Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

Portlandia & the Culture of Sustainability

PortlandiaTV_04Feminist book stores, indie street music, über-aggressive bicyclists. That’s right: Portlandia is coming.

Well, actually the sitcom has already arrived, having just finished its third season. But you get the point.

The offbeat but tangible skits in Portlandia depict fictional over-the-top citizens of Portland as they engage in controversial social and ecological topics. Underneath the humorous satire, however,  Portlandia engages with serious controversies and debates in today’s society. And many of these issues resonate within SPU’s own area.

Winner of the 2013 Writers’ Guild award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Comedy/Variety Series, Portlandia has slowly but surely seeped into the consciousness of the Pacific Northwest, and the way everyone perceives the area – including its own inhabitants.

Though the mayor of Portlandia staunchly supports Portland’s independence from Seattle, many have noticed uncanny similarities between the two cities. Many Seattleites I’ve talked to said that they see aspects of their own behavior in Portlandia’s characters, whether it is “rescuing” items from dumpsters or going overboard with pet rights or owning multiple items with bird silhouettes. But many in Seattle – including yours truly – also recognize themselves in Portlandia’s sustainability spoofs.

With Seattle following the trend of going “green,” our own city is taking steps similar to Portland to become more eco-friendly. In fact, Seattle has a strong history of following the sustainability policies of Portland over the past decade. Following Portland’s lead, Seattle has worked to encourage commuter bicycling, sidewalk cafés, and plastic bag bans. And while all of these actions are great for the environment, they have garnered a lot of controversy.

Portlandia capitalizes on the ongoing debates by playfully mocking many of these topics, such as the two-minute skit about reusable grocery bags below.

However, I can’t help but feel that Portlandia misses some crucial issues.

While Portlandia’s skit humorously demonstrates the social aspects of the bag issue, it ignores the environmental side. The rude clerk never explains to the customer why forgetting his bag is such a ghastly crime, or anything even remotely close to how reusable bags conserve resources. He just embarrasses the poor man as if he had broken a social taboo. And in another skit, the only reason they can give for banning plastic bags is the ridiculous claim that plastic causes “pelican cancer.”

However, perhaps this approach is intended to make audiences receptive and included.  Environmental and sustainable advocates often feel like they alienate others by evangelizing the gloomy urgency for sustainable practices. Portlandia shatters this concern by creating characters who ignore all social boundaries and rationality in their quest for a green city. And though their outlandish actions offend fictional customers and bystanders, they disarm real audiences.

And at its bones, Portlandia still highlights issues like remembering reusable shopping bags and eating locally (which, incidentally, the show also parodies here). Its laughable extremism also reminds us that sustainability should be inclusive, not snobbish or discriminatory.

Tell us your thoughts on the matter: is Portlandia socially-aware or merely comedic?

Author: Sara Kenning

Sustainability Assistant at Seattle Pacific University's Office of Facility and Project Management

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