PARTING SHOT SAVING THE PLANET: LET JACK DO IT (BUT WHO’S JACK?)

I have yet to get a congratulatory phone call from the White House, but I did it. About six weeks ago. I used the last disposable drinking cup I ever plan to use. Mea culpa. I was using them just because they were convenient, which is of course why they were invented. There was always a stack of them right by the coffee maker, and it was so darned easy just to reach for one, and so I did, three or four times a day. At that rate, I was probably knocking down four or five hundred a year.

Then it happened. One day I was sitting in my office, thinking globally, when I had a vision of a wizened little man in a robe and sandals hobbling through the door and dumping five hundred disposable drinking cups on the floor. I’m knee-deep in DDCs, and he’s oozing scorn through his Cecil B. De Mille prophet’s beard: “Here, unenlightened one, is the fruit of your past year’s mindless waste. Have a nice day.”

The next day I took up a genuine imitation bone china D Magazine logo cup and spent the day basking in righteousness. The day after that, I walked mindlessly to the coffee room, poured a hot cup, and was halfway back to my office when I realized that 1 was clutching a DDC. Habits die hard. The same thing happened the next day, so I took the DDC and taped it to the wall to remind me of my good intentions. It worked.

Some, especially those of a conservative bent, would point to this as an example of the amazing power of individual effort. Without waiting for any government handout or bureaucratic stimuli, this guy two-fistedly pulled himself up by his ecological bootstraps and just said no to disposable drinking cups. And if he can do it . . .

This interpretation is partly right, of course. Laws and rules and government disincentives (awful word) can only do so much; to make a better society, we need, among many other things, better people. Granted. But governments exist to accomplish goals that are too large for even the most well-meaning citizens to handle by themselves. Sooner or later-but not much later-we’re going to make the government take a strong, active role not just in protecting the lakes and national parks, but in helping steer the way to a much simpler, cheaper, smaller lifestyle, one that this planet can live with.

It’s one thing for one person to give up disposable cups, but the moment we move beyond the individual sphere of action, we need organized effort and authority to get much done. Case in point: D often reports on people and companies who are doing innovative things to help the planet. We were talking about such folks at a staff meeting one day when the discussion turned to our own ecological sins. We were using huge amounts of paper and recycling nothing, we were leaving VDTs and banks of lights on all night, etc., etc. Was reporting on the good works of others enough? Was that all we could do?

So far, that appears to be it. After two meetings on the editorial level and one on the more exalted managerial level, we still have no organized effort to stop wasting paper and power. There has been some semi-official Frowning Upon those who leave unneeded lights running. Frowning Upon could lead to Viewing With Alarm, which may someday result in the formation of a committee to advise on the feasibility of reordering priorities.

Do I hear a question? I thought so. Look, bozo, if you ’re so smart, why don’t you set up an interoffice Planet-Savers program yourself? Because it is not my job. So whose job is it? I don’t know, and that’s precisely my point. I wasn’t hired or empowered to persuade people to change their lifestyles. Like everyone working here, I’ve got more than my share of work that I must do. let alone taking on another thankless and unpaid task. It’s the old story: everyone wants Jack to do it, but who’s Jack? Where is he?

Conservatives and Libertarians say Jack is the free enterprise system. It’s absolutely true that the market system has solved myriad problems, and it certainly deserves a go at this one. It’s easy to predict, for example, that in this decade we will see the rise of “environmental consultants” who will come to your home or office and show you how to make it planet-friendly. If you don’t have the expertise or the time, you can do your ecological bit by hiring them. That’s one of many ways free enterprise will help, spurred on by the time-honored profit motive. And that’s great as far as it goes.

But looking to the market presumes that people give a damn and will voluntarily put up the money to do the right thing. What about those who won’t-those who are too stupid or too greedy to think about the common good of spaceship earth?

For them, like it or not. Jack is the government, with its regulations and mandates and sanctions. Just as the government brought its might to bear on those who refused to open colleges, lunch counters, and other public places to blacks in the Sixties, so the government must act now, through education and the force of law, to make pollution and waste unpopular-and unprofitable.

The free enterprise system alone cannot do this. The apostles of capitalism say that the system is self-regulating, but the invisible hand of the marketplace is often slow in pointing to its own problems. Perhaps it makes sense, strictly by the logic of the marketplace, for North Dallas to have Valley View mall. Preston-wood, and the Gal-leria. But can anyone look at those immense, redundant, air-conditioned sprawls of concrete, glass, pipe, wiring, and plastic, and say that the environmental trade-off was a good one? That’s a question that the market can’t even ask. much less answer.

When the Dallas economy recovers, andthe developers and moneymen want anotherGalleria. will any leader ask these questions?Will anyone ask not what the market willbear, but what the ecology, the land, willbear? Gandhi urged us to “live simply, thatothers might simply live.” Fine words, butwhere is the politician who will utter them?Too often, leaders of both parties seem morecommitted to the obscene credo on thebumper sticker: “He who dies with the mosttoys wins.” It’s hard enough to give up apaper cup; to give up much more, enough tomake a difference, we’re going to need someleadership. Fast.

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