As someone who tracks environmental discourse in real time, I find it valuable to step back on occasion and look at how public attitudes are shaped. For that, I depend on the work of scholars. One book from 2008 that I’ve only just read explores how several major contemporary environmental themes have been expressed culturally, such as in literature and movies. It’s called Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, by Ursula Heise, a UCLA English professor. (I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Heise several months ago.) In her text, Heise analyzes two conflicting impulses in environmentalism, which are famously summarized in the “think globally, act locally” slogan.
This is a tension that environmentalists haven’t come to grips with yet, especially when we consider the scale of today’s environmental challenges. Averting catastrophic climate change and meeting the energy and food needs of 7 billion people will not be solved by local food markets and rooftop solar panels. There is no going back to the garden to save the world. (Still, I love that song!) And I say that as someone who loves to shop at my local farmers market and believes there is great value in community gardens. But people are fooling themselves if they think localism is a the formula for sustainability.
The contradiction between the global nature of the climate threat and the traditional environmentalist approach to solving it is embodied today by America’s most influential environmentalist. To understand this, to grapple with it, you have to read Matthew Nisbet’s new discussion paper, titled:
Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist
There is some rich discussion on the different types of “knowledge journalists” that shape public debate on environmental issues, but the heart of his paper is devoted to McKibben’s prominent role. What Nisbet does is juxtapose the immensely complex problem of climate change, which McKibben–as activist– has now devoted himself to, with the solutions that McKibben–as public intellectual and writer–has advocated.
So here’s Nisbet on the bedeviling nature of the climate problem:
Instead of a conventional environmental threat like smog or acid rain, climate change is more accurately defined as a “wicked problem.” Such problems are the product of multiple social, ecological, and technological systems, are difficult to define, have no clear solution, and are seemingly intractable, often plagued by chronic policy failures and intense disagreement. As a result, wicked problems like climate change require almost constant risk reduction, conflict management, and political negotiation that seldom bring an “end” or resolution. Like poverty or ethnic and religious conflict, climate change is not something likely to be solved, eliminated or ended, but rather a condition that society will struggle to do better or worse at in managing.
This doesn’t mean raising the white flag. I’m pretty sure Nisbet would be thrilled if the energy produced by fossil fuels could be replaced with a clean green substitute. He’s just realistic about the prospects of that happening anytime soon.
What Nisbet does next–after discussing the different rhetorical styles of several “knowledge journalists,” (such as Andrew Revkin and Thomas Friedman)–is delve into McKibben’s life as a writer and activist. It’s essentially a chronological distillation of McKibben’s philosophy as it developed and was expressed over several decades in his many books and articles. After taking the measure of McKibben’s body of work, Nisbet concludes:
Having spent six months studying McKibben’s books, writing, and career, I hold a deep admiration for his ability to convey the urgency of climate change and to articulate a better approach to life that includes more time for family, reflection and nature. His work as an activist is equally impressive. From his start in 2006 working with a handful of college students to his leadership today of 350.org, McKibben has helped shift the U.S. environmental movement from an almost exclusive focus on insider lobbying, legal strategies, and think tank-style influence to focus greater resources on grassroots organizing and mobilization.
Yet as a public intellectual, McKibben has failed to offer pragmatic and achievable policy ideas. Instead, reflecting his intellectual roots in the deep ecology movement, McKibben’s goal has been to generate a mass consciousness in support of limiting economic growth and consumption, with the hope of shifting the United States towards localized economies, food systems, and “soft” energy sources.
McKibben is certainly in tune with the zeitgeist that he helped create. To what degree is that goal shared in the green community? That may not be an entirely fair question, as even a retro version of “return to local” is arguably a positive means of individual engagement with environmental issues. The danger, it seems, is if McKibben and like-minded greens convince people that getting back-to-the-garden will really change the world this time around.