|THERE WAS A TIME, not long ago, when I proudly called myself a luddite, regardless of whether it was true or not. This was the time before the computer; my laptop, expensive (for me) and obsolete before I even bought it, was the sign I took to stop my cavalierly throwing the word luddite around. From that moment on, I began to let go of any cherished pretense that my life was a revolt against the contemporary.
As a "luddite", I tried to pare the modern world -- so
sloppy and garish and badly made -- from my life. I had the luxury of a
bit of money, so I hit the antique stores and got myself a tailor. I wore
hats and suits; shirts with buttons and shoes with laces. My phone had
a dial and my music wasn't made through electronics, even if it came on
CDs. I bought a fifty-year old tv and despaired that it didn't pick up
"Playhouse 90" and Edward R. Murrow, so I fitted it with a VCR and a collection
of old shows. I collected vintage phonographs, and immersed myself in a
world that even my parents, born before WW1, would have considered retrograde.
It was a time of luxurious, pointless anachronism.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, the environmental columnist at
the free weekly where I work -- a Greenpeace founder and renowned eco-activist
-- wrote another one of his unhappy
jeremiads about the fate of the world. "Blinded by our guilt" ran the
headline, above an article that bemoaned our collective guilt in the imminent
decimation of the planet. Singled out for approbation were "Canadian and
American drivers, frequent flyers, truckers, SUV owners, all-terrain vehicle
operators, skidooers, Sea-Dooers, people with leaf-blowers, snow blowers,
power mowers, motorcycles, outboards, inboards -- everyone who adds the
greenhouse gas load."
I read over the list and discovered that, unique perhaps
among friends, neighbours, family, employers and acquaintances, I was entirely
guiltless of the unhappy columnist's accusations. No part of the problem,
I was, indeed, part of the solution, baby. I have never known how to drive,
and therefore never owned a car. I've used public transit my whole life,
and poverty has kept me from ever being a "frequent flyer". I'm standing
outside your glass house, right now, with a handful of stones.
This is more than the columnist himself can say; in past
columns, he's admitted an addiction to his car, and a home in far-flung
suburbia prevents him from taking advantage of the city's buses and subways.
Columns like his accusatory attack on needless consumption tend to alternate
with abashed mea culpas, explaining that his Boomer upbringing made him
an auto junkie; how the need for speed makes public transit an alternative
he's simply unable to take. It's not his fault, you see -- blame it on
Ike, and GM, and the Beach Boys singing "I Get Around". In addition, the
environmental movement, like the multinationals it opposes, is a global
business. I can only imagine his tally of air miles.
As a renter, I have no need of lawn mower, leaf or snow
blower. Our landlord takes care of the scant lawn with a push mower, and
in the winter the tenants take turns shoveling the short paths to our brief
stretch of sidewalk. A minority among my countrymen, I hate winter sports;
ergo no ski-doo. When, once or twice a summer, we visit our friend's cottage
on Georgian Bay, I harbour dark fantasies involving chains and wires and
mines strung across narrow channels as vapid sunburned youths buzz the
islands in their Sea-Doos.
(Perhaps I should insist that our friends decline the
use of the power boat when they ferry us from Parry Sound to their island,
in favour of an updated slave galley, but that would mean that a day of
our scant, two-and-a-half day weekends would be spent hauling the oars
to the drum's pounding as powerboats threaten to capsize us.)
We've insisted on a compost bin in the backyard this year
-- we'll buy it if the landlord provides us with a spot in the back, and
he's agreed, grateful for the mulch. In one move, our kitchen waste will
be cut at least in half. The self-righteousness only continues.
When K. and I travel, we prefer the train if it's at all
possible. Without a car or truck, mower, blower, ski- or Sea-doo, SUV or
ATV, our lifestyle isn't technologically different than our grandparents,
if you just squint and avoid the TV or computer. Our blender, toaster and
stand mixer are antiques, bought from vintage dealers; we make our own
jam and preserves; we buy used; we recycle. My halo shines brightly.
I feel qualified to stand up to the environmental columnist
and ask just how columns like his are supposed to do more than share his
own mid-life doom crisis with the rest of us. I wonder whether his column,
run in a free weekly read by club kids, college students, lefties and cranks,
will do more than turn up the volume on the apathy he so deplores. Most
of them are far from being the heedless energy hogs he deplores, at least
for now. Perhaps in a few years, earnings improved, they'll join the army
of pink, human locusts gnawing the planet down to the stalk. In any case,
if the columnist's work gives them any sense of self-righteousness, it'll
be forgotten, much as a previous generation went from green to greedy in
I'm sorry, I'm just so tired of the old rhetoric, the
tired arguments, full of a self-righteousness that even I can trump. It's
a crooked poker game, where everyone at the table can produce handfuls
of aces. It reminds me of those endless college bitch sessions about them, ranging from Marxist denunciations by onetime private school boys, to emotional laundry lists of male oppression, to sneering dissections of middle-class tackiness, arias of inverted snobbery by youthful aesthetes just beginning their own white-knuckled social climb.
I've become wary of the left, specifically because of
an ideology that tries to use shame and guilt to legislate human desire,
a new puritanism as tiresome and tendentious as the old one. It's a world
where a vote for a "left-leaning" candidate can be outdone by avid recycling
or organic shopping, which can be trumped again by vegetarianism, then
veganism, in a spiral of principled asceticism that eventually comes to
view the whole of the world as "fallen". It's a mindset that ignore the
basic truth that most people -- especially those in the poorest parts of
the world -- want more, not less. More food, more clothes, more leisure
time, more money to spend on entertainment. Class -- a slippery concept
-- will be articulated not only by having more money, but by demanding
-- and getting -- measurably better food, better clothes, better leisure
time and entertainment.
Perhaps a "right-on" regime could shame part, or most,
of the populace into asking for less, or worse; this was pretty much the
only real social project of the Soviet regime. If the end of the last century
has taught us anything, it's that people don't want less or worse and,
moreover, won't stand for anyone who tells them that's precisely what they
should want. Clearly, even the environmentalist won't stand, personally,
for less -- less car, less mileage, less access to travel -- but the shame
remains and, clearly, has to be shared.