much money as possible for the owners, but, still, to be considered a “success” generally requires that the owners be, if not greedy, then at least cognizant of the bottom line. There is, however, a possibility that a private company can act in a socially and environmentally sound manner. Unlike corporations.

    I have no answers. But I do think that speaking out may be even more important than taking short showers. We must convince governments to make the appropriate legislation with large fines for companies that choose to throw away our future, and we must convince the Urban Outfitters of the world that we won’t use products unless they are produced and sold in in an en
    vironmentally friendly manner, whether at home or abroad.

    Keep up the good fight, Amanda. We may be dragging a bit behind you, but we’re trying.

    • AMANDA! says:

      Well said, Judith! I type this as I return from putting our recycling in a friend’s apartment building bin — as the Extended Stay America in which we currently reside has no recycling for a building full of people who are doubtless unable or understandably unwilling to ninja-sneak their rinsed plastics into a neighbor’s bin.

      We should, indeed, put our money where our mouths are, get money from the offenders, make noise, and VOTE, in addition to practicing small scale, at home sustainability measures.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      • AMANDA! says:

        PS Some good news: Microsoft offers recycling and composting, as well as compostable utensils, in their dining hall!

        Bad news: They seem to keep the air conditioning set at 50F, based on reports I’m getting via text message from within. (“Please bring me my jacket!” “Actually, I need my hoodie, too!” “Can you find me some mittens?”)

  2. Thoughtful and entertaining post, as usual, Amanda! I’m honored to have inspired reflections on the theme (umm, you just justified my life, I owe you one).
    For years, I’ve been wondering what happens when this down-to-the-wire facing seemingly-insurmountable task epiphany hits more and more people. Fierce, life-defending solidarity? Tune out and deeper head-sand burying? Hedonism? A friend told me recently that we must work with all our hearts without expectation of victory. On some days I find meaning in living well and giving my all because it is the right thing to do, and a journey of integrity matters. On others, the boiling heat of time just burns, and I am simply at a loss–our goal is the most basic of all: surviving. It is actually that basic. For what that requires, and why every moment of the short next couple of years matter, I recommend this comprehensive and readable summary of our climate marching orders, complete with quantified goals + political history + international perspective: (DJ Spooky’s new “Book of Ice” is pretty cool, too).
    Per Judith’s insightful comments about little actions within a suicidal system, the formidable Derrick Jensen sums it up our situation with cutting honesty: Personal –> collective action: what it’s all about right now. We need a price on carbon: a REAL reason for businesses to conserve (e.g. close the doors on AC spilling out onto the sidewalk) and not just greenwash. I am a big fan of the sensible and straightforward revenue-neutral carbon tax proposal (see and the group I’m working on, OregonCAN, For the basics on carbon pricing: Advocating for this policy is probably the most effective thing any climate-concerned person can do right now.
    You, Amanda, model how everyone has a gift to offer this movement (whichever you identify with). Speak out, show up, donate, write, talk to a friend or family, RT or re-post — and know that it matters. Even when it’s not evident, somebody is paying attention, and grateful.
    So yes–thanks! Keep the posts coming.

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