The Adolescence of Mental Environmentalism

The greatest threat to our mental environment has ceased to be the obstruction of our voice and is now the proliferation of cacophony.

As fate would have it, 9/11 happened just as Adbusters #38 was hitting newsstands. Without a single mention of the attacks that have redefined the political landscape of our generation, stolidly confronting a nation bracing for war, Adbusters #38 displayed a cover that asked, “What’s My Damage?” and featured an article proclaiming “The Birth of Mental Environmentalism.” In this moment of temporal disjuncture and cultural dissonance, an unplanned détournement was accomplished. With our minds entangled by collapsing towers, it was precisely the question of the mental environment, and the ownership of culture, that needed to be addressed.

Rereading this issue today, with its pre-9/11 antiglobalization language, one gets the sense that the lack of immediate response was the right response. It is as if the mental environmental movement could only be birthed in that moment – when everyone was looking the other way at a spectacle of global proportions.

Contained within #38 was an article, printed on rough brown paper, by Bill McKibben in which he articulated the early stages of our new movement. Eschewing the claim that there is a direct analogy between our physical environment and our mental environment, McKibben proposed that our mindscape is, and always has been, culturally constructed. He writes:

“Your mind, a clear mountain stream running burbling through the rocks. Pepsi stands up, unzips its billion-dollar ad budget, and takes a leak, staining it forever brown. Your brain, a verdant old-growth forest, until it dies the death of a thousand swooshes. Your soul, filled with the crystal fresh air of early morning, until Philip Morris blows in a cloud of its seductive smoke.

“No. Mental environmentalism may be the most important notion of this new century, but the only way to start this discussion is by admitting the analogy is not exact.”

Thus, in his view, the objective of mental environmentalist activists cannot be the hope of maintaining an individually pristine, “uncontaminated” and ultimately solipsistic mindscape. Instead, to be a mental environmentalist is to struggle over the control of culture. It is to take our minds back from a worldview owned by advertising and the ideology of consumerism. It was inspiring stuff, but with nine years of hindsight, it seems now that his logic needs clarification. Take, for example, the final words of McKibben’s article in which he articulates an eloquent vision of the future:

“Forget monoculture, in our fields or in our heads; imagine instead a thousand different communities, adapted to physical places they inhabit, sharing insight and difference, appreciating the small scale and the large heart. Where no musician sells 10 million copies, but 10 million musicians sing each night. Where we are freed from consumer identity and idolatry to be much more ourselves. Where we have our heads back.”

We see here that, although McKibben wished to resist it, he falls again into drawing a direct analogy between our minds and our fields, small scale farming and small scale culture, the smashing of the idols and the liberation of our mental temple. Although we could explain the reemergence of the physical-mental analogy at the end of his article as logical inconsistency, sloppy thinking or mere sophistry, to do so would be to miss a deeper point about the mental environment.

If we look again at McKibben’s article, we notice that what is considered “nature” or the “physical environment” shifts from the opening to the ending. In the beginning, nature is conceived as a pristine wilderness – “a clear mountain stream running burbling through the rock … a verdant old-growth forest … the crystal fresh air of early morning” – whereas by the end of the article it is imagined as agricultural and pastoral, in danger of being colonized by monoculture agribusiness. Thus, while the landscape-mindscape analogy did not function when nature was imagined as wilderness, it does translate when the environment is seen as already bearing the marks of human culture. Only then, when we accept that nature, like our minds, always bears the mark of human influence are we able to see that our minds truly are like a river that can be polluted – not a pristine mountain stream, but one that runs dirty through the center of civilization like the Ganges, Nile or Thames.

If the analogy between our physical environment and our mental environment is accurate when nature is understood as always already influenced by culture, then the question of resistance to mental pollution shifts accordingly. Our change in tactics mirrors that of physical environmentalists who reject the creation of policed nature ghettos and managed wilderness preserves in favor of ripping up the concrete jungle and integrating wilderness into everyday life.

Likewise, mental environmentalism ceases to be a solipsistic pursuit of an untrammeled hermitage of the mind, an approach that McKibben rightly implies is impossible. Instead, resistance becomes the realistic battle to rewild our shared culturescape by liberating the collective anarchic spirit that has been silenced, letting “10 million musicians sing each night.”

But even that metaphor needs an update because in the nine years since 9/11, the greatest threat to our mental environment has ceased to be the obstruction of our voice and is now the proliferation of cacophony. Right now there are 10 million musicians singing on YouTube while another million writers send their words into the Twitter void. Who cares if all their dreams are the same: hitting gold by selling out. Isn’t the proliferation of amateur culture a cause for celebration? Hasn’t McKibben’s vision of a healthy culture of diversity been realized?

No, things have definitely changed since McKibben penned his article in the dark days before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The war of recuperation has advanced and the tactics of resistance we planned have been definitively co-opted by consumerism. We are all hyper-individuals now and the blaring din of information overpowers all resistance to consumer culture. Our minds are under assault, our knowledge fragmented. But underlying it all is the same cynical logic we vowed to defeat: Advertising pays for content. Advertising pays for bandwidth. Advertising pays for programmers. And consumerism owns our culture.

If the birth of mental environmentalism happened in the midst of the greatest spectacle in human history, the challenge of our adolescent movement will be to find our way forward while hawkers for Web 3.0 tempt our minds. To continue our walk away from the terrible noise of a culture drunk with inanity, distracting itself from the horror of environmental apocalypse and untimely societal death, is the challenge we face.

Despite the presumed ease of reaching thousands with a single click, of going viral on a global scale, mental environmentalism of the 21st century entails reasserting the primacy of small group kinship against globalized capitalism. Not the clamor of 10 million singers, but 10 million cells of resistance singing in polyphonic harmony.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. or micah (at)