On June 11, 1963 Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death at an intersection in downtown Saigon. The Buddhist monk hoped his self-immolation would serve as a dramatic protest to the Vietnamese government's anti-Buddhist policies.
Colin Beavan would never dream of such a display. After all, it consumes fossil fuels.
By now, you've probably heard of "No Impact Man." New York writer Colin Beavan has decided to live an "eco-efficient" life-style with his wife, 2-year-old daughter and dog in the heart of one of the world's largest metropolises.
The mission, he wrote on his blog, was: "No garbage. No greenhouse gasses. No toxins. No water pollution. No air pollution. No electricity. No produce shipped from distant lands. No impact." (There's also a blog, a book and a movie, naturally.)
Others have pointed out the fairly obvious point: that the very act of living makes an impact.
But I doubt such logical coherence is the point of Beavan's so-called "experiment." Rather, the goal is "to try to live in a radical way according to our values." While he does not intend to be a missionary, Beavan acknowledged that he hopes "that our project might inspire other people to live more closely to their own values."
Values. Remember that word.
We turn next to Jonathain Chait writing in the Los Angeles Times who this week sneered his way through an op-ed about how Republicans and conservatives have become less convinced about global warming as the scientific community only grows more convinced. In the midst of speculating why this should be, Chait offered this:
"Your average conservative may not know anything about climate science, but conservatives do know they hate Al Gore. So, hold up Gore as a hate figure and conservatives will let that dictate their thinking on the issue."
Crude, yes, but I think there's a basic element of truth in this. But it's not Al Gore that drives conservative skepticism, it is what Al Gore represents. And what he represents is No Impact Man.
Gore's hyper-alarmism (the planet has a fever!) has been taken to its logical conclusion by Beavan's "no impact" project. Rather than try to convince people and policy-makers to accept moderate changes in the name of reducing our output of carbon dioxide, addressing global warming is presented as an urgent choice between accepting planetary death or life-altering sacrifice. Since these sacrifices all tend to favor policies that liberals support anyway (a heavier regulatory burden, higher taxes, more home made yogurt), conservatives tend to react with suspicion.
Maybe they shouldn't, but if you believe, as Chait evidently does, that global warming is a serious threat meriting sweeping government action, shouldn't you be training your fire on people like Colin Beavan? Question for Chait: if people think that minimizing global warming requires giving up toilet paper, are you more or less likely to win converts?
Far from changing minds, Beavan's dramatic display will likely turn more people off to his cause. Any reasonable person will look at the Beavan family lifestyle - exemplified by this New York Times photo of Mrs. Beavan dutifully scootering to work in the driving rain -- and conclude that if that's what it takes to "save the planet" then thanks but no thanks.
By turning a desire to reduce his "impact" on the Earth into an exercise in public suffering - with a healthy dollop of self righteousness - Beavan is simply re-affirming the excesses and stereotypes of the environmental movement. Why this would be exciting for those of a greenish tint is beyond me. (And full disclosure: I compost.)
Perhaps the secret lies in Beavan's use of the term "values." For many, environmentalism is not a science but a religion. At its heart beats the notion that modern human society is rapidly despoiling the planet and is therefore in need of an immediate, and radical, overhaul. It distrusts capitalism's allocation of resources - indeed, believes capitalist society to be suicidal -- but does invest a substantial amount of faith in their own ability to locate the proper ecologic equilibrium of the planet, and set government policy accordingly.
Beavan's enterprise is merely a celebration of that spirit. He describes himself as a "guilty liberal" who is now indulging in some long overdue self-flagellation to "save the planet."
It is not a message to convince the skeptical. It is an example to impress the faithful. And that, to circle back to Chait, is what rankles conservatives. It is not the science, or Al Gore, but the notion that behind the discussion of climate models and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 lies a movement, typified by Beavan, that won't rest until it has imposed its vision of the properly "sustainable" life on the rest of us.
And we just like our toilet paper too much to give in.
Gregory Scoblete writes regularly about technology and politics at www.gscobe.blogspot.com.