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Humanity’s interminable desire to feel guilt has created a culture of environmental sinners

By James Parker

Trash night. Trash night, trash night, trash night. Abfallnacht, as they probably call it in Germany. Trash night is the reckoning, the tallying-up of your week of waste—and what a squanderous week it has invariably been.

You’ve been drinking Dasani water, you’ve been eating teriyaki chicken out of plastic boxes. Your cat has produced a sack of used litter, your child a minor landfill of used diapers. On trash night you construct, in semi-perishable materials, a temporary monument to your lifestyle, and set it out there for an audience of bums and raccoons. And then you rush back into the house, because you are slightly afraid of your own garbage.

Here’s a question for you: Why is it that in eight out of 10 Western marriages, according to a statistic I just made up, it is the man who takes a more scrupulous interest in the business of household recycling? Why is he bent among the scraps of Abfallnacht, loyally separating the paper from the plastic and the plastic from the glass, while his wife sits inside watching A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila? Could it be that women, whose natures vibrate to the moods of Gaia, are at some level already inured to the idea of planetary self-destruction and suicide-by-garbage, while men—those frigging idiots—are just waking up to it?

Eco-guilt is having its way with us. The irony is rather delicious when you think about it: Snug in our fortresses of techno-humanism, agnostic and cheerful, toasting our banana waffles and listening to Rilo Kiley, we are nonetheless subtly oppressed by an ancient sense of error, by feelings of primal trespass that would be familiar to the muttering-est medieval Catholic. Everything we do degrades or exhausts the world. Somewhere, in a realm we cannot quite grasp or visualize, we are blowing it every second. The average American, living day-to-day in the average way, produces 22.5 tons of toxic carbon dioxide a year. That’s 22.5 tons of sin, buddy, blooming invisibly out of your existence like a private mushroom cloud.

What’s to be done about it? Well, you can take shorter showers. You can flush the toilet less. You can turn the TV off when you leave the room. You can turn the radio off when you leave the room. You can turn the lights off when you leave the room. You can turn yourself off when you leave the room.

But if you disappeared right now and stained the Earth no longer with your presence, you’d still be leaving, like a polluting Sasquatch, your nasty carbon footprint. No one escapes the logic of eco-guilt. The most moderate consumer, viewed through its exacting lens, becomes a cosmic high roller, a super-spendthrift, binging and bendering his way toward global blackout. It’s a binocular vision: Open one eye and he’s pushing his trolley mildly down the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s. Open the other and—behold!—a one-man orgy of environmental catastrophe. If that spinach isn’t locally grown, if those carrots were raised on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, there stands your blushing eco-sinner. God help him if he forgot his reusable bag.

Eco-guilt’s opposing principle is not eco-skepticism. After all, if you don’t believe in global warming, then these intimations of culpability are an illusion, mere fevers of the daffy liberal brain. No, the real moral counterweight to eco-guilt is eco-fuckit, which we might define as a perverse complicity in the spoliation of the planet. As in: “I really should recycle this . . . ah, fuckit.” Or: “We could walk there, thus conserving energy . . . fuckit. Let’s drive.” Or even: “Yeah, sure, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will mess the place up a bit, particularly for the bears and whatnot . . . but fuckit.”

It’s a complicated reaction. Part of it, no doubt, is just righteous human rebellion: Hearing the senatorial drone of Al Gore, seeing the orthodoxy of environmentalism arrayed before them with its prophecies and injunctions, a certain percentage of persons—helmetless bikers, say, and millionaire congressmen—are going to say, “Screw that, daddy-o. I do what I want.” They’re just gonna. (It’s in the American grain.) But the other part is more mysterious: In the fuckit moment, one assents to the apocalypse with the same avidity, the same weird ardor with which, when drunk, one seeks out porn or fast food. Some coarse and destructive spirit takes possession. We feel the cozy fires of Hell at our feet, and we wriggle our tootsies in delight. At such moments, the Earth itself, possibly, is saying fuckit. She may have had enough of us.

And really, can you blame her? Take, for example, the comparatively recent phenomenon of bottled water. In what bonkers recess of species pride did we decide, having achieved the centuries-in-the-making miracle of drinkable tap water, that it was necessary to begin a constant slurping from little plastic bottles? And when did everybody get so damn thirsty? The definitive comment on this matter was provided by Gay Talese when he was interviewed for the March 4, 2002, edition of The New York Observer. “I saw Ralph Nader on C-SPAN,” groused the vintage journo and author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “He was running for something, God knows what. I see Nader having delivered a speech at some university with 11 adoring people applauding him, and he’s on the stage with his old Brooks Brothers suit from 1963, and he’s carrying a bottle of bottled water in his hand. . . . And I think, ‘Get off it with this. Just do it, just do anything, just die! Just drink, be merry, and drop dead; just get out of here with your plastic bottle of Evian!’ ”

The concept of original sin drove the medievals crazy. Born into wrongness, and floundering through wrongness all his life, the man in the medieval street became erotically obsessed with Hell, its licking flames and bondage scenarios, etc. He bought “indulgences” to lessen the load of his sin, much in the manner that we now buy “carbon offsets” with our plane tickets. But guilt stank up everything: Living your life in the ordinary way, you were screwed. The information was everywhere.

These days you can go online and find out just how bad you are: A site called, for example, recently informed me that, if everybody lived like I lived, we would need 5.1 Earths. Then again, the Hubble telescope, poking like a knitting needle into the sac of space, has revealed that there are 80 billion galaxies swarming around out there—13 galaxies for each of us, more or less. In that context, my need for 5.1 Earths seems modest, even abstemious. I think I’d keep the first Earth as my private Earth—a place to take naps and long walks with my iPod. The other four would be social/professional, and then that last .1 of an Earth would be where I kept my socks and underpants.

There’s a commercial out there now for some monster vehicle or other—shots of a desert, or a mountain range, and a plunging SUV, and a meaty baritone voice shouting, “In a world where power and torque are king . . . ” Whoever wrote that is a genius. Crude thrones are lording it over us: Power and torque are the kings of our world, and they are driving it to destruction. Gestures of insane grandeur may be required in the fight against them, bold and violent statements—to these necessities, meekly seeking to minimize one’s carbon footprint doesn’t quite seem to answer. But, as the amoeba said to his girlfriend, it’s a start.

James Parker is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where this article first appeared. 

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