The New Black? The Making of the “Green” Stereotype

February 24, 2019


David Roberts on Twitter:

All right, I view the argument over personal carbon-cutting behavior as a toxic distraction, taking place almost entirely *within* the already insular climate community & mostly furnishing ways for ppl in that community to bash others in that community. And …

… the last few days reinforced that tenfold. So I want to share one last anecdote & then hopefully leave the subject behind. Pull up a chair.

Back around 2007, Al Gore’s first movie came out & green was briefly “cool” in pop culture. Magazines had glossy “green issues.”

“Green” popped up in commercials, movies, & sports events. And, most memorably for me personally, NBC instituted a “green week” during which all their programming would be, in some vague & poorly specified way, “green.” It was a strange & heady time.

“Green week” perfectly captured what went so horribly wrong with all this. The thing is, though Gore made climate “trend,” as we say these days, the vast, vast majority of people, including the people making pop culture, didn’t understand it.

Most people had no frame of reference whatsoever other than the simple fact that this was “environmental” — the latest thing environmentalists were going on about, some new kind of pollution, some new set of threatened critters, something something.

Lacking any guidance from NBC, or any user-friendly resources to learn more, the creatives behind NBC shows, forced to incorporate “green,” simply fell back on their pre-existing impressions & associations & stereotypes. And what were those? Funny you should ask.

I can’t claim to have watched all the programming on Green Week, but I watched a lot of it, and in every single case, the manifestation of “green” was the same: into the show was introduced a preachy, hectoring, morally superior enviro obsessing over every little daily thing.

Nagging other characters about their plastic straw, where their clothes were manufactured, what they eat, etc etc. A few things were common in all these characterizations. First, the enviros were never characterized as *wrong*. The virtue of their ultimate goals …

… was always grudgingly accepted. It’s just that they were *annoying*. Second, the changes the enviros advocated were inevitably cast as irksome sacrifices that made life more difficult & less fun. Living green was very clearly presented as a drag. And third …

… the episode ended w/ the annoying enviro either going away, or the character who had briefly been gripped by environmental sanctimony “getting over it.” (That’s what happened in How I Met Your Mother: Ted got super preachy & annoying, then returned to “normal.”)

There’s a lot to say about this chapter. It was obviously disastrous for NBC to force “green” into their programming without any guidance. But at the same time, it was a stark & disturbing revelation of exactly what cultural associations currently cling to “green.”

To put it bluntly: in US popular culture, greens are seen as humorless, sanctimonious, uptight moralists who find fault in every little thing, who are incapable of relaxing & enjoying things, and who, however noble their goals, are insufferable to be around.

You can argue whether the caricature is fair or deserved. You can argue about whose fault it is. But, unless you’ve lived entirely inside the green bubble from college forward, you can’t deny it’s out there. It’s pretty obvious.

It seems pretty self-evidently true to me that the ubiquity of this social stereotype is bad for environmentalism & environmental causes. It makes environmentalism seem like a full-fledged Identity, or a religion, a whole package of behaviors & signifiers & commitments.
That raises the barrier to entry. If I want clean water, am I going to speak up about pollution? Not if, in order to do so, I have to adopt a certain style of dress, listen to certain types of music, accept certain associations, *be a certain kind of person*. It’s too much.

In US environmentalism, writ large, concerns about public & ecosystem health, about public policy, come packaged with a lifestyle & a bunch of behavioral & cultural commitments. Personal virtue & progressive policy have gotten hopelessly tangled.

This seems disastrous to me. And — the whole point of all this — I really, really don’t want to see the same thing happen on climate. I do not want climate subsumed into “environmental,” taking on all the same cultural baggage & associations. It’ll just be another niche.

I want for there to be space for people to engage with climate change as a policy matter *without* being forced to also sign onto a lifestyle or identity. This is why I came up with the term “climate hawk” — to help create that space.

Which brings us to the present dispute. People are saying that those who advocate for smart climate policy are obliged to engage in showy green lifestyle choices — take vacations on trains, buy an electric car, put up solar panels.

Putting aside the class implications — these lifestyle choices are largely available to, & chosen by, the affluent, who nonetheless remain the highest emitters — it just seems to me to replicate exactly the mistakes that have so diminished environmentalism.


10 Responses to “The New Black? The Making of the “Green” Stereotype”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Hear, hear!
    One suggestion, do and claim to live ‘economically and efficiently’. Not particularly preachy and positively practical.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Sorry, but oooh, yuch. Sounds like someone who Fletcherizes, was Father in Cheaper by the Dozen and has a 9 1/2 Weeks John / Christian (Shades of) Grey black and white minimalist apartment. (so many puns in there… so many)

      All ages have had luxury, someone said, but comfort is a modern invention. It’s been enabled by fossil fuels, and while trying to retain it just by changing the machines that power it is possible, it reflects a disconnection from life that ultimately means no real feeling is possible. And it will make the transition a hundred times harder and more contentious and destructive.

      Express joy with your life rather than trying to use pleasure to avoid pain.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        JFC, Jeffy! Why don’t you save your oh-so-clever “puns” and convoluted ” philosophical BS for your creative writing club instead of crapping up Crock with them?

        PS How long do you stand in front of the mirror admiring yourself after posting a comment like this one?

  2. indy222 Says:

    So glad Dave Roberts stood up here. I’ve been saying this to local climate activists for years – to no apparent avail. Not only is it annoying, the numbers make no sense. Individual carbon footprints make no difference to climate. The idea that we’re one gigantic Borg / Hive Mind that will become what the environmentalists want (and I’m an environmentalist first and last), is just a fiction and shows no understanding or appreciation of human psychology and how people change.

    I’ll bet that the fraction of people who are strong environmentalists hasn’t changed appreciably since the Enviro Movement of the 1970’s. There are people open to this, and there are the rest. And tribalism, as always, seems to rule.

    My first law: “People Learn the Hard Way”, and I have yet to see a plausible hope this will be any different for climate, especially given the system inertia and time delays built in.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Dave Roberts said it well.

      My first law: “People Learn the Hard Way”, and I have yet to see a plausible hope this will be any different for climate, especially given the system inertia and time delays built in.

      That’s it in a nutshell, and what worries me about “learning the hard way” is that the things that finally get people’s attention will be the result of our surpassing tipping points and causing irreversible positive feedbacks. The only lesson that may then be learned is how to say “too bad we weren’t able to see this coming in time to do something to head it off”.

  3. Terry Donte Says:

    The biggest emitters of CO2 are the Hollywood types, the Al Gores, the politicians like Cortez, the PHd’s who run around the world going to conferences and gatherings to save the world while stuffing their pockets with tens of millions and more. Their hypocrisy is simply mind blowing. Obama talks about ocean rise and than buys a house on the beach in Hawaii which he gets to by private jet. The example of BS from the crowd are legion.

  4. leslie graham Says:

    PHd’s who run around the world going to conferences and gatherings to save the world while stuffing their pockets with tens of millions and more.


    Yeah. All climate scientists are billionaires.
    Everyone knows that.

    Geez. Every pathetic denialist meme in the book in one paragraph.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      he’s got to go with what he’s got.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “Geez. Every pathetic denialist meme in the book in one paragraph”.

      I missed this post when it came out—-no need to say much more since you’ve cogently pointed out Terry’s ONLY talent.

  5. Daniel Berger Says:

    Hectoring is not efficient.

    I took my good friend (a conservative Republican) out for a drive in my new-to-me Chevy Volt. Now he’s fallen in love with electric driving, and told me that he’s trying to figure out which electric / hybrid car he wants to buy. Baby steps…

    He’s a retired Marathon engineer, by the way.

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