The Future of Missionary Environmentalism

By Keith Kloor | March 27, 2013 9:25 am

Anyone familiar with environmentalism knows how earnest it is. Saving the planet is serious business, right? Ever watch panels where people are talking about climate change or endangered species? These people don’t joke around, they don’t poke fun at themselves or their cause.

Because it is a righteous cause, and they are righteous people. Environmentalists, like the Blues Brothers, are on a holy mission.

And that’s why environmentalism, like the Catholic church, is a doomed institution. It’s cool that some of the heretics are trying to breathe some sanity and oxygen into the movement, but on my most cynical days I think that effort is doomed, too. Because you can’t reason with self-righteous people who are operating from a position of moral superiority, people with built-in, unassailable assumptions about the purity of Mother Nature and the wickedness of capitalistic marauders who, according to the master eco-narrative, are hell-bent on keeping us enslaved to fossil fuels and a paradigm of endless growth.

In this narrative, either you are on the side of the angels (Mother Nature) or you are on the side of the earth-destroying corporations, the devils in this world, like Monsanto and Exxon. This is a battle between good and evil and it’s no joking matter. Nothing less than the fate of the planet is at stake!

This missionary seriousness, more than any outdated notions of nature and fear of technology, is what ultimately will suck the last breath out of environmentalism. If greens really want to convert people to their cause, they should take Jenny Price’s advice and Stop Saving the Planet. Stanford’s Generation Anthropocene just did a great interview with her.

To my green friends: If Price’s recent essay and the points she makes in the interview don’t wipe the humorless, smug smile off your faces, then you are a lost cause and so is the unfulfilled promise of environmentalism.

UPDATE: I have been made aware of a related 2007 essay by the UK’s George Marshall, who comes at this from the climate change perspective.

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  • Tom Scharf

    Kimosabe, you are so far off the reservation with this post, no environmental scouts are going to be sent out to look for you. They may send a posse looking for your scalp though.

    There is no doubt a little humor could help this group who take themselves just a little too seriously. And believe me, there is plenty of fertile comedy ground to be plowed in the environmental movement if one chose to do so.

    I think the green groups might be able to get some political capital back by doing high visibility local campaigns. Instead of earth hour, clean the litter off the local lake or creek. You get the feeling they spend all their time in meetings in exotic locales, writing endless “shame on you” diatribes in the media, or talking to lawyers and lobbyists. Just like teacher’s unions before them, they are discovering the public’s goodwill toward their cause has limits.

    • Joshua

      lol!

      Yeah, Tom gets that “feeling.”

      Great analysis.

      And yeah – those environmentalist boogeymen are just like teachers. Same same but different. Tom doesn’t “feel” good about either, hence they are practically identical!

      • Howard

        You have a point. We have groups doing that sort of “clean the creek” and “ban plastic bags” stuff in our county all the time. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get people excited about leaking sewage pipes polluting our junior lifeguard beach or the blue-green algae choking our streams and lakes from the ag runoff.

        Also, the more teacher I know, the more I blame parents for education declines.

        • Joshua

          Howard –

          Of course many people calling themselves “environmentalists” do that kind of work all the time.

          As for education – people are looking for all sorts of scapegoats for the problems of our educational system- so they can exploit those problems for political expediency.

          It seems pretty obvious to me that the problems of our system are often largely overstated – but even still, sure there are problems and they are clearly associated with poverty. While focusing on parents is closer to the mark, it is still a bit simplistic. Societal attitudes about education more generally, and educational methodology and pedagogy are also key elements.

          As for the simplistic politically-biased scapegoating of unions – look at teacher unionization rates in Finland and look at their results: Some good places to start in understanding what Finland can help us to understand about education:

          http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/08/schools-we-can-envy/?pagination=false

          http://www.kuow.org/post/education-lessons-finland-pasi-sahlberg

          http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html?c=y&page=1

          • Tom Scharf

            Yes, let’s also look at Chicago. A fine example of what happens when you hand out great pay and great benefits. You get strikes anyway, knee jerk resistance to reform, unsustainable retirement benefits, and some of the worst performing schools in the nation at the highest cost to the public. Way to go unions!

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Well, I have recently seen another enviro missionary strategy.

    “Meet the Germans Having Sex to Save the World” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03/13/meet-the-germans-having-sex-to-save-the-world.html (NSFW)

    Oh wait…maybe that’s different than what you meant.

    • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

      That was … uhhh…. bizarre to say the least!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=678162576 Ce Gzz

    your ignorance on Catholic Church and teaching is bold. But if it suits your article! I’m a biologist in a third world country, and Christian Catholic and I do find the courage in my faith to fight extreme environmentalists who forget that people in this side of earth have different needs and can’t just come here and tell us what to do and how to manage our biodiversity. For decades your environmentalists wanted to push their ideas into us, without caring about what we Catholics do care…HUMANS. Our protected areas have people living in them for centuries. We are not going to kick them out (like US did) to suit their complains. If we can’t guarantee the minimum necessities for all humans, we are going to use (the best we can in accordance to our resources) to achieve this. Green movement is not as innocent as you want to portray it.

  • mtobis

    I really appreciate the link to Price’s essay, which definitely exposes some of the weaknesses of contemporary environmentalist practices and spin. However, I thought it entirely earnest.

    http://planet3.org/2013/03/27/why-environmentalism-looks-goofy-and-awkward/

    I also tried to make a joke just yesterday.

    http://planet3.org/2013/03/26/nasa-clams-up-altogether/

    • Tom Scharf

      MT says:

      “…is that as creatures of a symbolic culture most of the modern educated elite are more capable of seeing the problem than most, but we’re utterly incapable of doing anything about it.”

      I would have never guessed you would have considered yourself with such high esteem. Imagine that. If only the rest of us were as smart as you (or as modern, or as elite), then the world’s problems would be solved. What a bunch of self absorbed BS.

    • Tom C

      mt –
      Ms. Price is in a nascent stage of developing an understanding of economics, something we earnestly hope you will one day begin to understand as well. In the meantime, you serve to illustrate perfectly that the “modern educated elite” is compsed primarily of fools.

    • Howard

      Mike: you and your so-called elite friends are incapable of doing anything about it because you just flap your jaws. There are millions of engineers and scientists working around the world improving the environment. If you want to get something done, get in the game, roll up your sleeves and design economic solutions to pollution control and remediation. IOW, get a real job.

      • mtobis

        Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly my point. Are you surprised that we agree?

        However, people shouldn’t expect to get paid much for some of the most important work. Not everything that needs doing has a business model.

        • Howard

          you got to be kidding me. if there is no business model and accountability, then nothing productive will ever get done. ethanol is the perfect example because no one in charge ever bothered to develop a business model that calculated that it is more environmentally socially destructive than the current petroleum industry.

          are you working on solving real world pollution problems that are efficient enough to be sold on the free market? If not,you are just part of the problem. NB education and utopian pipe dreams don’t count… we still live in a concrete and steel world.

          • mtobis

            Yeah.

            This is why things disappear. There’s no market for monarch butterflies, for instance, so now we don’t have them anymore. There’s no market for refraining from overfishing cod, so now we don’t have cheap codfish anymore. And so on.

            Our descendants would bid a lot of money to talk us out of our current behavior. But they can’t pay us yet. Pity.

          • Howard

            Michael, I’m sure Keith is reading your irrational exaggerations and thinking QED.

      • Joshua

        If only environmentalists had a sense of humor and a lack of sanctimony like Howard….

        Think how much better off we’d be, Keith.

  • Tom C

    I fail to understand the relevance of your gratuitous swipe against the Catholic Church. You realize, of course, that it has been around for two thousand years and seen plenty of enthusiasms such as environmentalism, communism and “new atheism’ come and go.

    • Howard

      It’s easy Tom C. Most environ”mental”ists and their friends are anti religion who view the pope as satan. By including the anti-catholic angle, Keith is throwing the lefties a bone while throwing their buddies under the bus.

  • Jon Claerbout

    Your real problem is not humor. Your real problem is that Monsanto and Exxon put food on the table.

    • Howard

      Correct. Abundance is killing us and we must prevent these corporations from spreading such abundance to the idyllic third world indigenous peoples who live in perfect harmony with nature kicking it old school and dying young .

  • carolannie

    Well this is a pretty silly juvenile entry. Some environmentalists are really boring! They’re no fun! Let’s just join the kewl kids and have fun and forget those old stuffy people! You are committing the fallacy of composition, and doing a huge disservice to the many people who work to make this world a better place, regardless of where they fall on the scale from earnest recycler to Boulderite Nature Conservancy types.

    Just how old are you?

  • Buddy199

    And that’s why environmentalism, like the Catholic church, is a doomed institution.

    ————-

    Keith, I’m surprised you didn’t save this for your Good Friday column. Where to begin…

    For 20 centuries, every Christo-phobe since Nero has been offering the same banal insight. Yet for some reason, they and their everlasting empires are dust while the Church endures as the longest lasting institution in human history. Oh, but this time it will be different. Sure it will.

    As a self-described athiest in America, of course you have the right to continue carrying the tourch in that same embarassingly mistaken tradition, no one begrudges you that. However, I do have a problem with liberals preening in their criticism of the Church or Christians in general, while at the same time never mentioning Islam as the example of “self-righteous people who are operating from a position of moral superiority, people with built-in, unassailable assumptions.”

    Why? Because liberals are cowards. The default position for complaining about religious dogmatism is to slam Christianity because they know they’re not going to need armed guards and the bomb squad at Discover headquarters after doing so. If you want to be a religon critic be an equal opportunity religon critic. Or go suck an Easter Egg.

  • Roger

    Great to see an article with so much charm and humor… Environmentalists can be a little preachy, but I’ll take that over this guy’s bitter ranting any day.

  • RogerSweeny

    The decline of the Catholic Church in the west, and the decline of “fighting faiths” in general, may actually be the reason we have an environmental movement at all. People seem to need something bigger than themselves, something that is somehow sacred, something that sinners defile. Environmentalism provides that. As an added attraction, you can hate and feel superior to the sinners. A lot of people get off on that.

  • aircastle99

    Yep, humorless. I attended a few green expos. At one, they were cooking hamburgers with Hydrogen. I asked if they considered calling them “Hindenburgers”. I was completely ignored…At another, I made a sign for a solar water heater that said “nuclear powered” and got lots of flack. Even when I explained it was a fusion reactor, it was safe, we would die without it, and it was 93 million miles away (you know – THE SUN!).

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      ROFL: hindenburgers. Seriously, I can’t stop laughing. This also explains why I don’t seem to fit in with green groups, I guess.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

    This is a battle between good and evil and it’s no joking matter
    I disagree.

    Your environmental heretic breathing sanity and oxygen into the missionary movement is a joking matter.
    I am picturing him cross selling Viagra & Prozac on TV. Mark Lynus: ” a guy who is ready to go and doesn’t really care where”

  • David Young

    Keithe, A great piece. One can see this syndrome in full bloom in the history of Al Gore’s venture into global warming. At first hailed as a hero, then the gradual realization of the self-rightousness and the errors in the movie. Then total loss of faith after Al sold out to an evil oil funded TV network. And now Gore is reduced to offering a web site where those with no special knowledge can find sound bites to paste on blog comments such as here.

  • Felipe

    You’re unnecessary swipe against the Catholic church was quite self-righteous. This negates the impact of your article since you act in the same manner as the group that you are trying to discredit.

    • MandoZink

      Oddly, I failed to notice the insinuation, possibly since I grew up Catholic and also see the church as too out of touch to survive for long. Regardless, I do think the author is wrong about environmentalists, as the ones I know are not overly missionary about it . Most are just very aware and making sure they raise their children to also recognize the importance of our planet as a home to keep clean.

  • http://twitter.com/BarryJWoods Barry Woods

    take a read of a much earlier George Marshall article (2001), and notice the imagery (catastrophe, holocaust connection/denial, NOT what you think, everyone as in denial (like the jews were) with respect to the catastrophe that was to fall on them, or to come)

    http://www.ecoglobe.ch/motivation/e/clim2922.htm

    George was the first I think to put sceptics in a Deniers hall of shame at the organisation he founded Rising tide (2001/2002).

    current version (post web-reorg)
    http://risingtide.org.uk/content/hall-shame

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I was able to listen to the Price interview last night. It is an interesting perspective. I would love to see Jon Stewart point at the enviro issues the way he aims at other things–effectively shredding the facade to get to the core. Her blog post about the “green hit man” did crack me up. All I could think about was the celebration of Syria banning GMOs. Yeah–that’s how to keep Syrians safe….duh…

    I’m left with the same vibe I get from Dan Kahan though–here’s how we shouldn’t talk about this or that. But I don’t get a good handle on how to change the direction of the chatter. That river is flowing with polluted discourse (Kahan) or uber-virtue (Price). We can’t reboot, we have to deal with it where it is.

  • harrywr2

    Sorry Keith,

    Neither the Catholic Church or Missionary Environmentalism is doomed.

    A substantial number of our fellow human beings crave more purpose and meaning in life then finding enough cash to support a lifestyle composed mainly of wine,woman and song or the more modern sex,drugs and rock and roll.

    Saving things that either don’t want saving or don’t need saving always has been and always will be a major past time of those who crave more purpose and meaning from life.

    We should be thankful that we have libertarians that spend all their time attempting to save us from all the other self appointed saviors.

  • stepaside

    Wow, I usually find your blog interesting but this made me roll my eyes. Talk about smug – did you even read what you wrote? You come across as so intolerably smug and humorless yourself that the lack of self awareness is astounding.

    There is also basically no content to this post besides 1. punching down at people 2. link to a better post by someone who is not you 3. patting yourself on the back for not being like those ca-raaaaaazyy hippie greens!!!!

    Wake up and take a look around. There are a lot of annoying people in the environmental movement, but there are a lot of great people as well.You’re projecting a lot. This also made me laugh:

    “…capitalistic marauders who, according to the master eco-narrative, are
    hell-bent on keeping us enslaved to fossil fuels and a paradigm of
    endless growth.”

    I know you worded it in a ridiculous way, but is it not true? Corporations DO want to maintain the status quo, and they don’t want to sacrifice any money for the health of human beings and the planet. The vast majority of the public puts economic growth above all else and does want endless growth. This isn’t exactly a controversial idea. It’s true that communicators tend to put an emotional spin on it (your exaggerated tone in that quote) but that’s what communicators DO. That’s their job. They are aiming to make people feel something and then act, because the cold facts obviously don’t have as strong of an impact. I don’t necessarily think that the way it’s done is appropriate – but I also don’t think the way you’ve addressed it in this post is effective.

    I usually like your blog for its open mindedness. I also am annoyed when environmental advocates are tech phobic and rail against GMOs with no scientific evidence. But I think in this post you’re engaging in the EXACT thing you’re accusing greens of.

    You seem soooo satisfied with yourself for being contrarian and different it makes me kind of sad for you. This post left a bad taste in my mouth. I feel like your posts have been getting more and more bitter. Why not take a step back and focus on what made this blog great? Insightful, unique observations. Not congratulating yourself and teasing people who are already shit upon by the general public.

    • Howard

      American corporations clean and protect the environment more than any other category of enterprise. But you are correct, they don’t do it for altruistic reasons, rather to comply with or profit from regulation.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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