A few days ago, at the Target check-out line, I quickly pulled out my trusty re-usable shopping bag to prevent the default plastic bag extravaganza. I’m used to having to force this unfamiliar object on check-out clerks, whose years of training have led to automatic waste. I’m certainly no paragon of environmental virtue, but I try to adopt reasonable measures to cut my own engrained throughtlessness. Anyway, this time I was delighted to hear the woman working the register say, “Oh good… we’re all trying to remember now, right?” And I thought, “Are we?! Fantastic!”
This was one of the best “we” identifications I’ve experienced lately, and brought home some of the subtle (and admittedly belated) evidence I’ve started to see of a nascent populist environmental conscience in which “we” are reasonable and responsible, economically savvy, even patriotic in attempts to revise assumptions that a central American value is the right to waste. But more importantly, we’re having the conversations.
Apparently this “we” is still a collection of individuals, however, rather than a collective drive that would include the astonishing waste that continues at higher levels, from the nonsensical plastic-bagging of backpacks checking on planes to the electric mayhem of Times-Squarish neon advertising that illuminates deserted downtown Columbus. Today I saw the the local gas station has installed TVs on every pump, as if we all need to waste electricity for the minute we’re (wastefully) pumping gas… including, again, when there’s no audience. But I digress from my morning optimism.
The morning was made even brighter by this article in today’s NYT about Michelle Obama’s new vegetable garden on the White House lawn:
“My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”
All this positive energy, in the midst of national anger and despair over where waste (of cultural, political, environmental “capital”) has led the country, has renewed a rhetorical vigor that I haven’t experienced since my younger days, when I handed my mink-wearing aunt a Peta “Fur is Dead” coffee mug, conscientiously objected to disection, and dreamed of saving the whales with Greenpeace. At some point, I stopped “preaching” and pushing my ideas on others, assuming that a non-judgmental modeling would be more effective than overt pressure, that composting, biking, and reasonably restricting my use of chemicals was a personal choice.
These days, though, I find myself thinking more about the simple and obvious lessons we could all be sharing just by talking about these choices, by enjoying the kind of productive dialogue that, at its best, rhetoric can be and promote.