Tuesday, October 28, 2008

taking "green" to ridiculous extremes

I recycle, walk everywhere, take the bus or train, and haven't driven a car since I visited my folks for Memorial Day. I turn off the tap while washing dishes and rinse after and don't take bubble baths. I donate stuff to Goodwill rather than toss things. I try to do my part to reduce my carbon footprint, but I don't go to extremes, since it's not always easy to figure what produces fewer carbon emissions--local isn't always better, and adding the element of morality to actual science is a fool's errand.

Still, I like reading Slate's The Green Lantern column, in which the online magazine tries their best to answer questions about which thing/behavior is less bad for the environment. Like I said, do your part.

But this article arguing that long distance relationships are bad for the environment and so therefore all you two-bodies-two-cities academics should breakup and date locally? The worst article I have ever read. Seriously, as much as I want to support environmental goals, sanctimonious shit like this makes me so mad I want to sit on the sidewalk and burn plastic bags of leaves (I never said that I was a good person):

What's the aggregate impact of all this travel? The Census tells us there are about 100 million single people in America over the age of 17. We don't know how many of those folks are in long-distance relationships, but the available research suggests that at least a quarter of all college students are dating out of town. Since the rate is going to be much lower among the general population, we'll make a conservative estimate of 1 in 15 for all single adults. That gives us around 6.7 million unmarried Americans in long-distance relationships. Add in the 3.4 million married people who told the Census that they live separately but aren't "separated," and our total rises to more than 10 million individuals—or 5 million LDRs.

If all of these people made like our two-career couple and drove the distance from D.C. to New York City every two weeks, they would produce a total of about 18 million metric tons of CO2 a year. For comparison, 6.9 million metric tons would be added to the atmosphere if we suddenly eliminated all the public transportation in the United States. Eighteen million metric tons of CO2 is a third of what a national renewable energy standard (PDF) would save over 10 years—or 60 percent of the yearly emissions saved by "moderate adoption" of hybrid vehicles. And if even a small percentage of those relationships were bi-coastal—or even New York-Chicago or Los Angeles-Denver—the total would grow even more astronomical. Love lifts us up where we belong, as they say, but it does so at a steep price to the planet.

The same type of environmental logic has already been applied to our eating habits. The Local Food movement encourages us to cut CO2 emissions by calculating food miles—the distance a meal travels from production to the dinner table—and eating only what's produced within a 100-mile radius. Isn't it time for a Date Local movement, too? Let's start thinking about "sex miles": Just how far was this person shipped to hook up with you? And how many times more efficient would it be to date someone within a 100-mile radius? If the movement spread globally, mirroring either the decentralized development of Local Food co-ops or the manifesto-and-chapter model that built up to the Slow Food movement's mega-confab this summer, its environmental benefits could multiply many times.

A robust Date Local movement wouldn't just help the environment. Like other forms of economic localization, the decision to swear off Orbitz romance creates important spinoff benefits. For one, it makes people less anti-social. By spending all their free time out of town or staring at a webcam—that is, in their apartments or airline cabins, rather than in parks, bowling alleys, and pubs—long-distance lovers erode civic commitment and social support networks. They have fewer chances to meet new people. And they make their cities more stratified by inflating an über-class bubble of jet-set shut-ins who are—understandably, given their lifestyle—more worried about conditions at O'Hare than things going on outside their front door.

Of course, like many eco-conscious attempts to instill social virtue, this proposal runs the risk of killing romance. Many a true human thrill—the high-octane cheeseburger! the long shower! the Chevy Suburban!—has been deflated by green evangelists out to render the personal political. And, in a way, long-distance dating is romantic precisely because it expends so much in the way of resources and effort. It's less exciting to date someone based on your shared love of canvas shopping bags than it is to pine for a partner who wants to meet in Arizona.

No, our Date Local movement won't be overbearing. It shouldn't try to break up every cross-country love odyssey. Instead, it will discourage this special type of conspicuous consumption at the margins, nudging people toward the realization that breaking up is in their own, and enlightened, economic self-interest.

For example, with fuel prices likely to whipsaw upward for the foreseeable future, many people currently in LDRs will end up questioning whether they want to keep timing their liaisons to coincide with oil underconsumption troughs—or whether it's better to call it splits. (The coming death of lucrative, globalized post-college jobs may force similar reconsiderations.) Date Local could educate them about the environmental and social benefits of breaking up and nudge them in the right direction. And the group would be there to cushion the brokenhearted by imparting newly minted locasexuals with a sense of noble self-sacrifice—not to mention a pool of cute, like-minded enviros who happen to live in the neighborhood.

Fuck you, "Barron Youngsmith." There are many compelling reasons not to do a long distance relationship, and the author cites some of them: loneliness, depression, the Putnam-like effects of bowling alone on alternating weekends that leads to social alienation and insularity, etc. Whatever. I realize that the environment is a collective responsibility and can only be responded to collectively--but since when did supporting the environment mean trumping individual will? While I'm willing to be scolded about recycling, composting, and reducing my household water consumption, I will not abide flawed teological critiques of every personal decision or action because of its presumed impact or some tangential consequence.

Relationships are intensely private and involve the emotions and decisions of two autonomous individuals, and whatever other obligations they have to themselves, their careers, their immediate social/familial circle, etc. Does the author in his sanctimony really believe that those two individuals consider their impact on the wider society or environment such that they should feel compelled to break up with a person they might consider, whether because they have a mythic construction of love or a prosaic-realist appreciation of this particular individual and their shared experiences together, to be quite special and worthy of trying to maintain a relationship with? I'm not saying that people aren't fungible--there's a lot of us. But for all of the protest over the chopping down of particular trees, why not protest about the singularity of people? For that matter, free will! Part of the appeal of environmental agenda is that it champions the idea that you, individually, can do something. That you have a say, a role and a responsibility to protect the environment and our future--should you choose to, rather than passively, blithely, naively contributing to its accelerated decay. But there's a choice. You don't have to accept a bleak future, so you have the free will to do something about it.

Youngsmith is not suggesting that couples be forced to break up of course, and fortunately doesn't even suggest a collective shaming of those carbon-emitting lovebirds. But he frames it in the most annoying ways a collective agenda can: it serves your "enlightened economic self interest!" You can feel morally superior, or as he says, "noble self-sacrifice," and the privilege of being "enlightened." Again, fuck you. This is not unlike my quibble with the Slow Foods movement, which is more about "the good life" and "the great taste" than "save the environment" in the way it's being peddled. A good cause should be good in and of itself, not because it confers some sort of moral superiority or social status on the individuals supporting it.

Ugh, I am so annoyed.