Did Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, “carbon offset” their private jet travel?

Which toilet paper or paper towels should I buy to be “green”?

Should I remove the caps or not when I recycle my plastic bottles?

Which is the most virtuous hybrid vehicle I can purchase?

It is nighttime and the fans have all gone home after the game. Together in a car, a handsome high school football jock in his letterman jacket and a cheerleader still in her uniform are parked in a dark spot next to the field for a little post-game make out. It is a classic scene from American teen popular culture. Some heavy kissing is going on, when suddenly but reluctantly, the jock tells the cheerleader, “I can’t.”

She doubts his sincerity and continues to kiss him. He is momentarily drawn back into the passionate embrace but again, more forcefully this time, says, “I really can’t.” Still, his heart does not seem to be in his protestations, and the girl again continues to kiss him. The third time, he means business, pushes the pretty girl away, and responds emphatically, “I said, I can’t!” Exasperated, she asks, “Why not?” The boy shakes his head regretfully and responds, “I can’t! It’s a Prius.”

Breezy music plays in the background as the camera pulls back to reveal the young couple sitting in a Prius. Titles on the screen sequentially fade in saying “Prius. Good.” — followed by the Toyota “Hybrid Synergy Drive” emblem and the “Toyota Moving Forward” ad slogan.

“Prius: Lover’s Lane” is a satirical video created by producer/director Randy Kent. It may seem like a mere lark and a laugh, but we get the joke precisely because, as a consumer product, the Prius has become a signifier of virtue in the vernacular of popular culture.

As an object, the Prius offers us what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms “a social marker” of aesthetic and cultural capital, and, I would add, a visible marker of moral commitment. The Prius has become a public emblem of “ecopiety” as practiced through green consumerism.

“Ecopiety” is a shorthand term I use to refer to contemporary practices of environmental (or “green”) virtue, through daily, voluntary works of duty and obligation. This can include a range of practices from recycling our plastic water bottles, only 14 percent of which are ever recycled, to taking shorter showers and other acts of environmental conscientiousness. These small virtuous acts, though well-intentioned, do not register on a scale that, as environmental economist Gernot Wagner demonstrates, the “planet will actually notice.” Worse yet, our focus on individual ecopiety can be counterproductive ― distracting us from the very sorts of collective action that can bring about structural and policy changes (locally, nationally and internationally) that actually do make a significant impact.

Most often, though, ecopiety takes the form of virtuous consumption. The marketing and devotional practice of ecopiety most often requires the performance of a correlative “consumopiety.” As media scholars Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser point out, “within contemporary culture it is utterly unsurprising to participate in social activism by buying something.”

On a daily basis, environmentally minded Americans wrestle with countless consumer dilemmas about which products to buy in order to “save the planet.” This preoccupation with buying the “right things” is not mere “virtue signaling” ― a superficial self-congratulatory nod to environmental concern — as some would suggest. A majority of Americans do consider protecting the environment a top priority. And many Americans sincerely and passionately want to do their part to help.

But what is the most effective mode for us to do that?

We are inundated with countless media messages transmitted via green-consumer marketing and storied popular culture that reassure us that our most powerful role in addressing climate change and other environmental problems is as individual consumers, not as collectively and civically engaged citizens. That is, as environmental journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis puts it, we are lulled into thinking we can merely “buy our way to a green planet.” This conveniently redirects our energies and economic power elsewhere, away from collective politics and enacting more broad-spectrum policy measures.

Ecopiety thus thrives within the hospitable conditions of a depoliticized marketplace environmentalism and mediasphere that generate story after story of privatized, small-scale, voluntary, individualized acts of “green virtue” as being adequate to dealing with our monumental planetary challenges. Whether circulated via the adscape, reality television, popular books, films, games or social media, these stories explicitly or implicitly promise us that the practice of an individualized, consumer-based ecopiety is the turn-key solution to making things on earth right again.

In so doing, these stories market an imagined moral economy in which tiny acts of voluntary personal piety, such as recycling a plastic water bottle or purchasing an organic apple at Whole Foods, can be exchanged as an “offset” to justify the continuance of our current consumption patterns and volume. No need to make any fundamental structural changes, implement public policy or legislative measures, or enforce stricter, much less existing, regulations.

The trick is simply for the consumer to buy the right things, the ecopiously green things — to engage in individual simple acts to save the earth — and all will be well.

Should we stop buying “greener” products and cease our daily devotional practices of ecopiety? Should Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg simply hop on the plane instead of risking life and limb to cross the Atlantic by sailboat?

No. Our individual ecopious acts can (in some cases) mitigate harm, although it is complex, as “green” products are sometimes not greener. They can also morally “license” us to consume more. Thunberg’s perilous Atlantic crossing was a Joan of Arc-like spectacular public statement aimed at galvanizing citizen engagement and governmental action.

But we should stop fixating on personal acts of ecopiety and redirect our energies toward collective ecopolicy. Mediamakers, both professional and amateur, are critical to that process.

As the adage goes, “Story is king.” Mediated stories, like that of Thunberg’s crossing, have the power to grip, transform and transport us. Stories from such varied sources as popular erotica, marketing, social media, reality television, digital apps, fashion manuals, gravestones, tattoos and hip-hop music, all have a story to tell about who we are as humans in a time of environmental crisis.

How those stories are told can either deeply engage us in politics or bog us down in the consumer-based busywork of ecopiety.

Mediated popular culture provides us both a powerful mirror and an engine for moral engagement. As we tell our stories in and through popular culture, they in turn tell us and can play a key role in shifting social energetics.

Part of this text was excerpted from the book Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue.

Award-winning author Sarah McFarland Taylor is a professor of religious studies and environmental policy and culture at Northwestern University. She holds advanced degrees in religious studies and in media studies and teaches the popular seminar “Media, Earth, and Making a Difference.”

Published on Dec 19, 2019