We’re Spendrift Environmentalists… and Constance Hilliard is a looney

I read an article from Constance Hilliard today. We’re spendthrift ‘environmentalists’ Americans are Consumed by Shop-til-U-Drop-Consumerism.  It is an Op-Ed piece written for USA Today and she is a professor out of the University of North Texas.  I’ve googled her name and have read a couple of her other Op-Eds and I come away with the conclusion that she is an idiot.  I don’t feel bad for saying so, she calls the American People “simpletons” and she laments that the Iraqis have lost their heritage and is deeply troubled that the President of the U.S. says “God Bless America”.  But she is a professor and we must automatically give her kudos for her speech, for her brilliance, for her insight.  Such a pass is too often given to professors.  They too have political axes to grind and Hilliard does as well.

I wrote a paper attacking the above article.  It is a rough draft and I need to tone down the language.  Years of writing on blogs and listening to debates on t.v. (which aren’t debates but yell matches) have altered my writing style.  Pass the coffee!!!

One must wonder what purpose Ms Hilliard was writing for when she wrote “We’re spendthrift ‘environmentalists’”.  Ms Hilliard, a professor of history from the University of North Texas, regularly writes op-eds for USA Today.  In her ‘spendthrift’ essay she doesn’t so much try to sway any thoughtful readers of the paper toward becoming environmentalists as she preaches from a soapbox on the evils of consumerism.  To paraphrase her article, Americans are hypocrites, consumerism is bad because it damages the psycho-social fabric of the nation, and consumerism is responsible for the greatest environmental problem facing our planet today. Yet what facts there or definitions there are to support these claims, the reader is left to wonder.

Let us break her article into it’s three main components:

1.                  Eight out of 10 Americans regard themselves as environmentalists.  Yet she argues that we are, in fact, hypocrites, as the spirit of the last paragraph and last sentence attest.  She essentially means that Americans are not environmentalists:

a.              we Americans comprise a mere 5% of the world’s population, we consume an estimated 30% of its non-replenishable resources

b.              So much of what we call ”environmentalism” in this country represents little more than a clamorous sideshow to the far more painful issues at hand

c.              We may be quick to take sides in political debates over environmental issues, but upon closer inspection we often are all on the same side in the larger ecological debate.

2.                  Consumerism is bad:

a.              The more single-mindedly we grab for that elusive, nirvana-like American Dream, the more inexorable the slippage in our quality of life.

b.              We suffer more stress-related illnesses now than ever before

c.              while neglecting family and intimate relationships in our time-consuming struggles to surpass the Joneses.

d.              Our patterns of overconsumption reflect a dependency

3.                  Consumerism is responsible for our environmental crises:

a.              America‘s most pressing ecological crisis stems from our societal addiction to consumerism

b.              unbridled consumerism is threatening the ecological balance of our entire globe.

c.              what are the unspoken costs to the fragile, unreplenishable resources of this planet of our endless material acquisitions? (note that this is used as a rhetorical question in her essay).

Let us then look at the three pillars of her essay, beginning with number one.  One has to only spend a little time looking at stats sites on the Internet to find many sources that show that the United States consumes a lot of resources compared to the rest of the world combined.  If the goal of the paper was to strengthen environmentalism in the U.S., she misses an opportunity to note that, according some stats that have the U.S. as the number one, or in the top five, polluter in the world.  Yet what non-replenishable resource is she referring to?  Water?  Timber? Oil?  Isn’t everything replenishable to a degree?[1] 

In sub-paragraph b she uses charged language to give the reader a sense that no real environmental work is being done in the country.  By citing recycling soda cans and post cards to congress, she tries slight-of-hand to dismiss the many successes in the environmental movement. Some of those successes follows:

1)              “Recycling is one of the best environmental success stories of the late 20th century. Recycling, including composting, diverted 72 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators in 2003, up from 34 million tons in 1990. By 2002, almost 9,000 curbside collection programs served roughly half of the American population. Curbside programs, along with drop-off and buy-back centers, resulted in a diversion of about 30 percent of the nation’s solid waste in 2001.”[2]

2)              “Improvement in U.S. environmental quality is one of the great “success stories of the last generation,” according to an April 17 report issued by the Pacific Research Institute (PRI).  The results show steady signs of improvement in all these areas over the last several decades, according to a PRI press release, even though the public and the media maintain a pessimistic attitude about the state of the environment. Among the findings, the study shows a 64 percent decline in air pollution emissions nationwide since 1970, and a 45 percent decrease in toxic emissions since 1988.”[3]

3)              “Clean Water Act. This 1972 U.S. law exemplifies command-and-control legislation that worked. People now enjoy the benefits of purer water—more swimmable, fishable, and drinkable than before.”[4]

Recycling and petitioning Congress did good in these cases, it would appear.

In subparagraph one-c she makes a distinction between environmental sides and a larger ecological side, yet she fails to define either.  Again, is she attempting to bolster the cause of environmentalism, or is she using this as a moral posture to bolster her real case?

And what is her real argument in this essay?  It appears to me that her concern is over our lifestyle and she morally equivocates it with damaging the Earth’s ecology.  To paraphrase paragraph two, the American Dream is an illusion that we work harder and harder for, neglecting our families more and more, and due to all of this we have more and more mental disorders and to make up for it all we are addicts to the pleasure of consumerism.  She offers no facts to support these claims, nor does she quantify her use of the term overconsumption.  Is buying battery-powered heater socks, or a Carl’s Jr. burger overconsumption?  She does not divulge if we can have our cable t.v. but must give up our Lincoln Navigator, or adopt a Neo Luddite lifestyle, or something in between. 

The United States is fourth in number of days off of work (163 out of every 1000 employees). In a ranking comparing size of houses with suicide rate the United State, while being ranked in the top four in house size, was in the bottom four for suicide rate for middle-aged persons.  Out of fifty countries, the U.S. was thirty-eight in rank for respondents who said they were “not very happy at all” and ranked eighth out of fifty for “very happy”.  These stats run counter to what one would expect if we were all overworked, mentally disturbed, and had problems in our relationships. [5] [6] [7] [8] 

In the last pillar, consumerism is cited as the cause of “the greatest environmental crises” we face… yet that crises is not explicitly named, nor exactly how one leads to the latter.  She categorizes the nation as a society addicted to consumerism.  Yet a society is defined, in part, by its behaviors as well as its beliefs and structure-systems.  We are a merchant class society, business and commerce drive our economy, it defines us.  Would Ms Hilliard define fish as addicted to swimming? 

Finally, near the end of the essay she gets to a connection, that our unbridled consumerism threatens the ecological balance of the entire globe.  Your purchase of Haagen-Dazs ice cream contributes to the end of the world!  She may not mean to draw such a conclusion, but without clearly defining her boundaries and terms one is left to wonder.  I say this to illustrate a common weakness of the environmental position, the great scare tactic that is incorporated into every action of the average person.  We are chastised for throwing a cup away on the side of the road, and then chastised by the same fringe for not being really environmentalist for doing something as low impacting as recycling.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Ms Hilliard finished off with a rhetorical question followed by a sermonly judgment from the soapbox.  “You are all hypocrites” she seems to say, “you don’t do what really needs to be done, you don’t live the right lifestyle, your mindless actions of hypocrisy will destroy life on the planet!”

This will be the death of the environmentalist position, the incredible amount of scare tactics and moral equivocation used in their rhetoric.  It isn’t the fault of Ms Hilliard’s poorly written article which gives nothing at all to bolster the ranks of environmentalists in the nation.  It has no supported facts at all save two, the ratio of population and consumerism of the United States with the rest of the world, and the increase in mental disorders.  Yet the second fact is a debatable one for the simple reason that many terms for existing disorders were not created and not able to be diagnosed until years of study and classification.

If Ms Hilliard had wanted to do some good with this article, she would have mentioned the pollution rates of countries in the world, correlations of birth defects with mercury poisoning, and perhaps used some of her emotive language to call for more funding by the government on alternative fueled vehicles, among other things.  She fails to address the complexities of our environmental problems, it’s cultural and class dimensions, economic impacts and costs, nor to offer solutions that might be discussed at the breakfast table.  Op-eds should be selected, not for their Jerry Springer-like shock value, but for the thoughtful viewpoints and tendency to generate discussion.

Shouldn’t an Op-ed piece from a professor strive for that?


[1]  Nation Master Stats: Energy http://www.nationmaster.com/cat/Energy

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/reduce.htm

[5] Nation Master Stats: Labor: Days Off Work http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/lab_day_off_wor

[8] Nation Master Stats: Lifestyle: Happy http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/lif_hap_lev_ver_hap

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