The reports of our death were greatly exaggerated. Was it really only two years ago that we were struggling to digest the dismal message of an essay called "The Death of Environmentalism"? Its authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, complained that environmentalists were obsessed with policy and divorced from real politics. Our "foundational concepts" were passé; our institutions were "outmoded." We were wonks, in a word; the public didnít care. So we stared gloomily into the mirror and asked ourselves a bitter question: Had we really failed? Two years later, the answer seems to be a resounding no. Rather, the question seems to be: How exactly have we succeeded? And then a secondary question, perhaps: What price, if any, have we paid for our success?
Since Shellenberger and Nordhaus issued their fatwa, weíve seen a tidal wave of public interest in all things environmental. Some people would even argue that weíre at a cultural tipping point. Science drove it: A plethora of new studies showed that global warming is worse, and progressing more rapidly, than we had feared. The media stopped wheeling out Exxon-funded "experts" to counterfeit a debate on climate change, and Al Gore hit the multiplexes. High oil prices and the meltdown in Iraq fed the publicís fear of energy dependency and spurred its interest in alternatives.
Mass-market magazines are now awash with green-themed cover stories and special features. While Newsweek announces the greening of the suburban American family, Vanity Fair puts the once-next-president on the cover, flanked by Julia Roberts (as a green fairy) and George Clooney (as an earth-tone peasant). A new magazine called Verdant , with a column on organic fine wines, features on luxury eco-spas in Bali, and ads for custom-built conservatories, takes the zeitgeist a step further. As editor Sharon King Hoge notes, the word "verdant" means lush as well as green.
Elle, Vogue, and a slew of teen-oriented magazines and TV shows have thrust the world of high fashion, even hip-hop, into the mix, peppering their coverage with phrases like "eco-sexy" and "ecolo-chic." But maybe a better term is "eco-narcissism." I wondered if we had reached some kind of climax, as it were, when I came across an online promotion for green, nontoxic sex toys.
Admittedly, environmentalism has always carried a whiff of the hair shirt, and would probably do well to lose it. There isnít much to be gained these days by emulating Thoreau, moving into a one-room shack, and disdaining personal hygiene. Yet the modern environmentalist idea -- which began, not coincidentally, in the 1960s -- was about more than that. It imagined different ways of organizing society. Letís not mince words here: It was countercultural. The environmentalist ethic was driven by a deep unease about what unfettered corporate power was doing to American society: poisoning it, dumbing it down, and helping to propel it into a ruinous war.
True, much of the imagined counterculture was messy, incoherent, and egregiously self-indulgent. The alternatives to the free market proved for the most part to be morally bankrupt, politically repressive, and economically inept. But the mere fact of their existence meant that we were using a different road map. Many of us were struggling to take the elusive Third Way, but now it seems that the signposts have been removed. The corporate monolith has invaded every corner of our imagination, and if weíre any less poisoned, any less dumb, or any less warlike, I havenít noticed.
You can tell a lot about a culture from the issues itís asked to debate: Dasani ("pure, fresh") or Aquafina ("consistent purity")? Not, Why doesnít the world have enough decent drinking water? Three hundred dollars for a pair of designer jeans, or $300 for a pair of eco-jeans? Rather than, How much? For a pair of jeans? The battle over how society should be organized has morphed into an argument over trivia, a contest for corporate branding advantage.
The thing about entering the mainstream, of course, is that you canít simply will the river into a new direction. It flows where it flows. And today the river flows with the smooth and relentless current of conspicuous consumption. Which takes us back to those initial questions: If weíve finally figured out how to wade in the cultural mainstream, maybe itís worth keeping one eye open to the risk of drowning.