Why we love to hate Emma Stone’s environmentalist in The Haunting

This story was originally published by Grinding and appears here as part of the Climatic desk collaboration.

In the first scenes we spend with Whitney Siegel, Emma Stone’s character in The course, assures everyone around her that she is a good person. He tells us that he is bringing jobs to a struggling community, personally subsidizing his neighbors’ rising rents, championing the work of local artists, all in service of a “holistic home philosophy” surrounding his carbon-neutral home, designed and developed by herself. homes.

The insistence is both sinister and eerily familiar. A common criticism of the environmentalist is that she is out of touch; she demands too much; He does not understand everyday life or the demands of ordinary people. She is an idealist, overly concerned with abstract and/or distant concerns: the atmosphere! the deep sea! the future! – and at the same time, overly concerned with inconsequential and unexciting things: LED light bulbs, proper separation of recyclables, low-flow toilets.

Perhaps this description worries you, if you are an environmentalist. It is an unflattering reflection, without a doubt, but that discomfort is the currency The course, a new Showtime series from directors Benny Safdie and Nathan Fielder. The plot revolves around Whitney and her husband Asher Siegel (the latter played, to horrifying effect, by Fielder), who are trying to take advantage of their Doug Aitken-scam passive house properties on an HGTV reality show starring themselves.

Although the show quickly gained a cult following, it has also been described using phrases such as: “The hardest thing to watch I’ve ever seen.“, “physically curled up in pain” and “weekly anxiety nightmare.”

The energy-efficient insulation and circular pipes may not seem like a nightmare, but the show is clearly disturbing because it exposes its characters at their worst. And it’s Whitney, a dedicated ambassador of the carbon-neutral lifestyle, who gradually reveals herself as the most ethically twisted, selfish and malicious character on a competitive roster.

Why is someone who has committed his career (his entire public image, no less) to building climate-friendly housing such a credible monster?

I chatted with Jennifer Bernstein, editor-in-chief of the journal Case Studies in the Environment, who watched the show, to try to analyze that exactly what makes Whitney’s environmentalist protagonist such a disturbing character. She observed that it is “this lack of self-awareness combined with this idea that his “The idea of ​​the good life has a certain moral authority and should be everyone’s idea of ​​the good life.”

In fact, those who oppose environmentalism and its supposed ideals tend to refer to a desire for control: they want to take away its gas stoves, your burgers, your trucks. Some of Whitney’s most disturbing moments, exposing a person who is equal parts desperate and domineering, occur when she attempts to explain the gospel of her eco-living mission. When the buyer of one of her passive houses unplugs the expensive induction stove and replaces it with a gas one, breaking the home’s self-contained “passive” ecosystem, Whitney insists to Asher that they need to be “more picky” about who they’re selling. their houses to; that some people “don’t deserve to be part of what we are building.”

Why we love to hate #EmmaStone’s environmentalist in The Curse. #ClimateChange #EmmaStone #TheCurse #CarbonNeutralHomes #GreenUrbanism #PassiveHomes

She tells a couple making an offer on another home, when they intend to install an air conditioning unit that would also void the home’s passive certification, that they are wasting the opportunity to be “members of a very exclusive club.” . part of the story.”

It’s impossible to argue that an $800,000 green house isn’t an indicator of some degree of elitism. Not all elements of an eco-friendly lifestyle are expensive, but those of a guy of the ecological lifestyle they certainly are. Whitney and Asher repeatedly attempt to assure residents of the working-class New Mexico community where they build their homes that their developments are not a force for gentrification, a claim so obviously false that what’s not clear is whether they are lying to each other. themselves or their neighbors. .

Passive houses are kind of an archetypal example of a climate solution that makes a lot of sense, but also requires a lot of money. The reduction in energy use that a passive house can provide, compared to the average drafty home, is as much as 90 percent. Residential energy is responsible for approximately 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, so it’s not an insignificant offering. But as Project Drawdown points out in its Analysis of insulation as a climate solution.The emissions built into building passive houses that can withstand hot climates (like the Southwest, for example) make the potential energy savings less attractive.

Des Fitzgerald, a expert on green urbanism at Cork University’s Radical Humanities Laboratory, says that a significant contingent of the environmental movement has a blind spot when it comes to the status and expenses associated with green living. Green development in a community will often inflate property values, driving out low-income residents. But Fitzgerald also explains how a kind of assumed supremacy of an environmentally conscious way of life can also alienate people.

“Much of the public discourse around using environmentally friendly materials in housing and planning in general really relies on being empirically rigorous and well-grounded in research,” Fitzgerald said. “The reality is that a lot of the attachments that people have towards this as a way of life are not really scientific, rigorous or empirical. “It has this symbolic, almost religious quality, and I think it has to do with those deeper associations that we have with ecological things and status.”

In other words, a green lifestyle is defined as much by actions proven to reduce emissions as it is by talismans and touchstones of sustainability, and too often those talismans become status symbols rather than legitimate climate solutions. . Claire McNear by The ringer brightly watchesFor example, the eco-friendly accessories of Whitney and Asher’s “certain breed of moneyed-class anxiety”: the Tesla, the New York Times-Featured Birkenstocks.

Emma Stone walks towards the camera in front of a reflective passive house like Whitney Siegel in The course. Photo: Richard Foreman Jr. / A24 / Paramount+ with SHOWTIME

Is there anything uglier than a wannabe cult leader with no charisma? About halfway through the series, Whitney changes the title of her show. green queen, happily pushing Asher aside and becoming the star herself. But any passion for “green” values ​​seems limited to her aspirations for fame and recognition. Bernstein, for example, points out that Whitney never talks about climate change, nature, or anything remotely related to the environment away from the cameras.

The tenth and final episode features an effort to publicize the couple’s show to a mainstream audience, where they make a rare appearance on the Rachael Ray Show. Asher and Whitney appear on a large screen behind a host who briefly grills them, bored and half-engaged, about the many ways in which a passive home is unattractive to the average American: You can’t have air conditioning or a basement for your La husband’s television, or yes, the gas stoves.

Whitney’s smile becomes more and more strained. Is she fighting not to snap, to berate Ray and her middle-American audience for prioritizing her superficial preferences over saving civilization from devastating climate change, a fate from which she, the Green Queen, is offering salvation? Or is she mourning another failed opportunity to get viewers for the show?

Whitney’s personal curse is that she simultaneously embodies two miserable archetypes of eco-lifestyle advocates. The first is that of the green influencerwho preaches about climate change while making money convincing you to buy things: the good things, however, and take advantage of the consumer culture that is the mortal enemy of environmental progress. The second is the one mentioned. eco-tyrant, who wants to ration their water, electricity and meat. She disgusts us the first because she is a hypocrite, and the second because she is bossy and controlling.

There’s no doubt that Whitney is unpleasant, but it’s not just because of her personal qualities. There is a part of us that wants Environmentalists are frauds and fascists because we want them to be wrong. We want your claims about the value of low-impact housing, plant-based diets, and electrifying everything to save the climate to be ridiculous. Because if they are right, then we will have to transform many things about our homes, our diets, our economy and our ways of life in general to prevent an apocalyptic ecological collapse.

But what if frauds and fascists are, on some level, Operating on a belief system that is fundamentally correct? That more or less defines the moral that is woven The courseThe most surreal moments: that people can really mean well and want to do good in the world and still be horrible and selfish; that ego and desire for power and status can still drive the most ostensibly ethical mission. And when something righteous is driven by something rotten, can it ever do anything? good? Or is it just cursed?

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