When I was in college, I used to drive down this quiet two-lane highway to Cincinnati. This was the closest place from my small Midwestern college town that was even close to happening. But the road was beautiful and dreamy. Everything was laid out before you, gliding in slow motion: old farmhouses, calm fields, sweeping swaths of forest. That is, until you got about a half an hour outside Cincinnati, where the roadside became a crawling neon expanse of dirty service stations and greasy fast food chains. I tried to imagine how many people within a 30-mile radius really needed to eat hamburgers on a daily basis. Why’d they build so many of these places? It was just so unremittingly ugly.
I think about this a lot when I read all of the organized environmental arguments about why we need to do something about global warming–which of our practices cause the most greenhouse gases, who’s the most responsible, the by now obvious disaster of doing nothing, the economic benefits of greening the economy, how to combat the powers that be, etc.—and I’m on board with most of this analysis intellectually, no question, especially with the myriad environmental catastrophes plaguing the world today.
But the thing I hear so rarely from environmental and political organizations is the simple gut-smacking truth outside all the facts and figures and political this-and-that, is how tragic it is, how deadening to the soul, that the way we’ve used the land on this continent, particularly since the industrial revolution, has turned one of the most extraordinary places on earth into something so banal, so hideous to the eyes, ears and nose.
And that right there is the missing connection between the quality of our daily lives and climate change. Because all this plentiful ugliness we’ve created and live in needs enormous amounts of carbon-spouting energy to run: factory farms to grow and harvest pesticide-infested food, buildings upon buildings to sell the food, excessive energy to power the buildings, fences upon metal fences to protect the buildings, cars upon roads under cars to get people to the buildings, drab, endless subdivisions to house the people in the cars, and electricity-sucking lights to keep it all incessantly illuminated (and the stars hidden from view).
Why am I doing all this hand wringing about our increasingly ugly communities? It’s not just aesthetics. It’s basically about motivation. People get quickly overwhelmed by the statistics and the cascade of information about global warming. All this information has a dual, contradictory impact. One, it feels mirage-like, far away, unreal and easy to forget. Two, it’s terrifying and we run in fear, denial and dread of the true implications for our lifestyles and our lives.
But if the call to action from environmentalists was more about making our towns places that please the senses and the spirit (regeneration instead of deprivation), you just might see folks from all walks of life realizing they were environmentalists after all. You might see them out in the street making things happen, creating culture, and determining a new relationship with the land. Not in Washington, but in their own towns, the places they can relate to best.
I mean, when you sit down to think about it, there’s no reason Ohio shouldn’t be as beautiful as Vermont. What I’d love to see is a little less of an appeal to facts, figures, and political strategies (as important as they are) and more local organizing around beauty. It may actually be the most galvanizing and least naive thing to do.