environmentalists, and their characterization
Posted: 03 May 2006 Updated: 17 August 2011
This is my own personal opinion and it's on my personal Website, so the First Amendment applies. Feel free to send comments to me via e-mail at <cdoswell_#_earthlink.net> - use the email hyperlink or cut and paste, substituting @ for _#_ - but be prepared to have your comments included on this page, along with my response. Otherwise, don't waste my time.
So what is environmentalism and who are environmentalists? According to dictionary.com, the relevant definition for environmentalism is:
Advocacy for or work toward protecting the natural environment from destruction or pollution.
and the definition for environmentalist is either of two:
1. an advocate of environmentalism
2. one concerned about environmental quality especially of the human environment with respect to the control of pollution
There are other notions out there. For example, Bjorn Lomborg takes the view that it's a myth that our environmental quality is being seriously challenged. In a description of his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, his website says he
... challenges widely held beliefs that the global environment is progressively getting worse. Using statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues and documents that the global environment has actually improved.
I note that his biography states that he is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. Perhaps I'm being somewhat skeptical myself, but does it seem to anyone besides me that a person whose career has been spent serving the interests of "business" might have something of a bias toward a vested interest in "business as usual"? Of course, he has his apologists, including National Review Online author Jonah Goldberg, who recently said:
There is no realm of modern culture that has institutionalized the concept of "lying for justice" more than environmentalism. Even the hothouse world of racial politics, with its fringe of Tawana Brawley believers and Afrocentric gobbledygook, comes a not-too-close second to the generalized deceit of the environmental movement.
It seems that to many right-wing pundits, there can be no redeeming aspect of environmentalism. It's advocates are deceitful, committed to destruction of the world economy, and no doubt advocates on behalf of various other left-wing causes equally contrary to God, justice, the American way, and decency in general.
Recently, on the way to the office, I heard some participant in a panel discussion on NPR characterize the citizens of Vermont as "tree huggers" - another of the vast lexicon of pejorative descriptions of environmentalists. This essay is the product of my being fed up with this crap, and wishing to articulate my own perspective on environmentalists and environmentalism. I suppose I've already given away the punch line - I consider myself an environmentalist of sorts. Perhaps one somewhat more in alignment with most of the American public. That public, I believe, is not anti-environmentalist but is prone to being swayed by the inflammatory rhetoric of the "business as usual" pundits, who are enriching themselves in the process of opposing anything that smacks of preserving our environment. As I'll attempt to show, I think everyone is an environmentalist, of one stamp or another - even the right-wing advocates of pillaging the environment to protect their lifestyles.
The path to my current position is not a simple, linear progression. I had no epiphany, and I was not converted by some specific experience or by some passionate environmentalist plea. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this is that over time, I've seen the consequences of our current "business as usual" policy, so beloved by Bjorn Lomborg (and GWB and Crime, Inc. - the current administration when I first posted this). When I was a boy, I gave little thought to the environment, one way or another. I was caught up in the business of living and grew toward trying to make a living in a way that I truly enjoyed - being a scientist. As it turned out, my chosen field was meteorology, which is, by at least some accounts, an environmental science. That is, it's focused on the study of one aspect of our physical world. As a direct consequence of that study, it became increasingly evident to me that everything in our environment, living and nonliving, is interconnected in complex ways that to this day, and for the foreseeable future, defy our efforts to achieve full scientific understanding. What we have managed to learn makes it evident, nevertheless, that one does not "mess with Mother Nature" without consequence. And the nonlinear nature of environmental dynamics makes it very difficult to predict with precision just what those consequences will be. The consequences of small changes are not necessarily comparably small - in some situations, the boundaries of which are very hard to define with precision, a seemingly small change can have enormous consequences, way beyond anyone's expectations. I've worked for 30+ years to learn how little we really know, and as I'm fond of saying, I resent those who come by their ignorance the easy way. Like the insufferable Bill O'Reilly or the greedy little pissant who not long ago occupied the highest office of the world's only remaining superpower. Given my background, I believe I'm not entirely unqualified to comment about environmentalism, although I make no claim to omniscience. Quite the contrary - I'm more than willing to admit my limitations when it comes to the unimaginable complexity of the interactions among all the living and nonliving processes that constitute our environment.
Beyond my formal education and professional experience, I've also had many opportunities to travel about the USA, and some other parts of the world. I've seen the consequences of man's hand upon the land in many different places. This experience does not qualify me as an expert on all things environmental, but I've seen such things as clear-cut forests, landfills, junkyards, trash dumped everywhere on the land, urban sprawl, the deterioration of air and water quality, the "development" of previously untouched areas for purposes of exploitation by humans, and so on. This destruction, which is evident to me in the short period that includes my lifespan, has gradually turned me toward environmentalism. It's inconceivable to me that things environmental have improved over my lifespan! Have you seen a trend towards environmental improvement?
I hasten to add that my life is not a monument to self-sacrifice on behalf of the environment. Everything I do in my professional life, which has given me the resources to type this essay on my home computer, depends on an infrastructure that is steadily and inexorably degrading the environment. As detailed elsewhere, cheap oil was a gift from the Earth that has been of enormous significance to my "baby boomer" generation, but it's a finite resource we've squandered, and its consumption is contributing to environmental impacts such as global warming and pollution that have the capacity to trigger the collapse of the very civilization upon which I depend. Even as I participate in that civilization, I can see that it simply cannot go on without major changes - it simply isn't sustainable. But I'm a product of a certain processes associated with my times and I'm ill-equipped to change radically - perhaps like many Americans. But my background and experience suggests to me that the lifestyle to which I'm accustomed is both fragile and doomed to disappear as I now know it.
I'm sure that Professor Lomborg can go on at some length about the complexity of business interactions in the real world. Economics no doubt is characterized by complicated, nonlinear dynamics, just as the global environment is. I make no pretense of understanding the interactions within the economic sphere, but I wish that economists, right wing pundits, the current political party in power, and other "business as usual" advocates would acknowledge their ignorance of environmental dynamics. Whether they realize it or not, most of their system depends on the continuation of that environment more or less as it now is - but "business as usual" inevitably will change that environment, with what will no doubt be serious consequences for economics. along with everything else. I look about me and see a frenzy of "development" whereby agricultural land and other heretofore undisturbed areas are being consumed to put up more and more subdivisions in suburbia, big gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs are everywhere on our streets and highways even as gas prices soar to $3+ a gallon across the nation. Yet the passion for 'more, more, more" continues unabated. This says nothing about the destruction of the tropical rainforests, and other worldwide impacts on the environment. Such things simply cannot go on indefinitely without consequence. Someone's quality of life has to go - and it seems that it's going to be that of the "have-nots" rather than that of the "haves" and their the right-wing apologists.
As I look around me, it seems to me that no one wants to be living with a landfill or a sewage treatment plant, or a feedlot in their backyard. Who really wants to live like that? It's a classic case of the NIMBY philosophy - "Not In MY Back Yard!" is the rule. It's O.K. to plunder the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because we need the oil - as luck would have it, that refuge happens to not be in my back yard. God forbid that I should give up a single aspect of my lifestyle, and who the hell gives a shit about a bunch of caribou and polar bears in Alaska, anyway? Even though their isn't enough oil there to do much more than prolong business as usual for a few more years, who cares about the long-term future? Let my children and grandchildren worry about it! Just let me go on with impressing the poor folks with my 8 mpg Hummer and commuting alone in it from my McHouse in the posh suburbs to my fat cat job in the city, and let me keep my fancy house and manicured yard.
Is there anyone on the planet who wants to drink polluted water, breathe polluted air, eat contaminated food, have a landfill in their yard, or have their home on a toxic waste dump? I don't think so. Is there anyone who prefers a vista overflowing with garbage of various sorts - the detritus of human inhabitation - to one of natural beauty? I doubt it very much. It's only the rich fat-cat beneficiaries of "business as usual" who get to live far from the ugliness and toxic waste that's an inevitable consequence of the path we're following. The majority of us live in shoddily-constructed homes of simulated luxury at best. Many, perhaps even approaching a majority, live in the "underclass" where a mobile home is the closest approach to the classic American dream they can afford. For many in the United States, the American dream is an unrealized myth - they live in surroundings of squalor and despair, packed into barrios and ghettos, segregated from those who continue to live the dream, even as their credit card debt soars and they drive their Hummers to the gas station on a regular basis. They live from one paycheck to another, constantly on the brink of falling into the abyss, even while they vote for GWB and Crime, Inc. in the mistaken belief that these bastards will protect them from having it all jerked out from under them one day.
Everyone's an environmentalist - at least in terms of their own back yard - but many have chosen to ignore the inescapable fact that for many other people, the environment they are forced to live in isn't pleasant at all. If urban sprawl and environmental degradation continues, the fraction of people having to accept some bad things in their back yards will increase. This is simply an inevitable manifestation of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, which will almost certainly eventually have some disastrous consequences. Our world is dangerously unstable and getting more so. If you're not an environmentalist, apparently you enjoy toxic chemicals in the air, in the water, and in the soil. You like having feedlots nearby, you enjoy seeing trucks arriving all day bringing load after load of garbage to create stinking heaps of toxicity. Is there really any such person? If you're insulated from the consequences, perhaps it's easy to understand why you might put your personal needs above those of someone you don't even know. But ultimately, this is a doomed strategy.
For a time, I was a member of several environmentalist groups - notably, the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy. What I thought was a statement of solidarity and modest support through dues was apparently not enough for them. I also earmarked a portion of my salary to environmental groups through my workplace as a charitable donation. As a reward for my support, I was bombarded with junk mail from them, and other environmental groups, all dunning me for more money. Lord knows how many trees died to make up all those mailings. I wonder how long it took for them to consume via postage what I had contributed from my dues? I got very tired of the attempts to make me feel guilty if I didn't immediately send them a check in response to every mailing. I let my memberships lapse, so for several years after, I was receiving numerous phone solicitations to renew my membership and of course mailings asking me for the same, but the phone solicitations and the flood of junk mail gradually receded, became a trickle, and finally died. It seems to me that this flood of mail is both annoying and wasteful. Although I think these organizations have done some good for the environment, I'm never again going to join them or any others. They managed to use up my good will pretty quickly.
I have ambivalent feelings regarding extreme efforts to stop exploitation. I have no wish to see people harmed to slow the destruction of the environment, but I think I understand the feeling of frustration associated with being unable to stop the runaway train. Although tree-spiking has likely been disavowed by Earth First these days. it was a tactic that had been used apparently both to make a statement and to give loggers a reason to hesitate before clear-cutting yet another old-growth forest. Yes, loggers are not setting policy, and there's no reason for people trying to make a living to have to suffer the threat of injury because their employers are greedy. Interestingly, those loggers themselves are being exploited, even as they collect their wages - the battle cry for loggers is to save their jobs. But the companies that employ them won't hesitate to lay them off once the trees are gone. The loggers vote for the politicians who support unrestricted logging, and in return for their loyalty (or perhaps, their self-interest), the companies offer them virtually no loyalty in return. The old-growth forests are fast disappearing, and once they're gone, the Earth will not see their like again. "Managed" monoculture forests are not the same. We humans don't understand ecosystems well enough to do that job properly and can only maintain monocultures by large expenditures of energy. All that many of us seem to care about in the world is ourselves and our personal welfare. Of course, terrorism in any form is actually an acknowledgment of weakness - a last resort to make people aware of your cause - a means of fighting back against otherwise overwhelming strength. Is this really necessary? I certainly don't think so, at least not yet in this country, but I do see why some people might choose that path, especially given the extreme anti-environmental track record of the current Executive Branch.
Although much of this essay is apolitical, it's obvious that I have a major problem with the so-called "conservatives" - the very root meaning of "conservative" is that such a person wishes to conserve things, and yet the so-called "conservatives" in our political system currently are those least favorably inclined toward conservation of the environment. Rather, they are environmental "radicals" who wish to pillage and plunder for short-term gain. And many Americans, despite falling for the right-wing propaganda that has successfully ushered the so-called "conservatives" into power, still do not favor sacrificing our environment for the sake of enriching a few business executives. Yes, people want jobs and to make a decent living, but they also want clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, and places to go where the beauty of nature is conserved for generations to come. From time to time, even such outrageous ideas as damming the Colorado River and making a huge lake out of the Grand Canyon come up as ideas that someone is promoting, clearly for self-enrichment but usually disguised as something that will be good for jobs, or whatever. So far, the most ridiculous of these have been consistently rejected. I think that says there's a core of environmentalism in most Americans that remains, despite their being bamboozled into voting a gang of thieves into office, who are hell bent at enriching themselves by promoting big business interests above all other values.
Curiously, the so-called 'conservatives' of late have adopted a policy of denying the validity of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Evidently, the 'conservatives' don't want to conserve the integrity of our environment, and seem thereby opposed to conserving our supplies of fossil fuel. The only explanation for this anti-conservation stance on the part of 'conservatives' is that reducing the consumption of fossil fuels will reduce corporate profts in the energy industry and impose environmental regulations on other corporations. Given the financial support of corporations to the so-called 'conservatives", it seems evident that these politicians have a pecuniary interest in denying AGW.
There's a thread that runs through the environmental discourse everywhere. A common viewpoint is that we must appeal to everyone's self-interest in order to have any hope of selling an environment-favorable agenda. This viewpoint is commonly seen in the following terms: we must do environmentally-friendly things because our very lives are at stake. And, in my opinion, that viewpoint is indeed correct. As I've already noted in this essay, my understanding of the environment includes the notion that we humans, as a species, are intimately linked to the environment in which our species arose. If you perturb that environment far enough, it's not very difficult to imagine creating a world that is much less favorable to us as a species. Elsewhere, I've considered that anthropogenic disturbances to the environment might at some point be sufficient to cause a massive "readjustment" of the human population - perhaps even to the point where we would have extinguished our species, and many others, as well.
But should the extinction of humankind eventuate as a consequence of environmental changes, the Earth will go on, and so will life on this planet. It's just that it wouldn't much resemble what we now see, and would continue to evolve in a way that favors adaptations to the world as we will have left it in the process of destroying ourselves.
O.K. - so I've described the standard viewpoint in favor of environmentalism. To summarize, we humans are part of an elaborate web that connects all the living and nonliving elements of the planet. Not man apart from that environment, but man as a part of that environment. Do evil to some part of it and you do evil to all of it, including yourself. But that's not the only reason I see to be kind to the environment - that's just the selfish reason. There's another reason, and I speak of it in mostly metaphoric terms, here. If you don't understand or empathize with this perspective, then perhaps my whole discussion of environmentalism is going to wasted on you. If this viewpoint doesn't come through to you, then if you've managed to read this far, I'm suggesting you certainly ought not bother to read any more.
From time to time, I see programs (often on PBS) where a group of humans is dedicated to serving the needs of another species. Perhaps it's those who raise orphaned animals in such a way that they can be returned to the wild. Or perhaps it's teams of people struggling to re-introduce a species to the wild that has been driven to the brink of extinction. Or it might be folks who are dedicated to healing other creatures so that they can resume their lives in the wild. When I think about such things, I see them as ultimately noble. I suspect that for most of those who engage in such efforts, they're not doing this because they see their own lives threatened by being indifferent to the suffering of other species. Rather, it's a kind of ultimate altruism. Giving a gift that can never be repaid in kind or in any other terms. Doing something with little or no expectation of reward or even recognition. I view these as deeds that perhaps can only be understood in terms of seeing another species as a fellow traveler along the web of life on this planet. Being environmentally-friendly is not only important to us as a species. It's important to us as participants in an enormously complex and, to me, beautiful process, the meaning of which is hidden owing to our limited understanding.
Even when we have the best of intentions, we often screw things up, simply because we don't know how things really work. Being altruistic to another species is an act with the best of intentions, and I hope that those engaged in it aren't inadvertently working against themselves. Until we have a God-like understanding, there's a good chance we'll mess up things even when we're working hard not to do so. To say nothing of when we behave with indifference toward the consequences of our actions.
We're not distinct from other life forms on the planet. In order to survive, we must derive sustenance from other living things, be they animal or plant life. In our turn, we provide sustenance to other living things, either parasites or the agents of decay. For the most part, we humans have been removed from the dangers that beset our early ancestors - who were not necessarily at the top of their local food chains. I have no problem with this general arrangement. Where I have a problem is the killing of other living things we do for reasons quite distinct from the needs of our own survival. This includes not only such obvious activities as trophy hunting, or even the act of needlessly killing animals because we find them "creepy" - it also includes killing by destruction of habitat. Now, as a species, we've come to dominate the planet - especially in our own eyes. This is hubris, of course. If we humans were instantly to disappear, most of the life on this planet would be quite capable of surviving without us, with the possible exception of species we've "domesticated" to serve our own ends. Those few species would adapt or disappear. Ecosystems around the world would overcome the perturbations we've imposed on them, and once again evolve toward the balance that existed before humans intervened and "conquered" the environment in order to serve humans. The air, soil, and water would cleanse themselves of the toxins we've spread worldwide. It's absurd to think we've conquered the environment. At most, we've learned to manipulate it for our own purposes, but never with regard for the consequences of those manipulations. And mostly without regard for the species we've extinguished, almost certainly before they would have disappeared in the course of evolution in the absence of human interference. It's evident to me that we need the environment (more or less as we know it now) a lot more than the environment needs us!
Shouldn't we give some consideration to our fellow travelers? Must environmentalism always be justified by its importance for improving (or at least conserving) the lot for humans, only? Bu
It's been said in Genesis (1:28) that humans have dominion over all life on the Earth, and we humans are commanded by God to "subdue" the Earth. In another essay, I wrote about an experience with a person who interpreted that Biblical passage with the notion that we can and should do whatever we want with and to everything on this planet. We can and should, with nary a pang of concern, run roughshod over the environment and do anything we want to the environment. It's God's will. Not all religious people accept this interpretation. I'm not a religious person in the sense of the organized religions of the world - but I am a very spiritual person. No God that I could worship would ever countenance the willful and callous destruction of His creations by humans. As already noted, it would not make sense to do so, because in the process, we're fouling the planet for ourselves in the process. But more than that, I couldn't imagine a God that would be so indifferent to all His other creations.
In that other essay, I also tell the story of an idiot (on an Internet newsgroup) who saw the Boy Scouts as some sort of wild-eyed "liberals" (obviously using the word "liberal" in the way favored by so-called "conservatives" - to mean "radical") because they have a policy that promotes protection of the environment! Apparently, God loves idiots, because He sure made a lot of them!
I want to clarify something here - I'm definitely not advocating some sort of radical "back to Nature" conversion for the whole human race. We don't necessarily have to go back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to be environmentalists. The radicals who masquerade as "conservatives" like to characterize our choices in black and white terms. It's either business as usual, or if the environmentalists have their way, we'll all be eating roots and berries and living in caves. That sort of rhetorical gambit is but one of the many ways that the radicals have to discredit environmentalists. I get very tired of hearing this in the media, where some moron like Rush Limbaugh dismisses any environmental concerns with a snide remark about "tree huggers" or whatever. There's always a middle ground between totally black and totally white.
Not all Republicans are radicals favoring big business over all else, in the same way that not all Democrats want government to take over the whole business sector. In fact, if your viewpoint matches that of anyone else perfectly, then you probably are not in the habit of thinking for yourself, but rather are allowing someone else to tell you what position to take on any issue that might come up. Given my propensity to oppose arbitrary authority of any kind, I couldn't imagine that being a member of one political party or another would encapsulate my position on every conceivable topic. I feel sorry for anyone who would be such a sheep-like follower of dispensed wisdom.
There are environmentally-friendly choices we can make that stop well short of disconnecting ourselves from the Internet and learning how to snare rabbits in the woods for food. As a modern society, we need to give serious consideration to the consequences of our actions. When we here someone saying that being concerned for the environment is going to bankrupt our economy, it seems to me that we should recognize that complete indifference to the environment is also going to lead to disaster. In the entire history of the planet, there's no action that we've ever taken that's not without consequences, even if we don't see what they are in advance. Our history is bulging with examples of unintended and unforeseen consequences that have turned out to be demonstrably harmful. Out of sight may be out of mind, but it's not equivalent to "no problem!" We must learn to accept some measure of responsibility for everything we do. I think Americans are, for the most part, able to understand this message. We're not unaware of the need to be concerned about the environment. If it involves some sacrifices for the good of all, I think most Americans can understand that message and would be willing to do what it takes to move toward a sustainable relationship with the natural world around us.
Of course, time will tell. I hope I live to see a change in the present general mood of selfishness and indifference about the environment. And I hope I live to see GWB and Crime, Inc. called to pay a price for their crimes against the welfare of the citizens of the United States.