Everything You Know About Environmentalism Is Wrong

Way back in 2005, I posted, The Environmental Movement is Dead, about how the traditional environmental movement — centered around the big lobbying groups such as the Sierra Club and their associated policy initiatives — had failed to do anything to apply real brakes to the decline in the global environment or even to significantly improve our national carbon footprint.  Featured in that post were the poster-children of the anti-movement environmental movmeent, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  The two are still at it and have an interesting take in The New Republic, on The Green Bubble.

Green anti-modernism brings with it other contradictions. Despite the rhetoric about “one planet,” not all humans have the same interests when it comes to addressing global warming. Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world's poor; they neglect to mention that the poor also have the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous. They are already subject to the droughts, floods, hurricanes, and diseases that future warming will intensify. It is their poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them more vulnerable than the rest of us. By contrast, it is the richest humans–those of us who have achieved comfort, prosperity, and economic security for ourselves and for our children–who have the most to lose from the kind of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios that have so often been invoked in recent years. The existential threat so many of us fear is that we might all end up in a kind of global Somalia characterized by failed states, resource scarcity, and chaos. It is more than a little ironic that at the heart of the anti-modern green discourse resides the fear of losing our modernity.

Nonetheless, it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development–never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty. The convenient and ancient view among elites that the poor are actually spiritually rich, and the exaggeration of insignificant gestures like recycling and buying new lightbulbs, are both motivated by the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneously believing that not all seven billion humans on earth can “live like we live” and, consciously or unconsciously, knowing that we are unwilling to give up our high standard of living. This is the split “between what you think and what you do” to which Pollan refers, and it should, perhaps, come as no surprise that so many educated liberals, living at the upper end of a social hierarchy that was becoming ever more stratified, should find the remedies that Pollan and Beavan offer so compelling. But, while planting a backyard garden may help heal the eco-anxieties of affluent greens, it will do little to heal the planet or resolve the larger social contradictions that it purports to address.

Certainly the traditonal Green Lobby has failed to put any iron in the spines of Congressional Democrats as the carbon cap-and-trade bill gets the death of a thousand cuts treatment in committee.  Each Congressman it seems is lining up to get a bit or preferential treatment for this or that state polluter or contributor.  

But the main point here is that we really are still completely in denial.  There is no technical fix for what we've done over the last hundred years that allows us to maintain the status quo in the United States.  Our entire culture and society is built on a central premise that is a lie: that huge amounts of energy will be plentiful and cheap forever.  

There is just no way 700 million people (The US and Europe) are going to tell 6.2 billion people that their aspirations to have what the 700 million have is impossible.  That they cannot have clean water, ubiquitous and reliable electricity and Internet, good health care, education, a decent job, a house, a TV and maybe a car.  But we manifestly don't have the resources to support 7 billion people at that level.  Something has to give.

As much as it grieves me to say it, fuck the polar bears.  They are goners.  Their genome will live on in laboratories and zoos.  Perhaps in a thousand years or so, our descendants may be able to reintroduce them into the wild on polar nature preserves.  But other than that they are screwed.  We need to save ourselves.  

Figuring out a way to a completely new and long-term sustainable way of living that allows maximum life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for 7 billion people is the real challenge of the Environmental Movement.  It will require changes to the American Way of Life.  Get used to it.


from the cman blog

  • why don't you think

    that wind, solar and other forms of clean energy can meet the needs of the developing world? If we subsidized them aggressively, the way coal and oil have been subsidized, they are potentially inexhaustible resources. It makes a lot more sense than getting every rural village in the world on the grid.

    And how does giving up on the polar bear allow us to meet the developing world’s needs better? Global warming is going to screw up a lot of developing countries in terms of drought, severe weather, etc.

    The Waxman/Markey bill has been destroyed by amendment, I totally agree with you there. At this point I am not even sure I support its passage.

    If the American way of life needs to change, I am not clear on why you feel it’s primarily the environmental movement’s job to sell that to the public. The people with the real political power are the ones who should step up and lead, but they don’t because corporate interests have too much influence. We don’t have a leader like FDR who is willing to be hated by corporate America and able to drag Congress along if necessary.

  • I do think...

    That those forms of energy can meet the needs of the developing world.  The problem is that they can’t afford them themselves (i.e. see China).  It is cheaper and easier to use indigenous skills and knowledge to bootstrap a third world nation with traditional e.g. coal and petroleum technology than to try to leapfrog.  China is now forced by its own pending environmental apocalypse to begin a crash program to green its economy.  But this is after 30 years of unprecedented economic and social transformation with a dirty infrastructure.  They not only have to build new green to maintain growth, they also have to replace the dirty infrastructure too.  There is just no way to do this again in India AND Africa when their turn comes.

    The First World has to subsidize that leapfrog effort.  The analogy I think I’m looking for here are two drowning people.  One is a strong swimmer (the First World) and also has a life preserver.  The second can’t swim at all.  The first person has to give up their “safety net” and give it to the second person before she grabs on and drags them both under.

    But right now, we don’t even have the will to begin to transform our own energy and social infrastructure.  So, developing nations see us as just totally hypocritical on this issue.  We have to lead from the front.

    As to your second point, someone needs to start getting the American public to change their attitudes and priorities on this matter in order to begin to push for serious change from below.  I’m in total agreement that the current leadership is not up to the task.  It is the role of us as political activists to keep pushing but also of the organizations that make this their raison d’etre to lend support.

    It’s not just about policy initiatives though.  It is about attitudinal change. Our psychology of how our country is set up and what sorts of lifestyle “rights” are ordained by our creator are pretty messed up and are not compatible with a sustainable economy or social structure.  The part about the polar bears is simply to get people thinking about those priorities.  For many people who think casually about environmental degradation, the plight of the polar bear and other “charismatic megafauna” is sort of an icon.  We need to get past that.  As I said, the polar bear’s fate is pretty much sealed at this point.  We need to focus on the fate of homo sapiens sapiens

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