Bonn, Germany


On reading

A Nigerien woman demonstrates that she can read and write by writing her name in the sand in Adouna, Niger, Aug. 2010.

He ate and drank the precious words,

His spirit grew robust;

He knew no more that he was poor,

Nor that his frame was dust.

He danced along the dingy days,

And this bequest of wings

Was but a book — What liberty

A loosened spirit brings —

-Emily Dickinson

When it’s hip to be responsible

The Tanzanian Federation for Home Economics teaches women to grow and harvest sweet potatoes to make chips like these.

I spent a weekend in Bonn, Germany covering a United Nations conference on sustainability as part of a team of student journalists. The conference was eye-opening for me, as I’ve never been involved in a UN proceeding before; overall, it seemed somewhat disorganized and too policy-oriented for my taste, but I think that’s just United Nations operation (at least policy orientation; I’m not sure about the disorganization).

I made a few friends involved with youth organizations in Germany and other parts of Europe. I spent lunch one day talking with some young people who work with Micah Challenge and YMCA Germany (rather different from YMCA in the USA) about the pros and cons of “environmentalism” as a trendy movement.

On one hand, this falls into a category one friend defined as a “first-world problem,” which is basically code for “a ridiculous argument you wouldn’t have if you didn’t already have your basic needs met well.” And even to the extent it is a “problem,” it’s a good one to have; at least the people who buy into the trend are making consuming efforts to do things like recycle and buy environmentally-friendly vacuum cleaners and even, sometimes, buy Tumbleweed Houses.

However, I wonder what this trendiness does to the environmental cause as a whole. I’m sure there are more people like me who are reluctant to define themselves by anything (I, like many of my college cohort, am almost allergic to defining myself by a church denomination. And you have to nearly drag the descriptor “Christian” out of me sometimes). I have no real desire to be one of “THOSE people” who don’t shower, flush their toilets with dirty dishwater and (true story) skin road kill squirrels on their back porches and eat them because they don’t like waste. I ride my bicycle when I can because it saves money, I recycle because various roommates have made me feel guilty for not (which I now appreciate) and I use reusable grocery bags (sometimes) because I can’t stand plastic bags spilling out of my closet when I open the door. But beyond this utilitarianism, I can’t think of a time when I did something to conserve energy, water, waste or food — certainly not anything that made me uncomfortable.

One part — and a large part — of this reluctance is just that I’m lazy and like comfort whenever possible. But part, too, is my label allergy. If conserving natural resources were just a thing everyone did — in Germany, apparently one is fined for not recycling, which makes sense to me, though I don’t really want to argue politics — I wonder how the dynamics of conservation in the US would change?

What do you think? Is this a semantic hang-up that doesn’t make much difference or does the trendiness of environmentalism make a difference, good or bad?