"Eff You, I Won't Do What You Tell Me!"


Would you eat this bird?! Image credit: Phenolog, used under Creative Commons license.

The explicit refrain at the end of Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name of became a counter-culture classic for a reason. People take pure delight in doing something forbidden. These days that sometimes means rebelling against environmental ethics. Whether it is hoarding incandescent bulbs, driving over protected salt flats in Botswana, or railing against the great global warming conspiracy, opponents of the green movement love to paint their actions as a reaction against authoritarian busy-bodies. Sometimes it is a strategic, political move—but it can also be a cultural trend. I've just come across an astounding account of high profile chefs practically having an orgasm as they eat a legally-protected endangered species. Feasting on Endangered Species
Chef and author Anthony Bourdain is no stranger to controversy. His first book, Kitchen Confidential, included graphic accounts of what goes on behind kitchen doors, not to mention frank confessions about his own drug use and other exploits. But in reading his new tome, Medium Raw, I was struck by the opening chapter in which he describes a secretive midnight feast of famous chefs, at which each was served a traditional French dish of roasted ortolan—a type of endangered bunting that is literally eaten whole—head, bones, guts and all.

While Bourdain is an accomplished writer, and clearly took pleasure in the gastronomic experience itself, it is also painfully obvious that much of that pleasure stems from the prohibited nature of the act. (The birds would have had to have been smuggled into the US - it is illegal both in the US and France to serve ortolan.)

Forbidden Pleasure is Real Pleasure
In some ways, this is nothing new. Who among us hasn't taken delight in one guilty pleasure or another, be it sexual, gastronomic or social? (Or all three at once...) But as environmental ethics continue to become a more integrated part of our social worldview, it is worth noting the inevitable backlashes that will occur. Sometimes this will be simply an occasional and personal rebellion against the orthodoxy of the time—and while ortolan orgies will (rightly) anger many in the environmental community, I doubt that they will become a widespread trend

Strategic Use of the Rebellious Urge
What worries me more, however, is the deliberate attempts by vested interests to frame the environmental debate in terms of freedom versus responsibility, or authoritarianism versus liberty. Yes, there are some people who feel genuinely affronted that they cannot buy the bulbs they "need", but the idea that the well-funded climate skeptic lobby is just standing up for the rights of the little guy and defending our freedom is as absurd as it is deceptive. Yet the meme is a strong one.

Preaching Does Not Help
I've noted before that environmentalism as religion will turn off as many people as it inspires, and that even leading by example can become passive aggressive preaching. But establishing social norms that balance personal freedom with collective well being is a complex business. It will inevitably involve both carrot and stick. And some people will get annoyed that they can no longer feast on their chosen species of endangered animal—whether metaphorical or literal.

Let's be aware that there are many who would like nothing more than to simplify this debate into a battle of good versus evil. And let's adjust both our actions and our messaging to make sure that doesn't happen.

More on Environmentalism, Communication and Strategy
Celebrity Campaigns Only Go So Far. Your Nagging Girlfriend Matters More.
To Win, the Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Will Green Religion Sink Us or Save Us?
Leading By Example or Passive Aggressive Preaching?

Tags: Activism | Endangered Species | Ethical | United States