Greening of the zeitgeist


Is your marriage on the rocks? Are you and the spouse always fighting? Is the passion gone? A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that you should think twice before considering divorce. No, not because of the negative effects it may have on the children or even on your pocketbook, but of what it’d do to your poor mother. Mother Earth, that is.

All kidding aside, the study’s findings make sense. Because they share resources, people in married households use energy and water more efficiently than divorced ones. But the study also indicates how much global climate change, which -- along with terrorism -- has replaced the Soviet Union as the Monster Under the Bed in our national consciousness. It has reached the level of a full-blown zeitgeist social issue, with far-reaching moral and religious undertones.

Past national threats -- even fear of the atom bomb -- were largely relegated to the political sphere. Most people may have worried about nuclear warfare, but it encroached on their private lives only at the margins: Not very many of us built bomb shelters in the backyard. But the fear of climate change has invaded our private and everyday lives.


Indeed, because global warming and the efforts to halt it touch on nearly every realm of policy, the environment has become a moral prism through which all other issues are being filtered. Whether or not they actually care about the environment, partisans of all stripes are using the issue to gain the moral edge. Now, even the anti-divorce “family values” folks have environmental ammunition.

There are many more examples. In July, an obscure environmental impact report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was quickly embraced by anti-immigration activists because it found that undocumented migrants were an ecological threat to public lands in southern Arizona -- when they crossed the desert in numbers, a fragile ecosystem got, literally, trampled. Opposing advocates argued that the increasing militarization of the border was an even greater ecological threat than the migrants themselves.

Climate change has even entered the realm of sexual politics. Last month, a female Swedish scientist found that “women cause considerably fewer dioxide emissions than men, and thus considerably less climate change.” A green think tank in London has urged British couples to think of the environmental consequences of having more than two children. It released a paper showing that if couples had two children instead of three, “they could cut their family’s carbon dioxide output the equivalent of 620 return flights a year between London and New York.”

Similarly, last month a London tabloid featured a 35-year-old environmentalist who asked to be sterilized so she could contribute to the effort “to protect the planet.”

“Having children is selfish,” she insisted. “It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet.”

Most external national threats remind us of our essential goodness. The agents behind them are our enemies, the bad guys. Environmentalist rhetoric, on the other hand, constantly reminds us of our own culpability. For that reason, environmentalism is more akin to a religious awakening than to a political ideology. Like evangelicals, environmentalists speak, in their way, of fire and brimstone. Like the preacher, the environmental activist demands that we give ourselves to something beyond ourselves and that we do penance for our wasteful, carbon-profligate sins. Like the Catholic Church of old, they even sell indulgences -- carbon offsets.


And like any religion that emphasizes sin, devotees will find all sorts of ways to prove their personal righteousness. Particularly during the Christmas shopping season, it’s fun to watch this new secular religion collide with one of our more established ones: shopping. Just last week, I received a renewal notice from my favorite newsmagazine that promised if I renewed my subscription now (and thereby kept the publishers from sending me 10 more paper reminders), I could “renew the Earth” at the same time. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Plenty of marketers and manufacturers are spinning their products as eco-friendly, not because they’ll actually help the Earth but because they hope it’ll make you feel better buying them. In fact, the near omnipresence of environmentalist rhetoric in the marketplace ought to be its own warning sign. Once eco-friendliness has become moral currency, and everyone exploits it, the less likely any of it is to make a difference.

This Christmas, you can buy everything from environmentally friendly dog collars and cellphones to an $850 leather tote bag tanned without chemicals and emblazoned with “I am the Earth. I love myself and I respect myself,” in French. There’s even a porn website that not only provides lots of facts and figures about the world’s forests, but donates proceeds from paid memberships to rain forest protection.

No matter what you do these days, it seems, you’re good as long as you say it’s for Mother Earth.