Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, July 12, to discuss eco-snobbery and the motivations and values of the green movement. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Emily Bazelon: Hi, everyone. Looking forward to talking with you this afternoon about green values, the perils of eco-snobbery, and Toyota's Prius. Fire away!
Kensington, Md.: Emily, I will probably be another guy you want to punch. The people whose total contribution to the environmental movement consists of owning an impractical Prius (you can't even put stuff on the roof, can you?) and shopping at Whole Foods are only deluding themselves and others like them. Neither the wasteful people out there nor the greenies are impressed. Environmentalism is hard, it is not fun. It requires pretty much being uncool and old-fashioned. But it is worth it.
The fleet of bikes my family uses to get around was pulled from the garbage. So were some of our furniture, building materials, television, several vacuum cleaners and assorted computer equipment. We actually sew our clothes to patch holes and extend their useful life indefinitely. We compost. I use the dishwater on the lawn. All of these are things people used to do before the marketing of the 1950s brainwashed our parents and grandparents into the believing in the American right of the consumer feeding frenzy. There is nothing to be snobby about in being green. It is about being humble, not showing off consumer excess, using less and living simpler, more selfless lives. Your kids, like mine, actually will hate it.
Emily Bazelon: This is so interesting, and so wonderfully candid. not at all punch worthy! I am mostly with you, really. I worry about how little I'm really doing to reduce my own carbon count (being anything like an average American on this score is pretty untenable). And I also worry about glossing over the difficulty of really making a difference.
But here's my question for you: if it's grim and a slog, and we portray it that way, won't most people decide to do nothing at all?
Columbia, Md.: Ms. Bazelon, people who are snobs and breed little snobs do not need a Prius to behave so inappropriately. They would find something else to feel better than the Joneses. That is just American culture—don't you think? Of all the things these egomaniacs are going to be snobbish about, the least we should be concerned about is there snobbish eco-friendly tendencies. One other point ... now that you've burned several million brain cells on this incredibly nonsensical article, honestly, didn't South Park do a much better job at poking at this demographic?
Emily Bazelon: You know you're the third person to mention that South Park skit. I haven't seen it—I'll have to go find it on YouTube.
Sure, it's just American culture, but worth thinking about if only because it's all too easy to be blind to one's own snobbery and have X-ray vision about everyone else's.
McKinney, Texas: Forgive me for being a bit jaded, but: In the early 1990s "The Environment" was front-page news (lead story of a Time magazine) Fortune 500 companies were stumbling over each other to demonstrate how "green" they were. On the other hand I worked for a company that, in the late 1980s that was cited for serious environmental abuses (with considerable fines assessed). The company's "response" was the hiring of a vice president to reflect (whitewash?) a better environmental image (the same VP went on to resign in disgrace from the state of New York for abuses surrounding Texaco).
My point is this: When the environmental "push" of the past fell off of the front pages, corporations (and the general public) developed a case of amnesia when it came to how "green" they wished to be. Should present issues (such as global-warming) cease to be front-page print, will "green" become an after-thought again?
Emily Bazelon: You raise two great points. One is about the power of alarmism, and the problem of long-term threats for which it's hard to keep sounding the alarm so strongly. It's awfully hard to maintain an emergency posture over the long term. We all get tired or bored, and want to ease up. For sure that's a danger this time around about global warming just as it was with earlier waves of environmentalism. We need real investment in the future, and in future leadership, to jump up onto the soapbox for a second.
Your second valuable point is about the big abuses by companies or other major actors, which really needs to be addressed through regulation and law enforcement, as opposed to the usually smaller sins we commit as individuals. That's a very real concern. Priuses are all well and good, but political organizing means more in the long run, I think.
Arlington, Va.: From your Slate article: "In the middle of a clear West Virginia stream, some of our fellow campers soaped up, shampoo and all, with nary a thought, seemingly, to the chemicals they were injecting straight into the water. Eli looked at them and then at my husband and me. 'Those people shouldn't be doing that!' he said." It's possible that the shampoo was biodegradable. Do you know that it's not?
Emily Bazelon: It was regular old shampoo—Suave I think—and nothing about the container looked biodegradable.
Fort Belvoir, Va.: Hi—I enjoyed the piece. It reminded me of the South Park episode where all the hybrids were causing dangerous "smug" emissions. However, I think too much has been inferred from the "want to make a statement" survey result. Many people (wrongly) assumed that the statement was "I'm better than you because I care for the environment." But it also might have been "I wish to pay extra for the negative externalities that driving wreaks" or "I feel Toyota is more responsible and would rather they have my money than Exxon Mobil." Then again, I'm sure that for many people the primary statement is "look how green I am!"
Emily Bazelon: True, the statement making is probably all of those things. But what grabbed me about it is the need for external verification, which I'm so prone to myself, and which in the end doesn't seem like the best of reasons to do something.
How about the Hummer People?: Here we are again angsting over whether Prius owners are snobs or deluded fools or faux-environmentalists, etc. Why aren't there concurrent articles and online chats about what the people who own Hummers or other gas-hogs are saying about themselves and their principles or intentions?
Emily Bazelon: Oh, I think they get roasted plenty. As they should. But that doesn't mean us Prius Preeners shouldn't look in the mirror, does it?
Washington: In the past several years not only has going green gained snob appeal it seems to have gotten more expensive. Are any companies or groups making efforts to make going green more affordable and thus more accessible to the masses?
Emily Bazelon: This is such a great question. I'll take a stab at answering and invite other more knowledgeable to jump in as well. Companies like Wal-Mart and Home Depot are making some effort to stock green products. The mass demand they can command should act to expand markets, create economies of scale, and bring prices down. Two questions, though: What eco-standards are they using, and what effect does this have on small local companies? There's a tension sometimes between green and local.
Houghton, Mich.: It seems to me that "most" Americans would be willing to join the Prius-class if it means zero sacrifice of status. That is, the people who happily trade their Hummer for a hybrid would be very much less likely to trade their McMansion for a 1,000-square-foot bungalow—a downward move in perceived status that would conserve a lot more resources than their vehicle going from 18 miles per gallon to 48. Do you think the vast number of Americans are willing to sacrifice prestige for the sake of ... anything?
Emily Bazelon: Another great question. Essentially, no, I don't. As you've astutely pointed out, changing the terms or what has status, i.e., now hybrids are hip, is usually the way to go. In the house-size dept, that's not impossible. If we decided it was cool to go Euro and have denser and more citified housing, instead of suburbs with huge houses where you have to drive everywhere, then we'd have changed that norm. Manhattan is still desirable, after all.
McLean, Va.: I enjoyed your piece, but I was disappointed that you referenced a quote from someone in the New Yorker without mentioning the context. Wasn't the guy who seemed punch-worthy Steve Case? If I recall correctly, Case—the former head of AOL—was being pretty pompous in general while marketing his new spa, and that quote was in keeping with his overall pretentiousness. It had less to do with his being green than it did with him being a giant windbag.
washintonpost.com: Spa Man(New Yorker, July 9)
Emily Bazelon: Nope, it wasn't Case. It was Ted Ning, a director at Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability.
Maryland: Do you think promoting "green" products is coming back to bite environmental organizations in the butt? In other words, is it okay to up the ante on the American standard of living if all the buying is mostly green? Isn't it, in the long run, better to not get on the airplane multiple times a year than it is to buy carbon offsets, which just passes the responsibility onto someone else? I have a non-green friend who loves fine things and chooses her purchases very carefully and for lasting impact, and I think overall she buys less than most "greens" I know.
Emily Bazelon: You're right, this is a huge concern. Recycling is never as good as reusing, or not using at all, and carbon offsets aren't as good as not flying. That said, sometimes we DO buy new things, and so I think the promotion of green products is useful. You have to hope that people aren't buying a Prius as the 3rd car they'd have otherwise skipped!
You can make a similar argument about flying and carbon offsets—if you ARE going to fly, better to buy the offset than not. But you're raising a deeper point about incentives: does the existence of the offset make people more likely to take a flight they otherwise wouldn't have, or more likely for a company to build a new factory instead of cleaning up its old one, for example. I think that the jury is still out on that question. I'd love to read a good econ study about it.
Maryland: Posting way early. Is the environmental movement going to call a halt soon to what the New York Times called "light green"? When I began supporting environmental organizations it was about living more responsibly, treading gently on the Earth, conserving wild spaces and curbing your consumption. Now it seems people again are given a green light (no pun intended) to buy as much as they want as long as it's "green." So as long as your new 7,000-square-foot house is "green" and you do your 70-mile commute via a massive highway infrastructure in a Prius, it's okay. And the big organizations are jumping on the wagon. I'm feeling abandoned by the movement and not very interested in sending checks that will turn into "advocacy and education" for guilt-free spending on a large scale.
Emily Bazelon: this is an interesting follow up to the previous comment about how to change norms. I guess the question is this one, at least from a pragmatic standpoint: Does the green movement gain more people, and political leverage, by striving for mass appeal, i.e. welcoming "light green"? Or does it turn off more people like you, by appearing to sell out? I don't know the answer but it's a great question.
Washington: Even small and simple lifestyle changes turned into habit can make a respectable difference. Drive more slowly; spend money wisely; separate recyclables from trash; buy cloth bags to take to the grocery store; avoid waste and litter. Everyone could do this without noticing the difference in their happiness or pocketbook. It's pretty gross that suggestions of these type are seen as enviro-nazism by some—as well as insufficient enviro-nazism by others.
Emily Bazelon: Well that's pretty much how I think about this personally, and it was one of the premises of the SlateGreen Challenge (check it out here). I do think it's important to do one's small part, as a matter of consciousness raising etc. I also think, though, as I said before, that larger-scale change requires political organizing and government involvement as well.
Federal Way, Wash.: Does it qualify as drawing attention to global warming when Al Gore III gets ticketed for driving his Prius at 103 mph? Like, macho as well as eco-friendly? So, the Prius is a hot car?
washintonpost.com: Al Gore's Son Arrested on Drug Suspicion(AP, July 4)
Emily Bazelon: I know, that's why the Al Gore III arrest was such perfect late-night fodder. Why does the Prius need to go 100 mph anyway?
Salt Lake City: Do you really believe the "minivan stereotype"? Our Odyssey shuts down cylinders when we're coasting and gets between 22-28 mpg (better than our Subaru). Also, by being able to carpool we help save emissions. And minivans are one of the safest vehicle types out there. It seems that by denigrating those of us who drive them, you've bought into just the image hyperconsciousness you're ashamed of in your decision to buy the Prius.
Emily Bazelon: Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to denigrate (esp in this piece, when I was being so self-consciously anti-smuggery!) I meant to say that I am not eager myself at this moment to become a mini-van mom, though I may well end up there, believe me. I get the advantages of the mini-van, esp the carpool point. I grew up in a family with a big honking Buick station wagon. (I'm one of 4 kids.) I sort of long for the days of kids in the way back myself, but I realize that wasn't as safe. Sigh. Anyway, my point is that at this point in my family's life, we don't need a minivan, and so I think we made the right call with the Prius. But that's just us.
Punch-worthy: I agree that anyone who starts off his listings of moral righteousness with "I do yoga with my wife every morning..." is someone I would want to punch. The "more-sensitive-than-thou" branch of the environmental movement always has been hard to contain, but every movement/religion/office has them. It only becomes a problem when they become the voice of the group—the very issue you tackle in your article.
Emily Bazelon: well, yes, agreed. and thanks!
Washington: Re: Suave. From the Amazon Web site: Bottle made with 25 percent recycled plastic. Bottle coded for recycling. Check if facilities exist. Biodegradable formula. Made in USA.
Emily Bazelon: I dunno. There was an awful lot of soap bubbles in that water! But maybe. in any case now I'm really glad we didn't stick our noses in.
Spacepod vs. Jellybean: When the Prius was redesigned as a hatchback, that was it for us. We got one because we think it looks cool (and needed to replace a 12-year-old car). A silver one that we dubbed "our little spacepod." We liked the futuristic-looking design. So yeah, we bought it for external validation, but of our sense of being futuristic and on the cutting edge rather than just because it's a hybrid (and yeah, we chose it over the Civic hybrid). I'm not sure that's the same as making a public statement like "ooh, look how green we are." I am amused, however, that I've heard from people who don't like the Prius looks so much that to some it looks like a big jellybean on wheels. I chuckle at the thought of myself scurrying around in my big silver jellybean, and now when I see the new light green ones, I can't help but think they do look like giant lima beans.
Emily Bazelon: I love the lima bean image! hey, there's nothing wrong with clever marketing. Toyota has been smart.
Washington: Need/perceived need for external verification is a problem only you can fix. No point in hiding your Prius in a burlap sack because you're self-conscious about your eco-consciousness. Whatever, a car's a car. I say do your thing and relax, stop worrying about it. Uptight tree-hugger is kind of an oxymoron in my book.
Emily Bazelon: yes, well, if I just relax and stop worrying then what will I have left to write about? I'm a family columnist, after all, at least a couple times each month.
Georgia: All cars send a message. I think it is great that some people want to send a message that they care about the environment. I live in an Air Force Base town and all I see are oversized trucks that people can't begin to afford and certainly don't need. I live next door to a guy with a huge truck and not one tool in his garage. My husband has probably 50 tools and we drive two foreign sedans. Hmmm ... I wonder who needs the payload more? And don't even get me started on SUVs.
Emily Bazelon: all too true. I had to rent a car a month ago, and all they had was this huge Jeep, and I felt like a fool driving it.
Not a fan of Al: Why do you suppose no one took Al Gore to task for Live Earth? Rock concerts are huge energy suckers—no doubt hundreds of people had to be flown to various locations, and I wonder how many 18-wheelers it took to cart the stuff to each venue and then truck away the trash? I'm sure he could have come up with a more wasteful way to highlight the problem of excess carbon emissions, but I'm not sure how.
Emily Bazelon: I can't imagine no one has taken him task on this, but yes, it's a good point. I also don't know what sort of provisions he made to try to keep the waste and energy use down.
Chantilly, Va.—I'm one of those Hummer people...: I bought a Hummer H2 two years ago because I liked it. It gets reasonable gas mileage (contrary to what the loons will tell you) and it has a lot of practical applications in my job. It also conforms to the same emissions testing the Prius does. I think there is this fallacy floating around out there that my truck emits massive amounts of smog. It just doesn't. No, it doesn't get 60 miles per gallon, but it gets just as good gas mileage as the minivans I see parked at my son's school every day. Why no harping on the minivans, huh?
And yes, I take my fair share of scorn from one of my greenie neighbors. We are actually very close and she mocks my truck in good fun as I mock her Civic Hybrid. She mocked me until the day last winter she spun out at the bottom of our hill and I used the winch to pull her car out of the gully! I think one important thing is that we realize it's still America and we all make choices. Given that, we all can be civil to each other regardless of what those choices are.
Emily Bazelon: You are right that you have chosen a car that's become symbolic of waste, and probably gets nailed for things that other cars don't get nailed for. And yes, civility is important. I don't know enough about the Hummer/minivan comparison to comment on it. But I do think that as a general matter, lots of people have cars that are bigger etc than they need. you could retort, correctly, that lots of people have big houses and fly more than they need to etc. I'm not sure where all of this finger pointing gets us, though.
Washington—South Park: For South Park, no need to view it on YouTube. Southparkzone.com has them all. The episode on hybrids is one of my favorites; here's the direct link.
Emily Bazelon: great. Thanks!
Fairfax, VA: I own a Prius and I'm vegan, and these two aspects of my life seem to drum up the most unnecessary, unwarranted hate I've ever encountered by people who don't know me. I don't advertise these things—in fact, I usually try to keep them a secret in order to avoid conflict. Articles in Slate about being ashamed of caring about the environment and an article today on MSNBC about vegetarians telling their story about their fierce temptations just fuel the fire. I honestly don't understand why I constantly have to make excuses for the choices I make, and put up with being called a snob and annoying in the process. I also have to express serious doubts that 57 percent of Prius owners bought the car to make a statement about themselves—gas prices alone would indicate these survey results are moot.
washintonpost.com: Vegetarian readers share tales of temptation(Post, July 11)
Emily Bazelon: If you don't advertise your Prius and your veganness, how do they become a subject of hate from people who don't know you? In a widespread way, I mean. I haven't read the piece you linked to, but I usually think it's important to air pesky questions and points of view, even if they're not in line with one's own way of thinking. It keeps life more interesting, doesn't it?
Philadelphia: "Why does the Prius need to go 100 mph anyway?" Quite honestly, why do most cars need to go 100 mph? I mean, first responders' and other emergency vehicles, sure, but why do the rest of us need cars that go that fast? Personally, I think "light green" should be the minimum standard. There's no reason that in this day and age that most items shouldn't be recyclable, if not reusable. There's no reason that our gas mileage should be so dreadful - especially when the rest of the developed world seems to have figured out how to go farther on less. There shouldn't be tax incentives for people/companies to do good things (such as the Prius)—there should be tax penalties for people/companies who do bad things (because that would keep people from stopping at the Prius).
Emily Bazelon: honey, I'm with you. And so then the question becomes: how do we get there? If enough people want these products, then companies will make them—that's the way the market works, right?
Portland, Ore.: I liked your column because I consider myself an "environmentalist" and strive to live a life that promotes this ethic from the foods I eat (organic, vegetarian) to the car that I drive, which runs on biodiesel. However, I think that in my town the conversation has been taken a little too far—as you suggested—as our local newspaper, "The Oregonian" had a column a few weeks ago debating which was the better car for the environment: a Prius or a car that runs on biodiesel.
The Oregonian columnist sought reader feedback and a majority of the folks cited the Prius. This even though my car, an '04 Jetta TDI, gets more miles per gallon then a Prius (55) and doesn't use any gas, just fuel that is made from local farmer's soy and canola fields—supporting the local economy while helping the Earth. Also, I look forward to the day in the near future when Prius owners will be faced with tons of upkeep to their vehicles' intricate electronic systems, while I can rest easy in the fact that my car needs only one oil change a year and I can expect the engine to last at least 200,000 miles. Plus, the only way that you can distinguish my car from any other Jetta is the simple TDI logo on the trunk.
And to all those haters that think of diesel as the smelly, more-polluted fuel of their youth: Do your research, as it is cleaner burning then gasoline. Finally, in Portland starting on August 1, all gas stations are required, by city ordinance, to sell both biodiesel and ethanol at their stations. Focus: So, did your family consider any other fuel-alternative vehicles before buying the Prius, or were you as guilty as your kids in wanting the "cool" toy over the many other alternatives?
Emily Bazelon: oh dear, now I have Jetta TDI envy. We didn't do that much research about alternatives before we bought the Prius (or at least I didn't). My own feeling is that it's interim technology: a pretty good option for now, but boy do I hope there are better mass available affordable ones soon. Esp now that I know my car's electrical system is in peril.
Washington: Hello. Great article! Anyone with your level of self-awareness and sense of humor could not be a snob of any variety. I've often had the same thoughts as I ride my bike to work (for many reasons, environment being on the list). I've often thought the environmental movement needs good marketing, including a slogan, to appeal to middle America. After all, the super popular "Don't Mess With Texas" started as an anti-litter campaign by the state highway department. Glad someone is thinking along these lines.
Emily Bazelon: hey thanks, and you are so right about the power of the slogan. "Green is the new red white and blue" gets an A for effort, but I don't think we're there yet.
Milford, N.H.: Eco-snobbery may be annoying, but isn't it a good thing? Nothing changes people's actions like peer pressure (why else would anybody do something as unpleasant as walk in high heels or wear a suit, for example?). If we want society to improve its environmental ways we need to cover "green" behavior with an aura of I'm-better-than-you. I say embrace your inner snob—as long as the snobbery involves something worthwhile, and not piffle like wearing crystallized carbon or being born to somebody who owns a big house.
Emily Bazelon: you may well have a point there. I guess snobbery does sell. Hmm. Maybe now I will have to go around being as obnoxious as possible about my Prius. on the other hand, since I'm not a rock star or Jackie O, seems likely to backfire.
Fairfax, Va.: The Prius is great except when you have a collision. My daughter-in-law in Houston, driving with two very young children, recently was clipped on the side by a teenager driving a Dodge at 30 mph on the wrong side of the road. Everyone was okay, but they would have been killed if the fragile Prius had been hit in a different location. The Prius of course was totaled, and the family probably will replace it with a Volvo or a Subaru. Sorry to be reactionary, but auto safety in a well-designed, ruggedly built car trumps very high fuel economy.
Emily Bazelon: oh dear oh dear, that is an upsetting story. If more people drove lighter cars, the risks would go down, right? Though there will always be the hazard of trucks.
New York: So would the Camry hybrid be the choice for the environmentally-conscious (but uninterested in being trendy or making statements) in aggressively Red-State neighborhoods?
Emily Bazelon: yes! (at least it sounds right, though I haven't checked the Camry out).
Carless in the District: You really could make a bigger statement about the environment and ride the Metro or the bus. But I guess that wouldn't give you and the snobs the ostentatious symbol you crave.
Emily Bazelon: I do ride the metro to work. But I can't ride it everywhere. The public transportation/car problem is pretty chicken and egg, but for the moment, it's hard to live in a residential part of a city and not have a car. my kid wouldn't be able to get to soccer practice, for example, or Hebrew school.
Re: Expensive: In response to Washington, who says that going green is expensive, he or she is exactly right. Many of us don't have a down payment and $300-plus per month for a car payment. Not to mention what insurance and property taxes cost for a new car.
Emily Bazelon: too true. Eventually there will be used hybrids on the market, but for the moment this sliver of the green movement does raise class issues.
Maryland: Why is it so important that Prius owners' motives be pure? Don't many people buy cars that "make a statement" about them? And if the end result is that there are fewer all-gasoline models on the road, don't we all get the benefit of that anyway?
Emily Bazelon: You're right, of course. But I think we want to be self-aware about what we're doing. or at least, I thought I wanted to be, when I had the idea for this piece.
Bowie, Md.: In former generations, environmentalists were largely outdoorsmen—hunters and fishermen—who actually lived in the wild for significant periods of time. Today's most visible environmentalists are mostly well-off suburbanites, who've never seen a lynx kill a rabbit (live) or an animal starving to death because it's too injured to hunt. Isn't a lot of today's enviro-chic driven by people with a Garden of Eden view of how nature works, who completely fail to comprehend how brutal life in the wild is?
Emily Bazelon: I'm not sure you have to experience the brutality of the wild to understand that global warming is a creepingly daunting problem, and to want to do something about it. There are lots of strands of the environmental movement, right? The hunters and fishers, the public health people worried about rising asthma rates, the people who live on the coasts who can't buy home insurance. It's a big tent.
McLean, Va.: Good camping/wilderness practices say that you should never rinse off soap in a body of water. You're supposed to take a bucket of rinse water at least 100 feet away from the body of water and rinse off the soap there. Jeez!
Emily Bazelon: good point! wish I'd thought of it a little while ago myself.
Emily Bazelon: Thank you, everyone. Your questions and comments were smart and thought provoking and feisty, and it was hugely fun to think and spar with you.