Dozens of new books appear to provide an answer: we can save the world by embracing “better, greener lifestyles”. Last week, for example, the Guardian published an extract of the new book by Sheherazade Goldsmith, who is married to the very rich environmentalist Zac, in which she teaches us “to live within nature’s limits”(2). It’s easy: just make your own bread, butter, cheese, jam, chutneys and pickles, keep a milking cow, a few pigs, goats, geese, ducks, chickens, beehives, gardens and orchards. Well, what are you waiting for?First, I'm appalled to learn there are people called Sheherazade outside of the Arabian Nights. I suppose this might mitigate her niavety somewhat. People lumbered with ridiculous names by their parents can't be held responsible for their actions.
Her book also contains plenty of useful advice, and she comes across as modest, sincere and well-informed. But of lobbying for political change, there is not a word: you can save the planet in your own kitchen - if you have endless time and plenty of land. When I was reading it on the train, another passenger asked me if he could take a look. He flicked through it for a moment then summed up the problem in seven words. “This is for people who don’t work.”
None of this would matter, if the Guardian hadn’t put her photo on the masthead last week, with the promise that she could teach us to go green. The media’s obsession with beauty, wealth and fame blights every issue it touches, but none more so than green politics. There is an inherent conflict between the aspirational lifestyle journalism which makes readers feel better about themselves and sells country kitchens and the central demand of environmentalism: that we should consume less. “None of these changes represents a sacrifice”, Sheherazade tells us. “Being more conscientious isn’t about giving up things.” But it is: if, like her, you own more than one home when others have none.
Uncomfortable as this is for both the media and its advertisers, giving things up is an essential component of going green. A section on ethical shopping in Goldsmith’s book advises us to buy organic, buy seasonal, buy local, buy sustainable, buy recycled. But it says nothing about buying less. (1)
Second, Monbiot is abslutely correct to skewer her for her silliness. We don't all live in a world that facilitates the raising of chickens and the quaffing of organic ale. Buying fairtrade, or organic, or locally produced produce from an authentic rural type at a market, are luxuries enjoyed by people rich enough to indulge themselves. For most of us, grabbing something faintly edible from the freezer and heating it is about as good as we can do.
Don't get me wrong. I buy Fair Trade coffee - Hell, I even cycled into town today to buy some - and eschew goods made in third world countries as a rule. Our family buy our fruit and vege at the local markets. But I don't imagine for a moment that this is going to save the world, or that it is a practical option for people who aren't in the relatively comfortable circumstances we are. It is a sop to my conscience, a band-aid for the things that make me uncomfortable - middle class guilt, a general concern about the impact of my lifestyle on the planet, while not doing as much about it as I could, and a sense of being far luckier in my lot than I deserve to be. Similarly, the shiney, seductive baubles on display at Dick Smith or the sleek new cars advertised o TV work in a similar way for people whose priorities are different to mine. Nice, shiney stuff makes those people feel better, just as paying three times as much for coffee from an Ethiopian co-operative makes me feel better. Both are essentially lifestyle choices and neither will save the planet. It might be arguable that my choices are more moral and less destructive, but if forced to be honest, I'd admit I shouldn't be drinking the coffee at all.
This is why change has to come top-down. Modern life is simply too fraught for people to be relied on to make the responsible decisions. I occasionally surcumb and buy something manufactured in China, even though I loathe and abhor the bastard regime there and the slavish manner that we cosy up to it. Supermarkets and stores will always offer us cheap, gaudy goods which will seduce us, because they have massive expertise in seducing us. We'll make bad choices as long as those who stand to profit from our actions are allowed to lure us into making bad choices. That's reality.
In her own way, Sheheradze is as bad as McDonalds or The Warehouse. She is offering us a false version of reality, seducing us, seeking taking advantage of our naivety. In her defence, she probably doesn't realise how false her promises are. It would be nice if it was possible to save the world by following her programme, but since it is impossible for almost everyone other than Sheheradze Goldsith to follow, and since the vast majority of people will not follow it strictly or for long, it is just as phoney as the version of reality profferred by K-Mart or in a commercial for the newest bestest Ford or Hyundai.
1 - "Eco-Junk: Green consumerism will not save the biosphere," by George Monbiot, in the Guardian 24th of July, 2007. (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/07/24/eco-junk/)