November 5, 2008

Bright idea

According to Newsweek, Barack Obama had a problem with stupid debate questions.

I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me ... answer it.' So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."

Or, as Newsweek would have it "f---ing." But either way, a-fucking-men. I often find myself uncomfortably at odds with my liberal cohort when it comes to the personal virtues of conservation. Green propaganda — from Starbucks to Wall-E — makes me crazy, not just because it feels so Big Brotherish in its almost-entirely unquestioned ubiquity (and its targeting of very young children) but because it actually undermines the important work that needs to be done for the environment. If people think we can reduce, reuse and recycle our way out of this planetary disaster, they're less likely to focus on what Obama identifies as the collective work of changing large-scale manufacturing and energy production.

And those stupid fucking compact fluorescent bulbs just suck. I'm sorry, they do. They cost a fortune, they don't last anything close to 6 years (more like 6 months), and they make everything look like a hospital room. But thanks to the green-virtue tyranny, Costco doesn't even sell regular bulbs anymore. Just because we elected a socialist, doesn't mean we want to completely abandon the free market.

Obama gets it, but even he dares not cross the green hordes. He can think "the truth" in his head, but say it out loud at a debate... no way.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Reason people think recycling and using crap bulbs is necessary is because its supposed to be morally correct. Even Al Gore admitted that the US making massive cuts in CO2 would not dent global warming unless china and india did the same, but he still demands it because, as he puts it, its a moral issue. We've ended up with political correctness and morality demanding we make a sacrifice which is symbolic but completely useless. Sound familiar?

Well, the parallel between individual conservation efforts and international ones isn't exact. Also, I should clarify that I'm not against conservation when it's effective, but most green propaganda is purely feel-good nonsense, like the elevator sign telling people to "save the planet" by sharing the elevator with their coworkers.

Also, there is a rationale for sacrifice that is somewhat more sophisticated than you lay out (though I don't entirely buy it). Participation on a personal level may cause people to feel that they have a stake in the issue, which will lead them to demand the type of systemic changes that are necessary. "I'm doing my part, why isn't ExxonMobil?"

PS: This post will count as my tribute to Michael Crichton.

Was Mr. Crichton also environmentally irresponsible and eager to share his indifference with the world?

FYI: Check out the a 99 Cent store or other low price outlets that sell obselete and over stocked inventory. They usually have the "old" bulbs you like (stocked, no doubt, next to the asbestos installation.)

Two things. First, getting people on board with even light bulbs provides even a tiny bit of ownership in the entire issue, so when we pull out of Kyoto, more people will likely express outrage. Itís about getting on board with an attitude. Iím old enough to recall the amount of litter on our highways prior to the national litter campaign with that damn Indian (Italian, actually) shedding a tear. Individual efforts did add up to a very effective collective change in behavior.

Second, those light bulbs contain trace amounts of mercury and, if you read the very fine print, cannot be disposed of in normal landfills. You have to make sure they get to an approved landfill for hazardous materials. Perhaps, like ethanol, keeping the planet cool only to be poisoned is a great way to co-opt a decent cause to make money for someone who cares not for the cause itself. You know, like FNMA being nice enough to eliminate prudent lending guidelines to allow for greater homeownership [for speculators, wannabees, and budgeting morons who should have known better].

I must say Iím buoyed, however, by the ability of a fatherless black dude to be elected president of a USA that is a paragon of self interest and xenophobia.

I question whether buying green lightbulbs, unbleached paper towels, sustainable wood furniture and recycled stationery makes people feel anything but better about their own consumption. The problem isn't so much that people are buying the wrong things as it is that people are buying too many things. What non-suicidal corporation is going to tell people to make do with less?

your opinions about CFLs are certainly not unique to you, but they are woefully out of date w/r/t cost, lifespan and color rendition.


it's also a money issue, because when they last 10 times as long as an incandescent (and they do, especially if you buy any labeled as Energy Star), they'll save you at least $20 over their lifespan. not to mention the pain in the ass of changing them out so often.

but you're right about the free market, so if you prefer to continue heating your home via incandescent light bulbs, go right ahead.

sorry, got sidetracked. your assessment that green propaganda can work against overall environmental goals is dead on, and we can't "reduce, reuse and recycle our way out of this." but energy efficiency is a huge part of the problem that we can attack now and have a major impact. and it can be done both at a personal level with retrofits (including lighting) and at the macro, governmental level (Australia has banned incandescent lighting outright; many states offer incentives for energy improvements to homes; more and more green building laws are being passed). making a push for efficiency buys time for newer and better technologies and techniques to take over in the years and decades to come, and it means that something is being done to get the ball rolling. 1 CFL per household in the US would save enough electricity to power 1.5 million homes. is that "collective" enough?

and Obama may "get it," but until he stops pandering to those who would have us chase the dragons of "clean coal" and "carbon sequestration" (a fairy tale if there ever was one) i will continue to view his energy policies with a suspicious eye.

sorry this became so strident. i've just dealt with enough "CFL deniers" over the years that it's second nature to go through the whole argument.

and pessimist: the CFLs do contain Mercury, but they prevent a larger amount of Mercury from being released into the environment through the burning of coal. so even if you chucked it into a landfill, it would still be an improvement over traditional bulbs. all the better if you manage to keep it out of the waste stream, however.

As you know, I don't usually blog-whore, but since I addressed this in an entry earlier this afternoon I'll just link to that.

And although I have to soft-pedal it there a little, there is a quantum difference, shown repeatedly in scientific studies, between the green effect of most "personal" solutions and the effect of going vegan.

Obama perhaps appears to make more sense than he really does for the very fact that he will use the word "fucking" semi-publicly as we all do. It signifies normalcy and makes us all very comfortable with his dreamy li'l self. I am charmed. And I love/hate being charmed.

@ Pessimist - yes, the ownership argument is the more sophisticated one I was referring to. I still don't buy it because I think it's more likely that the result will be the one Patrick identifies: consumerism as a salve for consumerism. Only now consumers get to act all smug too. Perhaps this would be less of a problem if it weren't for the preposterous green claims of virtually every product on the market now. Really, Wall-E's smug, toothless environmental satire did nothing so much as make me realize what a ripe target is out there for genuine satire with all these lame eco labels. I guarantee you that some day people will look back at the meaningless eco labels plastered everywhere the way we now look at things in the 50s that were billed as "atomic" with zero justification except that it sounded important.

@Jamie. I've seen the articles. All I can say is that I have a real-world collection of burnt out CFLs that should not be burnt out because they were only installed for a few months. They simply do not work as advertised, they cost a fortune relative to incandescents, and, as pessimist pointed out, I can't throw them away because there's no approved landfill near me. (Although now I will, since you assure me I'll be ahead of the game anyway).

@Vance. Absolutely true. No matter what personal steps you take, there will always be someone out there to tell you that you could be doing more. Of course you could. The computer you're reading this on is insanely destructive to the environment. Is keeping up with this blog really worth our children's future...? My point is that even if you became a breatharian hermit, it wouldn't have any serious impact.

FWIW, I heat my home with biodiesel from used cooking oil. It's cheaper than oil, especially with the NYS tax rebate. So there, I'm saving the planet for my children too.

Of course, having first world children more than offsets any positive steps I could possibly take, right?

i find it hard to believe that the great one used the word "fucking" with a reporter...

but as for CFLs, as my house is off the grid and every little watt of consumption really counts they are all I use. I even pay through the nose for CFL candelabra base. At first I felt as you, Dan, but these days you can find good CFLs, it's just about the warm whites (2700K i believe).

but i know you don't really care about light-bulbs, you just want to bitch about the PC hypocrites. In that case I believe air-travel is the easiest target. How many people do I know that drive hybrids, but fly to Maui four times a year to cleanse and recharge.

Really, Wall-E's smug, toothless environmental satire did nothing so much as make me realize what a ripe target is out there for genuine satire with all these lame eco labels.

THANK YOU. I've gotten into major fights about this. (Still think the fat jokes are particularly crass, on top of the generally ugly pseudo-satire concept). Your second opinion here reconfirms my own smug assertion that I am right.

Daniel, not wanting to deny the smugness of consumerist greener-than-thou-ism for a minute; but you know what? I bet your kids will more readily see the point of the more meaningful actions if by nagging or example you get them to do statistically meaningless things like turning off light switches and not being wasteful around the house. Me, I do those things because I was born poor and stingy; the whole environment can kiss my ass and call it green.

Pessimist: Interesting that there is one person on here not young enough to be my love child. I also remember trashed up roadsides (but it was Lady Bird, that was before the tearful Native Italian) and it is a remarkable fact that PR and nagging at a national level can shame the citizens of a whole nation into systematically inconveniencing themselves in small ways.

So Crichton does not get a why not Bil Keane? I was looking forward to it.

I like the twirly light bulbs! The ones I have cast yellowy light just like regular light bulbs (although the lampshades might influence that, I guess), they are lasting despite heavy use, and hey - one-fourth as much power!

But I agree that personal action, while necessary, is not sufficient. It's like Christianity without grace. You can do all the good works you want - buy organic, turn the thermostat down, even pick *other* people's cans off of the ground and out of the trash to put in the recycling - but they will never be enough to make up for all the damage. You need grace for that. Large-scale action still probably isn't grace, but it's as close as we're going to get.

Sorry, apparently the size of this submit box broke my (long) link above, so here, again, is that blog entry I was talking about.

I will just add, though, that it is necessary to have both conversations, about what we can do on a national, global, collective level through changing institutions and what we can do on a personal level. Sure, one person can make all the sacrifice in the world and if only that person does it there's no "serious" impact, but that's a rigged conditional: By being the change we wish to see we can inspire others to do so as well. And that's why those of us in the West, the trendsetters, have a greater responsibility to clean up our act than do those in the developing world who are only just now picking up and getting hooked on our bad habits.

I find it especially amusing, though, that a discussion comparing different activities and solutions with each other, gauging their relative effectiveness, immediately turns to an absolutist "Yeah but nothing is enough, so why bother?" as soon as veganism comes into play.

I was interested to find when he posted the link to his own blog that one of may favorite commenters and guest bloggers, Vance, is actually from my hometown and has worked for people I know. Im a little disappointed to see him getting so serious and then defensive. Vance, I dont see anyone responding to your bringing up veganism by saying "nothing is enough", Daniel simply pointed out that whatever each one of us does, someone could point out that there is a way to do more, which in your case sounds self righteous when you say becoming vegan is better than changing lightbulbs and recycling. No one but the incredibly small number of vegans could take your comment as anything but a rebuke for not being as hard core environmentalist as you. Your suggestion that things turned absolutist when veganism came into play is simply preposterous, every comment here has been intelligently nuanced and qualified (beside maybe mine, the first) and the only person to reference veganism was Daniel, who I think was saying what we all were thinking. Anyway, im still a fan Vance, and i'll checkout the Phila Daily now that I know your there, though im more of a citypaper and weekly guy.

Yes the bulbs contain trace amounts of mercury. However, if your power is derived from coal, there's a pretty good chance that there's a net wash there when the energy savings are factored in.

Also, Home Depot takes back CFLs for proper disposal. It's not that much of a pain in the ass to take care of. Unless of course, you live on a densely populated island without access to big box stores or something.

Indeed, anon, I should've been more clear that I was talking specifically about Daniel's statement about no personal step having "any serious impact," which was where the discussion (as driven by Daniel) got pushed from collective action vs. personal action, or this product vs. that product, to a complete dismissal of the usefulness of any individual action. With that qualification, my comment stands.

@ J.D.: You said (some of) it. Use whatever fucking lightbulb you want; I'm just enormously relieved/reassured to find out that Obama swears. . .

Daniel, I agree with your anti-consumerism stance. Buying less, and second-hand whenever possible, is much "greener" than buying organic hemp clothing, for example. But since your main theory is that buying green products somehow undermines the movement for large-scale changes, I request that you back up your argument with some evidence (Sweden is making big changes--do they have a green-products fad there?). This is actually a very important topic and deserves more than anecdotes and opinions.

@Kate, Im not sure this is exactly what Daniel is saying, but this fad of marketing every product as "green" causes a pushback when it seems that environmentalism has become a pointless, obnoxious, consumerist and cynical fad. Do you really think that an inundation of green nonsense wont turn people off to larger changes? Its not the buying of green products that undermines the environmentalist movement, but the overwhelming BS in the marketing selling and pushing of this stuff. If you want more than anecdotes and opinions, certainly Radosh.net is the wrong place to expect that, this is a blog, not a research university and I hope you're not suggesting we dont talk about this at all because our discussion is not empirical enough.
@Daniel, wow, you really know how to touch a nerve sometimes and its fun.

The green fad that annoys me is the "buy local produce" scam.

A farmer trucks 10 bushels 40 miles into town and the pretentious customers drive a few miles to get to the farmers market and only buy a few items. They then tell you that the container of grapes that you bought at Costco traveled over 5,000 miles to get to you.

Yes it was sent over 5,000 miles. In a shipping container, on several pallets with 5,000 OTHER containers of grapes. And I was already AT Costco for other items anyway.

I'd venture to guess that the shipping and shopping energy expended per item was less for the grapes at Costco than the farmer's market's grapes.

That's right, I defend CFL bulbs and knock "buy local food". Deal with it.

My opinion is that the inundation of green nonsense seems to be raising people's awareness and increasing their support for real changes. Here in Missouri we just overwhelmingly voted to raise our own electricity rates in order to buy more renewable energy; the country voted for the "sacrifice" guy over the "drill-baby-drill" team; and as far as I can tell the fad for green products is biggest in those countries that also have the most progressive energy policies. (I'm sure it wouldn't take much longer to check on that than it would to find the right sexy teenager picture to accompany it.)

Overall, if you're talking about mass movements, most people are pretty stupid and don't understand greenwashing. They just see all the green PR and think Well gosh this environment thing must really be in trouble.

Super discussion and Iím glad Daniel didnít throw another 4 out there to disrupt what appears to be a nice flow. Love the local produce argument for example (although those individual California farmers may drive 15 miles or more just to get to the train). Raising your own might be the real winner. I recall reading that during WWII, over 40% of the produce consumed by the population was grown in Victory Gardens. Pretty astounding stuff.
I figure guilt or do-gooding isnít as much a motivator as money, so as soon as [for example] homes are being built with rooftop storage allowing the use of rain water to fill toilet tanks or water lawns, we may be in for a tough ride getting the unwashed masses on board. My water bill is fucking nuts and I already use rainwater for my garden. If I could get it into my crapper without a bucket, Iíd do so.
Happily, some of this stuff will be mandated through regulation, strategic tax credits, etc. As a result, I am somewhat confident true global change will come about as a pocketbook issue that completely eliminates the need to feel good about doing good.
The Vegan thing will take a lot of juice to get into the mainstream as an energy argument. Stick to making it a health issue. The price of beef obviously includes the price of the energy used to produce it. Until that price equation levels out with produce direct to consumer, or Tofu can make a decent burger, youíre better off selling with lower rates of colon cancer. Or get a hot spokes-model.

I buy whatever bulbs they got at the 99 cent store. The carbon units I save not commuting to the regular job I avoid more than make up for any environmental impact of the li'l retro kilowatt guzzlers.

So, collective supply ("large-scale manufacturing and energy production") must change, but collective demand ("green propaganda") need not?

Share the fucking elevator.

pessimist, I agree that the vegan thing will take "a lot of juice to get into the mainstream," but the energy argument is already there, made by scientists, not vegans: as E Magzine puts it in this pithy overview, Our Livestock Industry Creates More Greenhouse Gas than Transportation Does. So it's not a matter so much of picking an angle to try to get the Vegan thing to happen one way or another, it's just getting people to face reality, inform themselves on this issue and then act according to their own beliefs.

I am optimistic for some of the reasons Kate points out: While there's definitely a superficial fad now around "living green," there's also an underlying long-term shift going on more quietly where people are starting to look at their everyday activities in a newly concscious way. Old habits die hard, but some habits are now starting to get phased out and eventually - maybe even soon - I think the most entrenched habit of all, a diet based around animal foods, will come under a lot more intense scrutiny.

People still eat meat? Fuck!

Look I'm sorry that I'm about to offend most other commenters here, but I think the greenwashing is actually WORSE than most people here think.

I carefully use what of the planet's scarce resources I must, I reuse or if not then recycle absolutely anything I can and am ashamed aand angry about the way we pollute our environment.

But you'll hear virtually NONE of those messages in the media (and strangely, also scarcely from green NGOs) because they are all caught up in the distracting farce of the climate change narrative. On this issue I now actually agree with Michael Crichton (never thought I'd say that).

Like others I was outraged by the lack of support from USA (and Australia) on Kyoto etc etc., but then I looked at the data. They are few and far between. We live in a world that is cooling or flat in temp (honest) for 10 years while CO2 goes up.

i'd rather concentrate on pollution (not CO2), overfishing, land degradation, recycling, alternative energy (for teh right reasons) and the myriad other problems truly facing the world.

Greenwashing and climate change hysteria (when shown to be bunkum) will actually cause a loss of credibility for the stories behind these truly important issues.

I'm just sayin'.

DMS, I couldn't agree with you more! Freeman Dyson summed it up in a nutshell:

"I'm not saying the warming doesn't cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it. I'm saying that the problems are being grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and more important—-poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health. Not to mention the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans."

I just wish in the final debate between Barack and Hillary someone had asked each of them "boxers or briefs?"

Don't you mean, "paper or plastic?"

Come to think of it, that would be a good follow-up to your question.

I know this thread has grown pretty far afield from the original focus on Obama using the word "fucking," and I'm as guilty for that as anyone other than John Kerry. But to return to that, what's up with this in the main story of the current New Yorker...?


"Furman, glancing at a television, saw McCain walking up to a lectern; a caption at the bottom of the screen said that he was suspending his campaign and might not attend the first debate. When Furman told Obama what McCain was doing, Obama used a salty expression to describe the move and hung up the phone."

A salty expression? Thanks, Ryan, given that the New Yorker now quite frequently spells out those salty expressions in some detail. But could you possibly give us any idea what the expression was? Otherwise, I have equal odds on "Christ, what an asshole," "Motherfucker" and "That cocksucking son of a bitch - I'm going to rape his wife." (What? Too soon?) Anyway, a little help here would be appreciated.

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