Picking Cherries

This month’s edition of Whole Living Magazine features an essay written by Elizabeth Royte called Talk about an Energy Crisis. Ms. Royte has authored several books and her articles have been published by numerous niche publications. She describes herself as a “self-professed ‘nature girl’ who writes about the environment.”

In Talk about an Energy Crisis, Royte genuinely articulates the struggle she has with her ecological footprint and the compromises she had to face while on summer vacation with her family in upstate New York because of the “internal combustion engine.” Ultimately, Royte’s final message in this article describes how a champion of the ‘green’ movement can find moderation in an era of global warming.

Through her dialectical journey, Royte frequently praises her own behavior; a behavior guided by her presuppositions about the state of the planet. While she admits that she is personally conflicted by being a responsible environmentalist versus being a girl who wants to enjoy nature, she fails to realize that the real crisis is not about her energy consumption but a crisis in her in secular, ‘nature-theism’ or Eco theology.

Royte begins her story by highlighting the benefits of living in New York City.

“…I find the city exciting. But what surprises many of the rural folks I interview is that I live in the city mostly because it’s easier to minimize my environmental impact here. In the city, I don’t drive. In the city, I can buy locally sourced, organic food (at a co-op) for less than the price of conventional food almost anywhere. I buy much of that food in bulk, cutting down on packaging waste. The city has a fairly comprehensive recycling system, unlike many rural areas, and beneficial outlets for unwanted textiles, electronics, and even food waste. I share my apartment walls with my immediate neighbors, cutting my oil consumption, and I don’t have a lawn, which reduces my water use.”

She goes on to say that living in the city is not a hardship and that it saves her money. Then Royte lays out the hypothesis of her Eco theology.

“So even if I didn’t think that the climate crisis was one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, or that it was physically impossible to sustain infinite growth on a planet of finite resources, I’d still try to lower my carbon profile.”

Fortunately, Royte does get out of the city from time to time for work and also to satiate her “itch for nature.” Apparently, the author and her family enjoy a month long “stint” each summer in upstate New York (Why doesn’t she call it a vacation?).

“There, forests and fields surround my rented house. Deer, turkeys, and the daily aerial loop of a great blue heron sometimes make it hard to concentrate when I’m working on the deck. (Poor me.) You’d think all this would make me—nature girl—happy. But I’m actually miserable in the country on account of the internal combustion engine.”

Though Royte believes that her misery stems from the car, it is being away from the city’s carbon footprint safety net that seems to unsettle her more. When she is out of her urban milieu and in nature, her Eco theological beliefs are put to the test.  As an eco-purist, Royte wishes to minimize her carbon footprint. But while agonizing over her self-imposed rules she unwittingly exposes the paradox of her predicament. Her godless, self –determined morality contributes to her self-loathing and she feels unhappy. Amoral logic and reason prevent her from enjoying nature. She begins with the challenges of riding a bike in lieu of driving a car.

“In the country, almost everywhere I want to go requires a trip in the car. Yes, town is just a mile away, an easy bike ride that I often make. But the route is busy, with 60-mile-an-hour traffic and only a narrow shoulder along the road. It’s OK for me, but I’m not keen on my 13-year-old daughter riding that route. I don’t like it myself when it’s 95 degrees, or pouring. And then there are all the errands and outings that lie beyond biking distance.”

Royte then admits, “Only the state of the planet is keeping me from the lake, a 20-minute drive away. […] Still, I consider a day without turning the key in the car’s ignition a success. But the success has a bitter side.” Her internal conflicts grow as she struggles with her definition of good and bad. It becomes clear that her natural human impulse to enjoy the countryside around her blossoms into hypocrisy if she uses fossil fuels and that only through disciplined abstinence and self-sacrifice can she gain the moral high ground and feel good.

“I see the river and I want to paddle it. I see the mountains on the horizon and I want to hike them. I calculate the distance from home to destination and try to drum up interest from friends and family (for the fun of their company, of course, but also to amortize my emissions). Then I back off my plans, feeling guilty about the gas. If I can avoid driving only when it’s easy to avoid it, I tell myself, what kind of example am I—someone who’s been writing and speaking for more than a decade about minimizing our impact on the environment—setting?”

At this point in the article, the author introduces two characters, her husband and a friend. Predictably, instead of perceiving them as messengers of truth and common sense, she decries their role as tempters and detractors from the greater good.

“Just take the car and go!” my husband shouts.

““Let’s go pick cherries,” [her friend] says. “Then we can go for a swim.”“But they’re in opposite directions,” [Royte cries]. “So what?” [the friend] says, beaming.”

After Royte’s friend tells her that “You can’t be a happy, productive person—which includes educating others about the environment—if you’re constantly stewing about your car’s carbon footprint, sitting at home doing nothing. Driving to a hiking trail or a cherry orchard a few times in one month isn’t like communing two hours a day in a Hummer. Get a little perspective.”

Royte’s misery grows as she contemplates the dogma of her Eco theology.

“I think about that, and I decide she’s partly right. I can try to justify the carbon—I’m not flying anywhere this month, and my car gets 37 miles per gallon—but that’s not what this is about. I need to shape some kind of practical ethics, one that reminds me that perfect is the enemy of good (and that staying angrily at home is bad).”

“I realize, of course, that I’m lucky simply to be in the country, that fretting about another tank of gas qualifies as a well-to-do tree hugger’s problem. […] It seems pathetic to complain about being in heaven but unable to visit heaven’s outskirts.”

As Royte concludes her story, there is a sense that she may be able to synthesize a new perspective. But, ultimately, her secular view betrays her and she is wont to remain a victim of green perdition.

“Sitting still and pretending that I’m modeling good behavior, I realize, isn’t a realistic response to global warming. First of all, who’s going to witness this modeling? And suggesting that we must go backward—whether to shivering in the dark or to sweltering in the heat—seems counterproductive to the goals: persuading Americans to consume a little less so that millions of desperate others, the world over, might have a little more. Individual actions, like eschewing disposable bottles and bags, matter […], but they shouldn’t distract us from taking more meaningful steps, like working to combat unchecked corporate influence on government.”

“There are, I tell myself, more effective ways to fight for change than denying myself a swim: I could support citizen groups and political candidates who lobby for bike lanes along state highways and work to redirect subsidies from private transportation to mass transit.”

The author finally settles for “a little moderation—Aristotle’s perfect balance between reason and desire…”, and decides to put her bathing suit in the car and drive in the direction of the cherries.

Royte’s conundrum is symbolic of most environmentalists who subscribe to the subjective edicts of Eco-theology. Instead of calling her article, Talk about an Energy Crisis, Royte should have called it, Talk about a Waste of Energy.

For a perspective on how I live in exurbia read Coexisting with Nature.