The Personal is Political, Earth Day Edition

Happy Earth Day, everyone. Or, if you’re on campus here, Happy Earth Week, complete with live bands at noon every day and a really weird papier-mâché tree ball thing oh, apparently that was a pomegranate to commemorate the Armenian genocide. Earth Week means I’ve got three more days to write about the relationship of geology, as a science and a profession, to environmental politics… which is good, ’cause I’m distracted today by larger-scale theoretical considerations:

In the end, the root of the problem lies with culture. If we can change the culture, then we may win. If we cannot, then no amount of technology or legislation or green infrastructure is going to save us (though all of these things may buy us time in which to work on the ultimately much harder problem of culture).

I’ve spent more time in the past few years thinking about feminist theory than about environmentalism – not for any grand ideological reasons, just because I like feminist theory. But this is what feminism and environmentalism have in common: They are both movements to create large-scale cultural change. Most feminists, and I suspect most environmentalists, expect that change to be created by and reflected in a mixture of law, social custom, and individual behavior. Which is why I think Carol Hanisch, writing about the women’s liberation movement in the late 60s, also gets at the heart of what troubles me about an emphasis on individual choices:

One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

It’s not that environmentalism has nothing to do with personal virtue, but individual situations and personal choices must also be used as sources of insight into larger problems, and these larger problems require collective action.

So. Gentle readers. What’s an environmentally sound habit that you’ve thought about cultivating, or tried to cultivate, but never managed to really get off the ground? Can you think of social or infrastructural changes that would help you maintain the habit?

For example: I’m flawless at bringing a backpack to the grocery store, instead of toting things home in a paper bag, but I keep crapping out in the produce section and using those plastic bags to hold my green beans. Except at the Berkeley farmer’s market, where they set out a big thing of plastic bags for re-use and you can just grab some when you realize you’ve once again forgotten to bring your own. Easy! Convenient! Why don’t real grocery stores do that?


  1. Karen wrote:

    I’ve never been very good at using public transportation. I’ve tried it recently again, and been put off again. The personal benefit to me is getting some extra exercise (bus stop is a 10-minute walk at each end). But…

    It takes fully twice as long to get to school by bus as by car. The bus is crowded, often standing-room only. In the winter, I end up walking through a downtown area to the bus stop in the dark, which seems unsafe to me. I can’t get away from carrying about 20 lbs. of stuff, which is a real nuisance on a bus and on the walk. And since I drive a relatively fuel-efficient car, the bus actually costs more.

  2. Andrea Grant wrote:

    Oh, I have a long list of these! I’ll just pick one.

    Printed matter is a big problem for me. I read a lot of books and I love magazines, but I feel so guilty about all the paper! I have tried many, many times to convert to reading things online but I have a lot of eye problems and really can’t read large amounts of text on a computer screen. Editing papers is also totally hopeless for me–I seem to have to print everything out and mark up the paper. I’m hopeful that the epaper technologies will provide a solution for me at some point.

    OK I can’t resist mentioning that I’ve backpedaled on the vegetable bags–I gave them up at least a decade ago, but when I was diagnosed with celiac disease last year I started using them because the bread here in Switzerland is all sold unpacakged and thus there are bread crumbs and flakes everywhere on the conveyor belts at the grocery store. Makes me shudder to look at.

  3. Silver Fox wrote:

    I’ve thought about and even tried using reusable bags for grocery shopping, but I usually forget the bags, and also find it kind of awkward. I commend you for your flawless backpack habit. I could imagine that reusable bags right at the store might help – but I might still forget to bring them back – and some people wouldn’t like to use other people’s bags (eew, germs!), including the plastic kind for veggies.

    I will – one of these days, maybe this year – get a field truck that gets more than 16 to 20 mpg.

  4. Silver Fox wrote:

    P.S. I like your take – “personal is political” – it has a really good ring to it, and is appropriate to this subject.

  5. Kim wrote:

    My local organic food coop has bulk eggs available, and used to take old egg cartons and make them available for people to re-use. I loved this… but the health inspector came by and told them they weren’t allowed to do this any more. I’ve started keeping a stack of old egg cartons in the back of my car (and also keeping a canvas bag in the back of my car), but it is very hard to remember to keep re-stocking the bag and the cartons. (And if I could walk to the store, I would always forget both things… though I probably would have a backpack for groceries.)

    On the up side, lots of local stores recently put battery recycling containers near the entrance. I had accumulated about seven years worth of batteries, but hadn’t known where to dispose of them. (I knew not to put them in the landfill, at least.) Now I’m finally getting rid of them. When I remember to put them in the car, that is.

  6. ScienceWoman wrote:

    So many to choose from…

    I have bags for groceries. They are just in my pantry…never in the grocery store.

    I haven’t gotten a compost bin going in my new house.

    I’ll stop there.

  7. Maria wrote:

    If I drove to the store, instead of walking, I would be way worse at bringing my own bags. But I shudder at the thought of hauling a gallon of milk home without a backpack.

    Oakland has municipal curbside composting. It is fantastic – definitely the sort of infrastructure that helps me reduce my personal waste stream. Plus, since they run a big hot pile, I can also compost stuff like meat and takeout containers.

    I think getting rid of this “ewww, germs!” thing might be one of the big cultural changes that needs to happen.

  8. GeologyJoe wrote:

    I like cycling to work. Its all around good.

  9. Left_Wing_Fox wrote:


    I probably could keep the thermostats lower in my apartment over winter, but if I wake up to a cold bedroom, I don’t get out of bed. The computer room also stays warm, or else I shiver after working in front of it for more than an hour. I should be turning those thermostats down during the day like I’m turning off the lighs, but that really just doesn’t happen that often.

    I’m hoping ht next home I get can be better insulated, and heated with more efficient and carbon neutral means, but that can be an expensive retrofit.

  10. Zuska wrote:

    I’m generally at home all day so this past winter I bought myself a pair of thick fuzzy fleece pajamas. And I pretty much wore them all the time, unless I was going out of the house. This enabled me to keep the thermostat significantly lower than I used to. Don’t know what I’ll do when summer’s heat gets here. Sit around in my underwear????

    I have not yet started composting even though it would be relatively simple to start just leaf composting. My municipality recycles plastic, but only ones and twos. A lot of the plastic that comes in to my house is fives or sevens. There ought to be somewhere I could take this stuff for recycling but I haven’t found out where. Also I would like to convert nearly all my yard to native plantings and little or no lawn but that takes money I don’t have right now.

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