THE BLOG
03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Green Guilt

Recently I got into an argument with my coworker over terraforming Mars. Sure, it's a long way off but things going the way they are, you never know when you might have to jump ship.

Initially, we agreed on our reservations about NASA's budget given the state of the economy and the number of impoverished even here on our own shores. Until they actually start talking about footprints on the red planet, millions of dollars to throw around a boomerang in space seems a little wasteful.

But then she said something interesting: she thought it was wrong for us to colonize mars. Not impractical, not financially infeasible, but wrong. Confused, I asked her what she meant by the word. She said it was wrong for us to use up the resources of our current planet and then move on to another.

I argued that Mars was a big ball of dirt and soil. Barring some miraculous discovery it's as barren as it gets--a giant, cold rock in space. Still, she said it was wrong.

I asked if her opinion would change if there were an impending asteroid. "Like, kill-all-the-dinosaurs-sized." To my surprise, she said we should simply expire with the planet, that it would just be our time to go. We would have deserved it.

I was amazed that an otherwise logical, caring, non-religious person was advocating willful extinction. But more and more she seemed to sum up what is wrong with our current environmental movement.

There has arisen this weird notion that the fight against global warming is about guilt, that we should feel bad or out of place on our own planet as human beings who use and consume.

There can be a few explanations for this. Maybe it's our usual upper-middle class white liberal guilt bleeding over into everything we do. Maybe movies like Fern Gully convinced us that all humans do is eat cheeseburgers and cut down fairy houses. Or maybe the slow-to-anger, NPR-listening set wanted to get in on being pissed off and decided to hate the human race.

Whatever the reason, it's a dangerous mentality and it's unproductive to our causes. The fight to protect our environment is not a moral imperative; it's a practical one. It's a selfish one. We need to fix our planet because we've grown awfully fond of living here, not because we owe it to a tree or a fish.

If the goal is to effect change on a large enough scale to alter the nature of an entire planet then surely a necessary step is to include and inspire as many people as possible. But the billions of poor and starving, those who don't live in hip urban areas, and those who live hundreds of miles from a body of water aren't going to change their lifestyles simply because it would make them feel like better people.

Even if you argue that we, America, as the largest producer of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible you're still not going to convince someone in Phoenix to bike 30 miles to his work. And you're not going to convince a mother with three kids to buy paper towels five times as expensive out of guilt.

We have to continue taking steps forward and that means even more modern conveniences. If you want someone to buy fair trade, organic food it has to be faster, tastier, and cheaper than the alternative. Transportation has to be faster, easier, and cheaper. And we just haven't figured out how to do that yet.

If that sounds a little bit like ruthless capitalism, it is, because above all, we have to convince businesses to make a leap into sustainability in order for the masses to have access to that lifestyle. Most people eat McDonald's not because they think it's the most delicious hamburger; they eat it because it's what they can eat. If McDonald's made healthier food with a smaller carbon footprint for the same price, people would still eat it.

And it will happen eventually as diminished resources send prices skyrocketing--businesses with self-sustaining practices or who trimmed excess waste will be the only ones who survive. What we need to be doing is showing businesses how they can save money with smarter, greener practices right now.

And if we can't save them money yet, then we need better ideas. Or wait until NASA says we can all go to Mars because feeling bad about the Earth just isn't the same as fixing it.