Sunday, November 26, 2006

Environmentalism revisited (based on a Bill McKibben essay)

It has been pointed out that I came to this blog with a manifesto: a view that environmentalism must be re-visioned as a basic value rather than a political or special interest. In an August 2006 essay published in National Geographic, Bill McKibben expounds on this line of reasoning.

He begins by declaring 2005 the year in which “we finally started to understand what we are in for,” in regard to global climate change.

In 2005, much attention was focused on an increase in powerful hurricanes, the loss of Arctic sea ice, and thawing permafrost in northern latitudes. In 2005, scientist James Lovelock stated we have passed the point of no return: too much CO2 has been added to the atmosphere, and runaway global warming is inevitable (global warming may be a positive feedback system that perpetuates itself). In 2005, a NASA climatologist discussing the instability of Greenland’s ice shelf told reporters that “we can’t let it go on like this” for another ten years, without causing changes that would constitute “practically a different planet.” In 2005, even a close friend of the oil industry (President Bush) declared the US to be “addicted to oil.”

Given the likelihood that we are facing a global catastrophe (whether or not 2005 was the year in which we started to "get it"), McKibben points out that environmentalism as we know it is not designed handle such an issue. The first modern environmentalists in the US set out to protect remaining wilderness areas and ameliorate damage to certain ecosystem services (i.e., the Clean Air Act). In these goals, they have been largely successful. However, planet-wide degradation of the climate from industrialization is operating on a vastly different scale, and thus far, has not been addressed in an even remotely satisfactory fashion. Why not?

Here’s how McKibben puts it:

“The old paradigm works like this: We judge just about every issue by asking the question, Will this make the economy larger? If the answer is yes, then we embrace whatever is in question – globalization, factory farming, suburban sprawl. In this paradigm, the job of environmentalism is to cure the worst effects, and endless economic growth makes that job easier. If you’re rich, you can more easily afford the catalytic converter for the end of the tailpipe that magically scrubs the sky above your city.

But it turns out that, above all else, endless economic growth is built on the use of cheap fossil fuel…Precisely the same fuels that gave us our growth now threaten our civilization.”

Or, to put an artistic spin on it, Tom Robbins discusses “The Lie of unlimited expansion” in Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas:

“We built ourselves a fine commercial bonfire, but then instead of basking in its warmth...we became obsessed with making it bigger and hotter, bigger and hotter, until if the flames didn’t leap higher from one quarter to the next, it was cause for great worry and dissatisfaction. Well, any Bozo on the riverbank could have told us that if you keep feeding and feeding and feeding a bonfire, sooner or later you burn up all the fuel and the fire goes cold; or else the fire gets too huge to manage and eventually engulfs the countryside and chars its inhabitants. Nature has always set limits on growth: limits on the physical size of individual species, limits on the size of populations. Did we really believe capitalism was exempt from the laws of nature? Did we really confuse endless consumption with endless progress?”

The point is this: unbridled economics have drastically improved the material quality of our lives, but at a tremendous cost. That cost is being borne by every inhabitant of our planet. Regardless of your political affiliation or personal beliefs, we all have to live here, thus, it is in your own interest – literally – to “be an environmentalist.”

This is a radical idea: for everyone to embrace a broader, deeper sense of environmentalism. McKibben: “For that to happen, we’d need to change…dramatically…We’d need to see ourselves differently – identity and desire would have to shift.” Those in the developed world would need to voluntarily reduce such luxuries as eating whatever produce we desire year-round, living in enormous houses, driving large cars whenever and wherever we please.

Can we actually do that? Can we truly reduce these luxuries? McKibben notes that since World War II, the American standard of living has nearly tripled (compare growing up in the 30s to growing up in the 60s to growing up in the 90s). However, in the same time period, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves “very happy” has remained steady. We don’t need these luxuries to be happy. They are not the bounty of our inalienable right to pursue happiness.

So, perhaps it is not too radical of an idea. If we can still live our lives with the same measure of happiness, and reduce our impact on the planet, it sounds downright reasonable. Perhaps we can even enhance happiness – many environmentalist ideas embrace holistic approaches that build a sense of community (i.e. community gardens), a tried and true source of happiness.


Anonymous said...

Good to see you back, GQ.

Ilya said...


A Green Cowboy said...

I've had a significant lapse (not to rival Pied's though), so it was quite nice to sit down and think something out for the PeP.

I'm assuming the Q was intended as a C.