Going Green Is Not Enough: When Individual Actions Don't Seem to Matter

A fictional story that reveals a hard truth: knowing that one's individual efforts to practice sustainable living are outweighed by the environmentally destructive majority only adds to the frustration of those who are already troubled.

| March/April 1990

When I visited him at the Massachusetts Home for the Ecologically Bewildered, the Pilgrim was but a shadow of his former self. His symptoms, including self-flagellation and compulsive hand-washing, were remarkably similar to those exhibited in Puritan days by sufferers of "scruples," a mental illness among fallen religious fanatics who, for one reason or another, had become disillusioned with their faith and disgusted by the omnipresence of sin, including their own. But when the Pilgrim began to mutter such organic-sounding phrases as "I have fouled my nest!" the staff concluded that he was yet another victim of the new but increasingly common Environmental Awareness Disorder (EAD). Its precise causes were still unknown, an intern admitted. But over the last two decades it had struck a growing number of Americans (plus a smattering of Japanese and West Germans), threatening to become the disease of the future.

Indeed, when the Pilgrim began to relate his story in a bedside interview, he dated the onset of his troubles to April 22, 1970, when, young and idealistic, he had zealously embraced environmentalism and the message of our nation's first Earth Day. And that double-edged message stressed, he recalled, that while we were rapidly destroying our planet's environment, we were also fully capable of reversing the process if we but pulled together, each of us doing our share to modify our own extravagant lifestyle.

On the advice of innumerable, well-meaning handbooks like 500 Things YOU Can Do to Save the Environment, the Pilgrim immediately but modestly set out to change his ways. To fight proliferation of nuclear power he began turning off light switches. To conserve water he placed bricks in the flush tank of his toilet. To battle sheep ranchers who were shooting bald eagles he boycotted lamb. To halt the destruction of spruce forests he ceased subscribing to certain bulky newspapers.

But nothing happened. To his amazement, a year or so later, the environment had not improved one iota. It was then it occurred to him that while he had dutifully been saving the nation's fuel and preventing pollution by busing to work, turning down his thermostat, and taking four-minute showers, his next-door neighbor had far more than undone these efforts by installing a sauna, putting a three-room extension on the house, buying a Buick for his teenager, and a snowmobile for his six-year-old.

It was a terrible shock, the Pilgrim said, to learn that an individual could not make a difference. And had that suggestion not come from the environmental movement itself, he would now suspect it as bait put forth by the opposition—an opiate for the environmentally faithful masses.

But it was even more disillusioning to learn that there were no such masses, just a handful like himself who religiously shouldered their full measure of guilt and responsibility. Clearly, environmental sin was everywhere: It lay heavy upon corporate heads and conservative politicians, as well as upon the general congregation. But equally clear, 95 out of 100 Americans did not believe or care that they personally were committing it, and they were not about to repent unless bludgeoned into it.

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