With the shadow of global climate change looming large and ominous over the 21st century, buying environmentally friendly products is all the rage.
T-shirts picturing the earth saying “This is why I’m hot” (referring to global warming), and phrases like “green is the new black” (in the realm of fashion) represent the current trend toward a consumer population that manages to save the world – and look cool doing it.
Opportunities to stock up on green products abound; from hybrid cars, to organic and local foods, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and aluminum water bottles, we can feel our carbon footprints melting away as we buy, buy, buy.
Celebrities and politicians – and even Al Gore – tell us that all we have to do is buy this or that energy efficient appliance or vehicle, and maybe cut back a little on overall energy consumption and we will beat global climate change yet.
But is affecting the necessary change as easy as our decisions at the check-out line?
Thus far, little more has been asked of people than to act in their own enlightened self-interest with regard to environmental issues. Hybrid cars get better gas mileage and compact fluorescent light bulbs ultimately save consumers energy and money, as do energy efficient appliances.
Most, if not all, currently proposed solutions to environmental problems are economically favorable to individuals.
Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to see a boom in environmentally conscious thinking, and even buying, but I think we insult the magnitude of the challenges we face when we reduce the solution to simple personal economics.
In our never-ending consumption, we remain mentally separate from, and in many ways think of ourselves as superior to, the environment.
I think this mentality fundamentally hinders us from comprehending our connection to the natural world and our obligations to each other as human beings.
To remedy this disconnect, I believe what is needed is an underlying ethic that provides a framework for understanding our relation to the environment and proscribing action. Achieving this ethic may entail a widespread shift in values, or it may be attained by readjusting and reevaluating the current value systems we possess.
It is possible to make arguments for environmentally sound practices from a variety of value systems. For example, pro-life individuals, who are typically identified as social conservatives, can probably agree that pollution in the air and water can often lead to miscarriages, and therefore stringent pollution regulations should be instituted to protect the sanctity of life.
In any case, not only granola-eating, tree-hugging hippies (like me) can be persuaded to support environmentally friendly policies, but also individuals representing the plurality of value systems in our society.
However, I think there is one essential component that must be part of any environmental ethic: personal sacrifice.
We must open ourselves to the possibility of choosing an action that is not immediately gratifying or economically beneficial to ourselves.
By sacrifice I do not mean leaving civilized society behind, but the realization that instead of trading in our Hummer for an environmentally friendly Prius, we should purchase instead a sturdy pair of walking shoes.
Attaining the ability to sacrifice in the name of an environmental cause will signify that we comprehend our interdependence on the environment and other human beings, and is, I believe, the only way to affect real change on the numerous environmental challenges we face.