"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.
I’ve never been a fan of bumper stickers, though I’ve always thought the idea had potential. Done right, you’d think a bumper sticker could be a sort of ideological haiku, an elegant little distillation of a person’s unique perception of the world. Or, alternatively, that it could express genuine wit by being a joke that doesn’t take too long to tell. And even if a bumper sticker isn’t very likely to prompt people to act, it should at least make them imagine. As in, for example, “Visualize Whirled Peas.”
Unfortunately, the problems with bumper stickers far outweigh their benefits, and so the potential of this unique genre remains for the most part unrealized. The first problem with bumper stickers is that they aren’t sufficiently site specific. Maybe that’s a good thing, if the point of the sticker is to demonstrate your commitment. So if your bumper sticker says “How Can You Be Pro-Life and Eat Dead Animals,” and your car breaks down in front of a cattle ranch or poultry farm, you’ll just have to stick to your values during the six days it’ll take for the local tow truck driver to help you out. Second, bumper stickers are usually so polemical as to be rhetorically ineffective. Time never moves more slowly than when we’re being preached at by somebody’s bumper at the Church of the Red Light. Besides, too many sticker sound bites are already threadbare and clichéd. It is far too late now to tell folks to “Be the Change You Want to See in the World” (could I somehow be colder beer?), “Simplify” (this turns out to be incredibly complicated), or “Love Your Mother” (which could be disturbingly ambiguous). As an environmentalist, I’ve observed than many “green” bumper stickers are factually incorrect (“Trees are People Too”), unintentionally ironic (“Question Consumption” on a Lexus), incredibly corny (“May the Forest Be With You”), or intolerably sappy (“Keep All of Nature Special!!”). Finally, environmental stickers rarely respond to issues usefully because they can’t afford to represent more than one point of view. You might see a bumper sticker that says “Save the Earth, Because You Can’t Eat Money,” but you won’t see one that says “You Can’t Eat Money, but You Can Use Money to Buy Food.” Once you get away from monolithic ideological pronouncements, bumperfied environmental sloganeering just loses its pop.
I often leave my truck at remote trailheads in the Great Basin, so I have to be mighty careful about what opinions my bumper is blurting out while I’m off in the backcountry. It just doesn’t pay to stay on your four-wheeled soapbox when you aren’t there to defend it. Years ago I devised a solution that is as ingenious as it is cowardly. I keep a large collection of environmental bumper stickers in a big envelope behind the seat of my truck, so I can pull out whatever message is called for by the site and occasion. I then temporarily scotch tape the sticker to the inside of the widow of the cap on the back of my truck. In this way I customize my eco-editorializing depending on where I find myself. For example, in the parking lot of our town’s minor league baseball park I use “Nature Bats Last,” a sticker that has a very different meaning when I use it on spelunking trips. When I go to fetch a case of IPA at our rural liquor store I put up the perennially popular “Environmental Drinking Team,” while at the feed store I use “My Other Car is a Horse,” and at the native plant nursery I go with the charmingly nerdy “I Brake for Milkweed.” At the church rummage sale I use “Jesus Would Recycle,” though I politely refrain from mentioning that Hindus take this responsibility to the next level by also recycling their souls. For the annual fundraising BBQ at the volunteer fire station I break out this incendiary message: “Climate Change is a Hoax. The Temperature is Rising Because the Earth is About to Explode.” For use at the university, where bloodless rationality is always at a premium, I actually have a sticker that reads “The Benefits of Environmental Protection Measures Should be Thoughtfully Weighed against their Costs, and the Sound Ones Enacted.” Professors routinely nod approvingly.
To protect my truck at remote trailheads I’ve found that anti-environmental bumper stickers are most effective. I usually go with relatively benign anti-green slogans that offer some insight (“Keep Environmentalism Pretentious”), or at least some wit (“Vegetarians Taste Better”). But as I get further out into the territory of the Sagebrush Rebels, I’m compelled to escalate the rhetoric and shift it rightward. “EPA: Environmental Propaganda Agency” will keep your truck safe anywhere in the Great Basin.
Also reliable is “My Used Truck is More Environmentally Responsible than Your New Prius.” In fact, any rag on hybrid cars will reduce the chance of a truck break-in by approximately 90%. As I reach the remote hinterlands of the desert, extreme measures become necessary. In a few places in central Nevada I’ve even posted patently irrational messages like “Green is the New Red. Stop Environmental Communism,” though I prefer to stick with absurdity that is leavened by wit, as in “I’ll Start Worrying About Global Warming When I’m Done Bigfoot-Proofing My House.” After all, if you’re going to adopt a worldview that is void of logic and rationality you shouldn’t also deprive yourself of humor.
As a result of my spineless, accommodationist bumper stickering practices, I am well liked everywhere I go, despite the fact that I’m a certified curmudgeon. And this, along with not having my tires slashed, seems like a pretty good result from a message that costs only three bucks and takes three seconds to read. But recently I decided to take my bumper sticker game up a notch by using my messages not only to affirm bonds with particular audiences but also to get them thinking—if only about bumper stickers.
I do this by putting slogans in conversation with one another through the simple but powerful technique of using multiple stickers simultaneously. So, for example, I might display “Global Warming Is Uncool” right next to “Global Warming: The #1 Threat to Unicorns.” I especially like to use “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” along with “Save a Tree: Wipe with a Rabbit,” since both of these really help you to visualize their message. Sometimes my pairings reveal an organizing principle, like the interplanetary theme that emerges when I juxtapose “Earth First: We’ll Mine Other Planets Later” with “Keep Earth Clean: It’s Not Uranus.” I also enjoy the religious theme implied in the simultaneous posting of “Jesus Would Drive a Prius” and “Environmentalism Is Just Another Doomsday Cult.” For some perverse reason I also like using “If You Aren’t an Environmentalist You’re Suicidal and Should Seek Therapy” next to “World’s Sexiest Environmental Psychologist.”
Now, you might observe that the “conversation” my paired bumper stickers performs is reductive, polemical, and extreme. Fair enough. But I’d counter that my dueling messages are about as refined and intelligent as the current state of most environmental discourse, especially in the polarized political landscape of the Intermountain West. My dual pronouncements aren’t much worse than the toxic language employed by many media outlets, and they may be more nuanced than what we get from Fox News, Bill Maher, or the U.S. Congress. But I do wonder if I should just give up this environmental sloganeering and, since I’m a writer, revert to a single, innocuous bumper sticker that says something like “Supposably Is Still Not a Word,” or “Don’t Use a Multisyllabic Word Where a Diminutive One Will Suffice,” or even “My Life is Based on a True Story.” It might be better, though, just to leave it at this: “I’d Rather Be Ranting.”
Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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All images courtesy the author.