June 24, 2006

Tradition vs. Conservation

If I had one major gripe about Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, it would be his lack of emphasis on the title and theme of the book: The inconvenience of global warming and conservation in general and why many Americans refuse to accept the facts.

One of the major obstacles in the "green" movement is tradition. American life has been consistent on many levels since the baby-boomers were born, and white, middle-class families have been living the same way for almost 60 years now. Many couples still want the American dream: two cars, two-and-a-half kids, white picket fence, short-cropped lawn, a perfect little home in a perfect little neighborhood.

In today's world is this still realistic?

I remember having a couple over to our apartment, two of our very good friends, and discussing their new home. We were all laughing over our years of busted vehicles, and my fiancee mentioned that she had always wanted a Mini Cooper. They looked confused.

"Well, you're going to have kids, right?" he asked.

"Yeah... Why?"

"You'll need something bigger than that..."

Do we? Like what, a gas-guzzling minivan? When I was a child, I rode in my father's Pinto everywhere and had no gripes, had nothing with which to compare that experience. I don't remember being cramped. I didn't know the difference.

Advertising supports this mentality. How many times a day are you told what you need to buy to be more comfortable or to supplement your lifestyle? Many of these products are terrible for the environment. Why are we still buying them?

  • Tradition is an obstacle to conservation because it relies on a strong, entirely separate set of tenants.
  • Tradition tells us that big cars contain and protect your big family; conservation tells us that smaller cars, fuel-efficient cars, are the future, perfectly capable of protecting your family's future.
  • Tradition tells us that product consumption boosts the economy; conservation shows us
  • just how much resources it takes to ship products around the country.
  • Tradition builds beautiful furniture out of rare woods; conservation winces as more and more of the rain forests are leveled every day.
  • Tradition likes a well-manicured, bright green lawn; conservation asks us to invite local fauna and flora back into our yards, promoting biodiversity.
  • Tradition tells us that human ingenuity will ultimately save us from extinction; conservation warns us not to rely on that.

What Al Gore should have strengthened was just how inconvenient conservation is. People have been doing the same things for decades, and now the entire system has to be changed. It's not a matter of disrespectfully smashing traditions, but more a matter of instituting new ones.

This change should be in small steps. But even getting recycling bins installed at the university is a challenge. When we left work today, Heather was holding two empty plastic water bottles. One of our coworkers looked at her and asked, "What are you doing with those?" Heather explained that she was going to take them home and recycle them. They looked down at the elevator floor and nodded uncomfortably, as if to say, "You're crazy, but we're trying to be polite" or "Gee, you're making us feel bad for throwing ours away."

So how do we circumvent the inconvenience of conservation? How do we found new traditions in America? I think one of the first steps is turning the television off and picking up books or articles downloaded from the internet. Second is unfounding our obsession with celebrity and the wealthy. Third, making education the priority in our country.

In general, Americans need to moderate our tendencies to use so much and think about where our everyday products come from. We need to force our government to bring jobs back into this country so we can buy ethically, but until then, we need to be informed as consumers and make decisions based on the best available evidence.

Those first steps are the movement toward new traditions. The world is waiting for us to lead by example.


  1. Jbruno, I understand your point, but I see this as Gore's smartest move. It's much easier to ask people to make sacrifices *after* they've been convinced change is necessary and they've been motivated to do so.

    I think if Gore had spent a lot of time talking about what we all do that's wrong and how much work it will take to change, it would have significantly dampened the ability of the film to motivate. Instead of being an invitation, it would have put people on the defensive. Instead of having people think about all the things they can do, it would have had people thinking about how unfeasible it all sounded.

    In short, it would have (as Al Gore said) encouraged moving from denial to despair, without the intermediate step in between.

    If you start your plea to commit to a project by talking about how arduous it is, not by why it's necessary and why it can be done, it's not surprising if no one shows up. I think that's the classic error of environmental organizations; that Gore did an end-run around it is remarkable, and this time it might actually get results.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, Thud. That is why his movie seems to be so successful.

    I was discussing the book, however, from a nitpicky writer's perspective. His theme gets lost in the data from time to time, and the interludes break up the main story (his slide show) a bit too much.

    I haven't actually seen the movie yet.