Lately, for (ahem) strictly professional reasons, I’ve been watching the recently-concluded teen drama The O.C.. I’d heard a rumor that RAN — or at least our logo — makes a cameo in the series, and I set about trying to find it. (Season four, episode five at 20:17, in case you’re wondering; see image).
The experience, along with a few posts on Stuff White People Like, has me thinking about how environmentalism and environmentalists play in the popular consciousness. In the series, the character in question goes off to Brown and becomes what most people would refer to as a hippy, although the word isn’t used. She leaves off personal hygiene, takes up the didgeridoo, and does a tree sit with an overprivileged new-ager in a Che shirt (who later makes her take the rap for some monkeywrenching that includes breaking into the Bio lab and liberating research bunnies).
At first the change is presented as a botched attempt at self-discovery, and in direct opposition to the character’s past associations with designer clothing and celebrity gossip; her transformation is as much fashion (un-)makeover as political awakening. And this is exactly how anyone would expect it to be depicted; in the United States, radical political consciousness and environmental activism often seem to occupy roughly the same discursive position as, say, “emo” — a moderately deviant consumer lifestyle choice, not a vital concern to our future as a species (no offense to any emos out there). So it’s available to TV writers as an unexpected personal quirk to add to a character to provide fresh material for a waning series (season four also included the second coma episode, an earthquake, and a cheap pregnancy scare).
Surprisingly, however, there’s some more to the story. Later, much to the writers’ credit, the character goes on to discover that her commitment to the movement is real; the end of the series sees her signing up for a tour as a student organizer with a fictional green NGO. Maybe after the alternate universe episode they were out of any other ideas, but the show actually managed transcend — ever so slightly — the easy caricature of the environmental movement as a pot-fueled patchoulifest, as much fashion identity as political commitment.
Let’s hope there’s a lot more where that came from.
As our friend Al has pointed out, we are now entering the age of environmental consequences. Environmental activism is about acting now, in a time of dire threat, to materially improve outcomes for people and ecosystems while addressing the root causes of their destruction. It is uniquely inclusive in its constituency — all lives on Earth, but especially those at the margins of the status quo. If the movement to save ourselves as human beings is limited in its scope to an aesthetic option for the gourmet-sandwich set, we don’t deserve to make it. The environmental movement is not a lifestyle choice, and it’s not compatible with consumerism. Nor should it be characterized by white culture and socioeconomic privilege, however much that criticism is a valid one.
When we’ve got it right, they won’t know us by our race, or our clothing, or our music, or even our green consumption choices. They will know us by our actions — and our strength.
And yes I know I’m a huge dork.