Just Because You Drive a Prius Doesn’t Mean You Can Stop Worrying About the Environment (and other musings from week one of Environmental Sociology)

What are you doing right now?

Are you eating food? Drinking coffee? Wearing clothes? What about shoes? Are you in a house? Is there a car outside?

Whatever specific things may be happening, you can be sure that your arrival at the current situation has taken some sort of generalized toll on the environment. No matter how much you may have recycled or used cloth diapers or refused plastic water bottles, you are still inevitably wreaking a little [or a lot of] havoc on the the natural world, simply by virtue of your existence.

“Well, duh,” you may say. “This is nothing new. Are you actually only figuring this out as a senior at Colorado College, because I thought you hippies like to farm?” To this, I would reply that I have worked on multiple organic farms, thank you very much, and I like to lace up my hiking boots and eat my Tofurky as much as the next kid. But that’s beyond the point. The point is that this first week of class has made me, already a self-proclaimed environmentalist, consider things that I never before considered. This is what I love about classes with Wade Roberts: He doesn’t care about how many concepts or statistics students can memorize and repeat back to him; he cares about revolutionizing their thought processes and challenging them to question the scripts and systems that they have grown up with. This is why I picked Sociology as a major.

So, namely, I’ve been grappling with the idea that the extent of our carbon footprints may depend a lot less on who we are and the individual choices we make and more on where we are and how our local and national cultures, legal systems, and governments operate. The American system tells us that we can help the environment by making better individual choices with what we buy and how we use it, but the problem is that we are still incessantly encouraged to buy. We know nothing if not how to be good consumers–whether we’re consumers of gas guzzling cars and red meat or Seventh Generation soap and Priuses. (In fact, buying green products can often make us more forgetful of our carbon footprints. Case in point: my friend making fun of me for driving my hybrid car three blocks, sarcastically saying, “Well you can drive anywhere you want, right? It’s a hybrid!”)

To really change things, we need to be what one of this week’s readings calls “citizen consumers” instead of “consumer citizens.” In other words, we need change prioritized by and built into our national system design, not left up to individual go-getters. Those individuals and their ideals matter, of course, but what matters more is broader, systematic changes.

We contextualized these ideas with a lot of concepts, the two most major being 1) the Political Economy Perspective and 2) the Neoliberal Perspective (the Modernization Perspective). The Political Economy Perspective is neo-Marxist, like so many things in Sociology (or so it can seem). It implicates the capitalist market economy in our “treadmill of production” system of eco-exploitation. The Neoliberal Perspective, on the other hand, comes out of classical economic theory (think Adam Smith) and assumes that the market can be used to achieve societal goals–assumes that we can really change things with enough individual effort. It argues that consumers will make rational, eco-friendly market choices if they are “sufficiently informed”…but the meaning of that phrase is sufficiently ambiguous.

See, people are distanced from the practices that go into the products they buy. They are coddled and shielded from the life cycles of commodities. If they do happen to be informed, there is little evidence to suggest that micro-level lifestyle choices can have big environmental benefits. And even if they step out of the system of consumption and literally stop buying things, their savings and tax dollars could be (and probably are) invested in at least one environmentally harmful project or practice.

So what’s a CC Tiger supposed to do with this information?! I suppose I’m supposed to think more about how I can make the system better so it’s easier for me to make good environmental choices without having to think to hard about them (or pay so much more for them). In the meantime, I will be doing a Commodity Chain Analysis for Tuesday, trying to figure out just where my running shoes came from (which I’m sure will turn out to be impossible), and reading up on environmental disruptions and inequalities. I’ll let y’all know what I learn. And suddenly I have a craving to read The Lorax.

One reply on “Just Because You Drive a Prius Doesn’t Mean You Can Stop Worrying About the Environment (and other musings from week one of Environmental Sociology)”

  1. The rest of the week, we talked more specifically on externalization of environmental risk. The most interesting articles, in my opinion, were the ones about food (factory farms and CAFOs–confined animal feeding operations) and e-waste (i.e. the trash that used to be digital products). The e-waste phenomenon is particularly disturbing because it’s so hidden. Digital products (phones, computers, etc.) are produced with the intention and expectation that they will become obsolete rather quickly. When that necessary obsolescence happens, the products are either flat-out discarded or recycled. But when they get recycled, they are often just shipped east to places like Hong Kong, where impoverished populations are willing to expose themselves to extreme toxins in attempts to extract trace amounts of metals from old monitors and other sorts of e-waste. It’s all very sad and corrupt, very hidden (through the efforts of multiple parties). There’s a great 60 Minutes About It:


    So class is bringing a lot of issues to the forefront that have been systematically swept under the proverbial rug. It’s depressing and educational all at once. But I guess a lot of figuring out the truth is bound to be depressing? Anyway, long comment but I didn’t want to make a totally new post so there you go!

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