Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Why the "Lazy Environmentalist" isn't one

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The latest media offering from eco-entrepreneur Josh Dorfman bills itself as “seek[ing] out environmental skeptics … to persuade them that a green approach can easily meet the demands of their professional and private lives.” I don’t doubt that this is true, but Dorfman’s version of a green approach and an actual green approach differ somewhat.

I’m not one of those easily mocked, self-flagellating, wracked-with-guilt environmentalists who believes we are all morally compelled to walk everywhere, eat like a Jainist, and generally be miserable in order to ameliorate the effects of global warming. In fact I’m increasingly of the opinion that what a few concerned individuals do or do not purchase doesn’t matter a whit—that this obsession with consumerism changing the world isn’t really going to get us anywhere as long as the US, India and China get as much of their power from coal as they do and as long as deforestation continues at its current perilous rate. But the notion Dorfman espouses—that you can do something by changing nothing— is absurd. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, the sacrifices that must be made are quite minor. But whatever the means, some sacrifices must be made. Everybody was perfectly happy to use less flour, sugar, meat and even gasoline when fighting fascism in the 1940’s; the current crisis is going to cost a lot of lives too.

Dorfman has made a career of his self-styled method of supposedly going green, by which a person can (he claims) help save the planet for mammalian habitation while continuing our ways of constantly buying more shit. “Consuming products is intrinsically tied to the very fabric of our lifestyles,” reads Dorfman’s website. “Reducing the impact of our consumption on the planet while still maintaining the quality of our lives is where The Lazy Environmenalist comes in.” His allegedly eco furniture company, blog, and call-in radio program have all promoted this line of thinking.

But there are significant and in some cases insurmountable problems with Dorfman’s philosophy, and the choices he makes that stem from it.

With aphorisms like, “We all need to find simple ways to reduce our trash without impacting our lifestyles” and “Helping the planet doesn’t have to be hard,” Dorfman’s new show is a consistent extension of his brand.

This refusal to alter any element of an unsustainable way of living isn’t going to get us anywhere; the most significant thing a person can do to reduce the impact of his or her consumption is to consume less. I mean—duh! This is not an acceptable approach for Dorfman. He would have us go on doing what we are doing, just buying different shit.

On the “Family” segment of the program, for instance, Dorfman and a zero-waste consultant go into the home of a family that uses only paper plates and plastic knives and forks to help them reduce the amount of trash they produce; Dorfman gets them all set up with recycling bins and worm composting and then helps the Martinezes host a barbeque.

Dorfman’s version of showing these people how reduce their impact on the planet is to tell them to buy ribs at a butcher instead of the grocery store, because it will generate less packaging. A much more meaningful change would be for the family not to buy so many ribs; a 2006 UN report called the environmental damage created by the meat industry “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” But this, as well as the fact that one pound of meat produces as much greenhouse gas as driving an SUV 40 miles, goes unmentioned. Oh, never mind any of those inconvenient truths, Dormfan is saying—just get your poison in a different wrapper! The family could have been enlightened as to the many things that are not dead animals which can be tastily barbequed, which would have fit in with Dorfman’s god-forbid-I-have-to-do-anything-differently M.O., and while the environmental merits of reducing meat consumption was outside the purview of this particular segment I don’t think pig bones compost very well.

Speaking of SUVs, we never see what kind of car(s) the Martinezes drive; since “making a difference” without having it cost anyone anything is like a religious sacrament to Dorfman we can safely assume he didn’t, during some moment away from the prying cameras, introduce the family to the wonders of offsetting. But given the expense of driving a 12mpg car with gas at $3/gallon, as well as the cash-for-clunkers program and the tax incentives of buying a hybrid, one would think this topic would have dovetailed nicely with reducing the amount of waste the family produces. Of course, what do I know, maybe they drive a Honda Insight or a biodiesel Ford pickup.

There is some helpful information in segments of “The Lazy Environmentalist,” like the fact (well, it’s presented as fact—I didn’t check) that the amount of lead that goes into a tennis ball is 45 times the acceptable amount as is allowed in children’s toys. But this is grossly outweighed by all the fake non-help Dorfman purveys; if people think they’re doing something when they’re doing nothing, or believe they’re doing a lot when they’re doing a little, is that really helping matters?

Finally, what do we think is going to happen with the Martinez family’s compost bin? If they think, as Dorfman suggests, that the wiggly aschelminths are going to eat the 12 paper plates the family produces every day, these people are going to be in for a big surprise. Then the worm composter will go in the garbage, and the family will be soured on the whole experience.

But that’s what laziness gets you.

The program airs Wednesdays at 9 (east & west coasts) on the Sundance Channel.

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