What’s in an ‘A’?
I spent two years of my academic career teaching marketing. I found the work in many ways life-affirming and intriguing; there was something genuinely fun about stimulating young minds and opening them to new ways of thinking.
But from a more scientific angle, one of the most interesting aspects of my teaching gig was in examining the educational system itself, and how it affected students. For example, I would take note of students’ behavior in class, use that to make informal predictions on how they would ultimately fare on the exams and in the course. I think every teacher ends up doing this, whether they realize it or not. Is the kid who never shows up to class going to pass? Is the bookish girl who clearly spends hours on her homework going to ace the final? For me, it proved to be a compelling exercise in hypothesis testing, one that forced me to take a hard look at how students are served— or possibly harmed—- by the design of the educational system.
For a long time, I held the suspicion that there is a fundamental difference between ‘A’ students and ‘B’ students. In contrast with the common wisdom of our age, my hypothesis was not that ‘A’ students are necessarily smarter, harder working, or more capable; I suspected that for a significant portion of the student population, ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades are simply indicators of different student personality types. That is, my thought was that certain types of people thrive in the design of the standard educational environment and thus get good grades, and some are not stimulated by it, and don’t.
My views began taking form in high school, when I noticed repeating trends in the way that my ‘A’ friend and ‘B’ friends approached the world. More to the point, I saw that some of the sharpest and most intelligent people I knew were not ‘A’ students; no colleges were banging down their door to gain access to them, and no prestigious scholarships were forthcoming. These were people with strong critical thinking skills, an interest in a broad array of topics outside of school material, and who had genuine curiosity about the world, yet it somehow didn’t translate in their academic lives. To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that all the ‘B’ and ‘C’ students I knew were like this; only some— but this number wasn’t small enough to ignore.
Flash forward 15 years.
In my marketing class, there was a normal distribution of grades given out, following a schedule of A, AB, B, BC, C, D, and F (the AB and BCs are akin to A-, B+, B- and C+). Most students received Cs. Naturally, I was able to best conduct my informal experiment on the most vocal and active members of my class. Within this subset of vocal students, both my ‘A’ and ‘B’ students on the whole asked me a lot of questions. But I noticed a distinction in the types of questions these two groups asked, and how they asked them. The ‘A’ students liked to email me. They tended to ask me about details of fulfilling assignment requirements and how one should go about doing specific things within a marketing context. Their curiosity, in many ways, seemed to be bounded by the demands of the class. They also tended to fixate on administrative issues, like how exactly grades were calculated, and the time allowed during exams. ‘A’ students seemed to like having straightforward rules and procedures, and seemed to be uncomfortable with ambiguous contexts, or unexpected surprises.
My ‘B’ students, by contrast, were much less likely to email me. They liked to show up to my office hours, and especially liked to talk to me after class. They tended to puzzle over big picture concerns, posited ‘what-if’ scenarios, and generally seemed to be somewhat fascinated by complexity and possibility. Yet, when it came down to details, they weren’t all that interested, and were even turned off by all the nitty-gritty stuff that seemed to compose the bulk of the class. They felt that these practical ideas were not all that important, and that they sucked the life out of the subject matter. ‘B’ students often complained that the tests asked too much about obscure things, and they felt that essay tests would have been a much better way to test student knowledge.
Though this data is admittedly informal and my interpretation subject to my own biases, I am inclined to believe that the grading system makes some students appear inferior when in fact, they are just different. One might argue that ‘B’ students really are inferior in some way since they obviously don’t put out the effort to make the ‘A’ like the ‘A’ students. This might be technically correct, but I am less confident about saying that this would be problematic in a real-world job scenario. In fact, I would wager that many ‘B’ students are more creative in problem-solving than ‘A’ students, while many ‘A’ students are more details-oriented. Neither of these characteristics is better; they are just different, and each would offer different benefits depending on the situation.
I have little doubt that the metrics academia uses to evaluate performance are often misguided and backwards— to the point that they actively undermine the purpose of our institutions. Every student at some point feels slighted by their grade on some exam or in some class, feeling that the score doesn’t fairly measure either their knowledge or the effort they expended. In fact, this feeling was so prominent in my classes that I spent many afternoons in my office hours counseling students on not equating their identity or capabilities with their grades.
Yet, as we all know, grades are important. They’re important because we can’t reach into peoples’ heads and instantly determine what they know. That’s really a shame. But what’s even more of a shame is that in my experience, grades can greatly misrepresent what people’s abilities are, and can create in one a false sense that a grade represents one’s ability. I am reminded of a quote from the ponderous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but [the] rote and mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude. [Many students are] completely conditioned to work for a grade rather than for the knowledge the grade was supposed to represent.
why we do what we don’t want to because we’re supposed to
I’ve taken a recent interest in how we’re driven by life scripts to behave in certain ways that we normally wouldn’t, simply because we’re “supposed to.” Take for example this story that my friend Liz was telling me (some details have been changed because to protect identities):
Liz had some friends who were getting married. As is the ritual in the United States, the groom attended a bachelor party held in his honor. Often these take place in seedy topless joints or private rooms where a stripper titillates the bachelor and his friends. The part that was odd is that none of the participants of this bachelor party had ever been to a strip joint, and none was particularly comfortable with the idea of doing this. But they did it anyway because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It was a bachelor party, after all.
Perhaps here, this bachelor party script, even taken as a semi-comical trope that has been the subject of many bad (but highly profitable) “buddy” movies, is rather revealing about our latent attitudes as a society. Viewed on an symbolic level, this would suggest that Americans— particularly men— perceive marriage vows (perhaps humorously, perhaps not) as a set of shackles and chains that essentially prevent them from engaging in philandering, sex romps, and various other fun sexual indiscretions. This is while simultaneously enjoining and celebrating the view of marriage as a sacrosanct state that we should all cherish and take enormous comfort in.
But I found the behavior of these bachelor party participants exceedingly curious. Why would a large leaderless group of individuals engage in behavior that none of them really wanted to (apparently not even the groom, who the party was being held for)? Why would they not just design an event that would be more meaningful and entertaining to them on the level they thought more appropriate given their values and states of mind?
Perhaps it is because this situational life script (more charitably described as a “custom”) told them that if they didn’t do this strip joint thing, they weren’t having a “real” bachelor party. This script promised an authentic bachelor party experience (the kind seen in the movies!)— an experience that apparently none of them particularly wanted or felt comfortable with, but also didn’t want to feel like they were robbed of later, perhaps because saying they’d been to one could offer some social currency or sensation of a life well-lived in the future.
I’ve noticed these recurring scripts as well:
- At the end of a rock concert, the band members put their instruments down, thank everyone for coming out, and walk offstage. Normally, this would be a pretty strong signal that the show is over, and you should go home. But that’s not what happens. What happens instead is that people in the audience cheer and scream and clap for several minutes until the band comes back onstage to do another song.
Moral: You, as an audience member, came to a rock show put on by this well-known band and thus are supposed to play the role of the adoring fan. The band came a long way to be in… wait, what city are they in again? Anyway, they came a ways to play their songs, and you know, they’re really tired… but they really want to show the fans how much their love and adoration means to them, so even though the show was supposed to end, they’re gonna deviate from their normal routine just this once, and play another song for the true-blue fans out there. Yeah, yeah, they do it at every show, but don’t question the encore. Just follow the script.
- If you watch people as they pose for photos, you see that often they begin doing something they weren’t doing before, because it conforms to the expectations of a social gathering, and the photograph is a form of proof that the gathering occurred. For example, last week, I happened to witness a wedding party down at a local landmark. At a certain point in time, the groomsmen and bridesmaids all jumped in the air simultaneously and the photographer shot a photo of this. Apparently, it didn’t come out right, so they did it again. Would these people have done the jumping without the camera? Most likely not.
Script: You’re supposed to have fun at parties. We must be able to provide proof that we were there and we did have fun. Synthesize the fun into a ball of symbolic activity and capture it on film. Follow the script.
- You’re watching a sitcom on television. After every third sentence, canned laughter occurs. You laugh along with it, or at least understand that there is supposed to be humor value in this program, an understanding that may not have been conveyed without the canned laughter.
Script: You are being given a signal that this show contains jokes. You may not have noticed this on your own, so just laugh when everyone else does, or you won’t be able to enjoy the program. Just follow the script.
- Someone who doesn’t listen to much hip-hop music throws a party where he does not know a lot of the attendees very well. Instead of playing the rock’n‘roll music he normally listens to, he plays all hip-hop music at a volume he would normally be uncomfortable with.
Script: You’re supposed to play loud hip-hop at parties. If you don’t, it isn’t a good party. Follow the script.
Scripts seem to be part of the social contract we sign when we join this earth, or more accurately, join certain groups. We are supposed to act a certain way and do certain things that conform to certain expectations at certain times. Even if you don’t want to do it, even if no one wants to do it. Don’t rock the boat. Just follow the script.
in which we borrow images to ‘forge’ ourselves
People of my generation despise authenticity, mostly because they’re all so envious of it.” – Chuck Klosterman, “Killing Yourself to Live”
The above passage is from a chapter of a book called “Killing Yourself to Live” in which music writer Chuck Klosterman discusses the Great White nightclub fire in Rhode Island a couple years ago, in which 100 people died due to a pyrotechnic mishap. Being that this was in a small, lower-middle-class town, the crowd was made up of blue-collar types who were actually (perhaps unbelievably) fans of the band. Klosterman was contrasting this audience profile with those of the many big city shows he’d been to where washed-up bands like Great White would play long after their primes to crowds half full of hipsters who were just there “ironically” so they could mock the music and scoff at those who were genuinely into it. Klosterman suggests that these hipsters scoff at these true-blue fans because they want to express being above liking things, because they can’t stand to be genuine.
The sentiment expressed in the quote is an interesting one, but I’d make a slight, but significant alteration; the word “despise” should really be “crave.” This, of course, renders the phrase a considerably more obvious one. Yet, for the most part, Klosterman’s observations resonate with me; I’ve noticed that people of our generation often have weirdly amorphous personalities and images, shifting wildly based on social circumstances and how those circumstances can be manipulated for social capital. Our generation seems fixated on self-awareness as its own virtue, and is highly obsessed with carefully controlling and crafting our images in the eyes of others through symbols whose meanings likely did not carry so much symbolic weight in identity construction just a few generations ago (clothes, vehicles, online personalities, musical taste, etc.).
Anyway, as I see it through Klosterman’s lens, the reason the indie kids of this generation can’t stand to be genuine is because they grew up entitled, in sheltered environments in which they never had to endure hardships. Their entire personas were cobbled together by borrowing images they liked, never borne organically from their own experiences. These images they adopt are never their own; they are fashion objects, constantly subject to the winds of change and shifting public opinion.
Because of the postmodern focus on image and its central import in identity, choosing images and consumer goods to be associated with are critically important decisions; no one wants to be associated with images that may turn out unfashionable or appear to suggest that a person is, in fact, a loser. Therefore, it’s easier to just reject them all (at least publicly), or to simply adopt them “ironically.” But clearly, we can’t be free of symbols entirely. The ubiquity of symbolism in nearly all consumer goods is an unavoidable byproduct of a post-modern era; everything we see forces us to think about “what kind of person would own that” and form schemas about these individuals.
Therefore, such individuals bitterly resent those whose life experiences are more “authentic” (read: difficult and uncomfortable) than their own, because such trying experiences are never unfashionable, and those who have endured them are never subjected to the plaguing self-aware scrutiny that everyone else has to deal with. Living through hardship engenders respect, never mockery. Thus, these entitled kids want nothing more than to have had some hardships— “grit” as Klosterman puts it— to confer them authenticity. There is nothing authentic, as these people see it, in their comfortable upbringings. Their lack of unmolded identity is a source of inner conflict because it forces them to constantly question their symbolic choices.
The ubiquity of multiplicities of divergent images, tropes, and cultures has given us license to treat our personalities like clothing that can be switched at will. On one hand, this allows a sense of psychological freedom to be whatever we want to be; but on the other hand, I think many people born into this postmodern world feel like they don’t have a “baseline” self that is grounded in anything that wasn’t calculatingly copied from something else they perceived as authentic or identity-conferring in a categorical sense (e.g. “punk”, “skater”, etc.).
There are some people who lead the way in cultural transformation, but they account only for a small fraction of individuals. Most of the rest are what academic and sociologist Doug Holt describes as “feeders”— basically, people who crave brushes with authenticity, and who just copy what the innovators are doing, often without the understanding of where those ideas came from. Since they can’t lay claim to the authenticity, having been deprived of the experiences that created them, they settle for the next best thing: adopting the symbols of it. And since the symbols are the easiest way for outsiders to categorize people (e.g. torn jeans and a mohawk means ‘punk’), that works out just fine for feeders.
This generation’s youth craves authenticity, but rarely one that they can have (that is, one they are genuinely entitled to through experience); it’s always someone else’s authenticity that they wish they could have.
But perhaps it’s not limited to youth; we engage in such activities largely as a means of arriving at a manufactured authenticity that constitutes our ‘image’ at any given point in time; the bevy of images we’ve been presented with for all our lives through media have, ironically, taught us not to want the real authentic with respect to ourselves, but instead to want something we can’t have, but which we can fake well enough to convince others. Our true self, it seems, can be manufactured through symbols.
why one of America’s fastest growing stores is not quite what it appears
I recently moved to Madison, WI, and found that my new apartment is just blocks away from Trader Joe’s, the perennial grocery store of choice of a group I will describe as “progressive yuppies.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Trader Joe’s. They have a somewhat interesting— if a bit odd— selection of food, low prices on alternative-lifestyle staples like Morningstar Farms Vegetarian Meats, Hummus, and Dr. Bronner’s Soap, and the staff usually seem engaged and friendly in a way that you rarely see in the bigger chains.
Yet despite these virtues, there’s always been something that I’ve found very curious and fascinating about the store given its primary clientele: they package the hell out of everything. I’m talking about putting often unnecessary plastic bags around nearly all their produce (which is, incidentally, prepackaged and shipped from afar), hard plastic shells around fruits and tomatoes, and things like individually wrapped biscottis inside yet another layer of paper bags.
The produce sections of standard grocery stores like Kroger and Safeway aren’t much better, but you can tell that there’s a lot less waste going on, on the whole. You can buy fruits and vegetables without using a plastic bag at all, but if you choose to use one, very thin plastic bags on a roll are offered. You can stuff your plastic bag with as much salad mix as you want. The bags at Trader Joe’s are much thicker, presumably so that they can ship without incurring damage to the contents of the bag, but they are sealed so that if you want 10oz of salad mix, you’ll be forced to buy two 5oz packages of the stuff.
Now, the interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that if you talk to people about Trader Joe’s, you will see that many if not most of its clientele view the store as being ‘environmentally sound’, espousing the values prioritized by the politically and environmentally progressive consumer, words like: organic, sustainable, socially-conscious, green, fair-trade, healthy, whole-grain, eco-friendly, and so on.
Strangely, as the store is able to capitalize on those concepts, there is little in the direct customer experience that should really suggest any of those things any more than any other grocery store. Not all of Trader Joe’s produce is organic or whole-grain, not all of their coffee is fair-trade, and not all of their eggs and meat are cage-free or free-range. Few customers know anything about what Trader Joe’s has to say about labor rights, politics, or environmental issues, but if you asked, I would bet they’d place them in the top 20% of American companies in all these categories. And yeah, they sell canvas bags, but they still bag your groceries by default in paper bags.
Yet both Kroger and Safeway both have sections dedicated to organic and whole-grain foods. Both also sell fair-trade coffee and free-range eggs and meat. Nobody considers those companies progressive in any way.
So what exactly is going on here? Why does Trader Joe’s get a free pass on environmental concerns and get to capitalize on all the standard jargon of the socially-minded left while the other guys are left to be viewed as the mainstream guys who don’t really give a damn about broader social concerns?
Part of it, I think, is that Trader Joe’s is a much smaller store than Kroger and Safeway. It’s a mere fraction of the size by volume, but they carry a similar variety of foods but certainly not the diversity of brands. And for that matter, many of the brands they do carry are not to be found in other grocery stores. They don’t, for example, carry Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Tropicana Orange Juice. Sometimes such products are on their own private label brand (whose name changes depending on what product it is; their Mexican products are stamped with “Trader Jose” and Italian products have the ridiculous name “Trader Giotto’s” on them). They also carry an unusually large percentage of imported or apparently exotic goods. These don’t by themselves convey the aforementioned concepts, but these features do set them apart in the minds of the consumers, which is important.
Another part of it, while subtle, is the décor. Contrast the feeling you get while walking in the close, friendly quarters of the Trader Joe’s store with one you get when walking the cold, labyrinthine halls of Kroger. Contrast the warm wood paneling and comparatively low ceilings of Trader Joe’s with the stony white floors and high ceilings of Safeway. Notice the prevalence of baskets in the Trader Joe’s store, and the gargantuan supermarket carts elsewhere.
Also, and this is important, notice the clientele. There is a very obvious difference in who the typical shopper in each of these stores is. It’s impossible to tell without some form of surveying, but I would be extremely surprised if the average Trader Joe’s shopper wasn’t more educated, of a higher socio-economic status, with a higher disposable income, and a more liberal bent. But is it the store’s ostensibly progressive values that attracts this clientele, or does the store get its progressive image from the people who shop there? Certainly, there’s a feedback loop happening here, but it’s also true that there wouldn’t be such an attraction to these sorts of people without some compelling cause.
One possible cause could be that progressives are attracted to each other and teem into places where there are people like themselves, even in the absence of any gastronomical pretense. Possible, but I don’t find it very likely to be the root cause in the case of Trader Joe’s; after all, why would this trend begin in the first place? A more convincing reason for the progressive psychographic’s descent onto this store is its decidedly eclectic selection of food, where exotic foods like shitake mushrooms and shelled edamame are placed fashionably next to staples like baby carrots, and exotic Hollandic stroopwaffels oh-so-nonchalantly next to chocolate chip cookies. This post-modern melting pot of food is likely the central point of resonance at Trader Joe’s. After all, if we are to cull the messages from all the progressive radio stations, left-wing talking points, bumper stickers, and Bay Area street fairs, it is this very quality of “diversity” that presents itself as some kind guiding principle of progressive thought and which shapes the idealistic visions of progressive society. It is in this world that “diversity” in itself is considered a virtue, even in the absence of any dialectic.
Of course, diversity of foodstuffs is one thing, but where does the image of social consciousness come from? The household cleaners aisle, which is right next to where you’d buy “natural” toothpaste (do Poloxamer 335 and Propylene Glycol really count as natural?), doesn’t feature the usual allotment of chemicals like Ajax and Windex, but instead has products like all-purpose ‘natural’ orange cleaner made from degreasing compounds apparently found in citrus fruits, and mouthwashes with tell-tale signs of products that are trying to market themselves as ‘natural,’ muted brownish packages.
And speaking of muted packaging, it just might be that as a whole, Trader Joe’s packaging is of a more muted health-food store color than their mainstream rivals. With the notable exception of the produce section where colors like brown and white are not typically indicators of quality, the remainder of the store makes use of these earth tones in a manner not consistent of mainstream stores, where bright colors and fluorescence are used in packaging the same way that circus carnies shout and prod passers-by with their staccato brayings.
Trader Joe’s expertly weaves a tapestry that references all the signals that progressives look for and can relate to in their political identity, but much of the “follow-through” is only implied. But the store has called out so many of these reference points, that it creates the illusion that it’s all there—an illusion that many of the store’s patrons seem to appreciate as much as if it really were.
I had an interesting encounter the other day as I was shopping in Trader Joe’s. In the seafood section, my girlfriend and I noticed that they were selling orange roughy. This particular fish is one that is listed as endangered, as it takes nearly 30 years for it to reach maturity— far longer than most commercial fish— and it has a long lifespan as well, often living up to 150 years. With the U.S. fishing industry hauling in about 19 million tons of the fish a year, and many of those fish being more than a hundred years old, it is not an exaggeration to say that this fish may be extinct within our lifetime.
Regardless, we were perturbed by the presence of this fish at this ostensibly progressive grocery store, and decided to talk to the management about why they are selling this endangered fish— at $6.99 a pound, no less. The manager was quite up front about it. “We don’t consider ourselves a ‘green’ company,” he said, obviously a little tired of once again having to answer to the legions of progressives that shop at Trader Joe’s, and explain why they stock items perceived as being unsustainable or hostile to liberal consumption ideologies. He continued: “We let our customers vote with their dollars about what we put on our shelves, and though I understand your concerns, we sell a LOT of orange roughy.” He tilted his head towards the sky when he said ‘lot.’
So there’s the confirmation. The idea that Trader Joe’s is a somehow progressive or green company is a total myth created by the brand’s phenomenal marketing— which is largely based on word-of-mouth.
See also: my followup to the discussion on endangered fish at Trader Joe’s.
a pictorial representation to ponder
How we conflate symbols with reality
A while back, I worked on a project for a company that had a large fleet of gas-powered vehicles. This company had a certain budget, and wanted to use this money to retire as much as they could of their current fleet, and replace the vehicles with hybrids. In their own words, the goal of the project was to “reduce [the company’s] carbon footprint.” As my colleagues and I investigated the feasibility of their proposal, we found that the company’s allocated budget could buy many more diesel vehicles than hybrid vehicles. Diesel vehicles are an established technology with widespread availability, a large number of mechanics, a high level of reliability, any many competing engine manufacturers to choose from. The same cannot be said of hybrids. As such, the company could buy and maintain 3 or 4 diesel vehicles for the price of one hybrid.1 Taking that into account, the total environmental impact after a year would be much, much lower with the diesels than with the hybrids! We happily reported these results to the company, expecting them to be excited about how massive a dent our plan would put in their carbon footprint.
They were not pleased.
It was only then that it hit me; I had naively assumed that the company’s goal really was to reduce its carbon footprint. In fact, their real purpose was to employ a flashy PR campaign that gave consumers the impression that their company was a bastion of environmental stewardship and was making big strides in upholding the tenets of corporate social responsibility (or the vague understanding of which espoused by the public) by buying impressive hybrid vehicles, the symbol of environmental consciousness! Wouldn’t the public be impressed?
The company really wanted to buy those hybrid vehicles. They wanted to look like the good guys in front of their competitors. Our proposal far surpassed their expectations, if one considers the goal that they claimed they had. But we failed miserably if one considered what their real, unstated goals were.
It is disappointing that the company felt like the best way to convey their apparent concern for the environment was to do something that carried all the signs of the environmental movement but not the weight of it. But I don’t blame the company. I blame consumers and the public in general for lazily ascribing meaning to symbols without understanding their impacts on a macro level.
Which brings me to my next point: one of the biggest social ills observable in the United States is the demand for benefit without the willingness for sacrifice. People talk strongly about the need for environmental preservation, conservation, and consciousness, but I rarely see anyone willing to incur the personal discomfort needed to effect any change. Many good people who are strident environmentalists (at least in the public sphere) don’t make any particular efforts to drive less, turn off their lights when not at home, or reduce their consumption behavior.
Many of the environmentally-directed actions of such people’s efforts can be found in the fact that they buy organic food, drive small cars, and purchase recycled toilet paper. I call these people “soy candle environmentalists.” Despite this disparaging-sounding epithet, I do not mean to judge them as bad people by any means. However, I do see them as a product of a society that has learned that the best way to demonstrate their commitment to a particular cause is through highly commoditized consumer behavior. I buy soy candles. I drive a hybrid car. I buy recycled products.
This is not to suggest that the above are empty gestures that don’t have any value in the real world. They do have value. However, they do not really address the root of our environmental problems—overconsumption— in any deep way. They are basically means of mitigating some of the damages caused by their consumption habits, and in ways that are visible to outsiders. It’s not good enough to be an environmentalist; we want to be seen as being one. And if we had to choose one or the other, most of us would probably choose the latter, because the social shame associated with being an unsophisticated, environmentally ignorant consumer is a pain that is both closer and more ego-damaging than blindly shipping off hundreds of non-recycleable styrofoam cups to some distant landfill.
A recent event I witnessed illustrated jut how fixated we are on the socially accepted symbols of environmental consciousness rather than the results of one’s actions. My friend had an old beat-up station wagon that died on him recently. There was an unused SUV in the family that was kindly passed down to him so that he’d have a vehicle again without having to go through the enormous expense of buying a new one. He and his girlfriend are both pretty staunch liberals, so naturally, he was rather sheepish and apologetic to his equally liberal friends who saw that his station wagon had been replaced by this new, “politically incorrect” vehicle. When I saw the SUV, I didn’t comment on it or pass any judgment on him, but he still expressed some level of shame about having it. I explained to him that there shouldn’t be any shame in having an SUV. It’s just that this vehicle has become a symbol of American excess; it is not necessarily the equivalent of that excess. Aside from the additional resources needed to produce the vehicle itself, it’s only as bad as its driver makes it.
I’d rather most of the country have huge SUVs that they use infrequently and for local outings than have a nation of small car owners making daily 50 mile commutes. The latter is what I saw in ridiculous quantities the Bay Area, where SUVs are reviled. In San Francisco, SUV owners are vilified, and their cars vandalized and defiled; but I have never heard about any of the people I knew who spent 2+ hours driving one-way to work in their economy-sized cars being harassed. Why? It’s much easier to latch onto the symbol than it is to latch onto someone’s actual impact. It’s much easier and more comfortable for environmentally-conscious people to simply blame the SUV for all the environmental ills than for them to question their own consumption habits; it allows for a convenient “us and them” scenario, a division that forms the backbone of all our socio-political conflicts. It’s really no different than pointing the finger at Jews or blacks or immigrants for America’s problems instead of us figuring out what our problems actually are, and what their root causes are. And it feels much better to pin the downfall of society on “them” than it is for you to be introspective and figure out how you yourself (as an individual or part of a collective) are the source of most of your problems!
In the case of the SUV, it’s as if one’s actual impact on the environment (given our choice of vehicle) is given a back seat to what our apparent attitude is, the attitude that spectators might ascribe to us if they were paying attention to all the pro-environmental symbols and signals that we cloak ourselves in, instead of examining our lifestyle as a whole. As such, there’s cachet in being seen driving the latest hybrid (no matter how much you drive), and there’s shame in driving an SUV (no matter how little you drive).
Often, these symbols, like the aforementioned soy candles mislead us into thinking that we are actually taking serious steps in curbing our own environmental footprint on this planet. Recycling is another example. This act has become the poster child for environmental advocacy, and I’ve heard otherwise intelligent people argue that we can save the world if we simply recycle our paper, plastic, and soda cans.
Not even close.
Many people do not realize the amount of resources that need to be dedicated to recycling, and think of recycling as a simple equation for saving resources. You can recycle all the paper you want, but for every sheet you use that you didn’t really need to use, you have created immense pollution, having used tremendous energy in bleaching it, pulping it, and reforming it into recycled paper. This is basically true for every type of material recycling.
In fact, the assertion that recycling is a panacea for our environmental issues is so untrue that many of those working closest with recycling efforts will quietly admit that recycling is quite possibly more damaging than it is helpful; their reluctance to broadcast this comes from the fact that they hope to keep environmental consciousness on the minds of people, and hope that increased awareness will play some role in reducing environmental impact on the earth eventually.
But there is a serious danger in promoting recycling, one that few think about: does the ever-present specter of recycling as a de facto absolver of environmental consequence enable or even encourage wasteful behavior? That is, will people be unnecessarily wasteful or use more than they might otherwise simply because they feel that the normal environmental damage that they may be causing will be offset by the fact that they are planning to recycle?
I would argue that, yes, this is a real and observable phenomenon. And it’s one that is most notable in those who are most aware of and personally conscious of environmental issues. I have personally witnessed reams of paper being unnecessarily used in the most thoughtless of ways while the standard “don’t worry, we’ll recycle it” line is tossed off in casual manners, signifying of course, that this wastage isn’t really wastage, and that the paper is not going directly back into the waste stream. Perhaps it is literally true that this paper won’t re-enter the waste stream, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no environmental cost to it. Energy-production facilities are burning coal needed to process that paper back into a usable consumer product; bleach is being pumping to the world’s water sources to render the paper white; and trucks are pumping out millions of tons of carbon dioxide getting the paper to and from the processing facility.
You can buy as many soy candles, hemp shirts, and organic fruits you can find, but don’t expect this to translate into strong environmental impacts. Sure, it’s possible that your impact is slightly smaller than it would be if you bought traditional candles (made from petroleum distillates), cotton clothing (which uses a large amount of water and pesticides), and non-organic fruits, but ultimately, these are efforts that these are minor shifts towards environmental stewardship. Real efforts in environmental stewardship come from buying less and using less, not buying into the symbols of change. But our system is so structured around commerce that it is hard for consumers and companies to understand the divergence between the symbols and the impacts those symbols are supposed to represent.
1. Seth Godin just posted an article that essentially says the exact same thing.