In the Fall, I walked with my son’s Kindergarten class and other parents to our local farmers market in Brooklyn. The kids had their list of items they had to find and identify (fruits, vegetables, flowers), I scored some delicious apple cider donuts, and a grand time was had by all on a blustery, sunny day.
Yes, there’s something a bit quaint about urban farmers markets, but who doesn’t enjoy their bountiful offerings? Just the act of browsing the outdoor stalls filled with fresh produce and home-baked pies makes me glow with eco-vibes. You know what I mean. You walk around there with your hemp-made grocery bag, stuffing it with all those greens and goodies from small puckish farms in the country and you feel like you’re doing your part to make the world a better place.
But what if that’s just a comforting illusion? What if this world of leafy farmers markets and the feel-good spirit of localism they evoke is about as real as a Normal Rockwell painting? (“I paint life as I would like it to be,” the iconic artist once said.) What if the whole locavore movement was built on a lie? Read More
As Reuters puts it:
If the environmental movement has a high holiday, Earth Day is it.
After four decades, the annual celebration of good deeds and eco-awareness in the United States is as meaningful to environmentalists as St. Patrick’s day is to the Irish. Both annual events are green and festive. One is a sanctioned feel-good orgy of sanctimony and sacrifice, the other is a sanctioned feel-good orgy of alcohol and excess. Both events have become nearly impossible to parody. Read More
One of the first and best critiques I read of contemporary environmentalism appeared in a well known progressive magazine. The author took the green movement to task for its romanticization of nature and “its deep suspicion of all things technological.” He also criticized environmentalism’s demonization of biotechnology and the “crusade” waged against it, which he said was built on “a tangle of misperceptions, flaws, and half-truths.”
This essay was published in the Sept/Oct 1996 issue of Mother Jones magazine. What’s fascinating about the piece is 1) how far ahead of its time it was, and 2) how much of its critique remains just as relevant today.
The author, Walter Truett Anderson, challenged the same green dogma in 1996 that today’s eco-critics, such as Mark Lynas and Emma Marris, have been poking a stick at. It’s amazing to consider how little the green movement has progressed since then. Naturally, greens were as allergic to self-reflection in the mid-1990s as they are today. Read the responses in the letters page from some of the representative voices of environmentalism (at the time).
When Anderson’s piece was published in the mid-199os, he seemed to anticipate the Anthropocene, or least aspects of it that eco-pragmatists have tried to highlight:
The world is changing very quickly, and we desperately need a vision that engages this new world honestly and creatively, with daring and hope and perhaps even a touch of optimism…The world is becoming more densely populated, not less; more urbanized, not less; more technological, not less. Most important of all, human beings are exerting ever more — not less — power in nature, having a greater impact on ecosystems. This is our world, and this is our work.
And this is where we live. Do we still need Mother Nature to help us find our way?
Two films and speakers about genetically engineered seeds; the history & future of farming; and why leading scientists think GMOs threaten human health and sustainabile food production systems.
I really wanted to attend this, so I could learn who those leadings scientists were. But I had tickets to a Rangers game that night. Also, I’m not sure I would have had the stomach to sit through a double feature on GMO paranoia and misinformation, especially with one of the movies being Jeffrey Smith’s Genetic Roulette. It’s pretty amazing that someone as disreputable as Smith has been legitimized by popular talk show hosts and celebrity environmentalists like David Suzuki and Jane Goodall.
Goodall, as you probably have heard, is under fire for apparently plagiarizing portions of her new book, Seeds of Hope (which has now been postponed). For science-based fans of Goodall, the news gets worse. Michael Moynihan points out in the Daily Beast:
One of the more troubling aspects of Seeds of Hope is Goodall’s embrace of dubious science on genetically modified organisms (GMO). On the website of the Jane Goodall Foundation, readers are told—correctly—that “there isscientific consensus” that climate change is being driven by human activity. But Goodall has little time for scientific consensus on the issue of GMO crops, dedicating the book to those who “dare speak out” against scientific consensus. Indeed, her chapter on the subject is riddled with unsupportable claims backed by dubious studies.
Many of the claims in Seeds of Hope can also be found in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, a book by “consumer advocate” Jeffrey Smith. Goodall generously blurbed the book (“If you care about your health and that of your children, buy this book, become aware of the potential problems, and take action”) and in Seeds of Hope cites a “study” on GMO conducted by Smith’s “think tank,” the Institute for Responsible Technology.
Like Goodall, Smith isn’t a genetic scientist. According to New Yorker writer Michael Specter, he “has no experience in genetics or agriculture, and has no scientific degree from any institution” but did study “business at the Maharishi International University, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.”
With that background and his blatant GMO nuttiness, Smith is easy to ridicule. But what does it say about people like Goodall who endorse such a charlatan? What does it say about a highly regarded environmental educational center that promotes Smith as a credible source on genetically modified foods?
Mark Hoofnagle is unsparing in what he thinks it says:
It makes environmentalists look like idiots, as it distracts from actual threats to the environment with invented threats and irrational fears of biotech…I’m irritated with the anti-GMO movement because it’s an embarrassment. It’s Luddism, and ignorance masquerading as environmentalism. It’s bad biology. It’s the progressive equivalent of creationism or global warming denial. It’s classic anti-science, and we shouldn’t tolerate it.
Ah, but most greens and foodies not only tolerate anti-GMO craziness, they wink at it. Why is that?
My favorite environmental heretic continues to be in the news. Earlier this month, the best profile of him yet appeared in the Observer. This week, Macleans publishes an interview with Mark Lynas, the UK environmental writer who is doing more than anyone these days to challenge greens on their ideological resistance to biotechnology.
Here’s an exchange that caught my eye: Read More
Once upon a time, long before a recent wave of ideological zealotry drove the Republican party to cleanse itself of moderates, appeals for GOP comity were often couched in Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment:
Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican
In liberal and environmental circles, a similar dictate seems to now hold, with respect to those who are perceived as tireless defenders of nature and champions of social justice. If someone meets that criteria and is also credited with taking on evil, greedy corporations, a one-dimensional portrait of the hero is often painted by admiring media. This is the case with Vandana Shiva, the internationally famous activist and author. Her deified status is such that I can’t imagine any of my colleagues working at progressive media outlets ever speaking ill of her. Besides, to do so would only undermine her message–her larger cause to save the earth from profit-hungry plunderers. That is likely the rationale of those who might not buy into everything she says. But I doubt that most progressive or eco-minded writers are even inclined to be skeptical of Shiva. She is the green world’s Mother Teresa. Read More
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. Read More
As a child of the suburbs, my first real contact with raw nature was in 5th grade, when a friend and I built a treehouse in the woods behind the apartment complex we lived in. (This was a two-year pit stop after my parent’s divorce.) No adults helped us. It was pretty awesome.
I used to roam around a lot in these overgrown woods and soon found a shortcut to the nearest 7/11 (total travel time: 20 minutes), where I picked up baseball cards and the latest Jonah Hex and and Swamp Thing comic books. Being a latch-key kid had its upsides.
I don’t recall ever stopping to smell the proverbial roses in my newly discovered jungle, but I do remember pulling plenty of thorns and ticks off myself in the summertime. (This was pre-Lymes disease.) During this period of my life–and like a lot of non-city kids in the days before every hour of children’s lives were scheduled–nature was somewhere I played and escaped to.
In high school, my 10th grade english teacher introduced the class to Emerson and Thoreau. I was smitten. Nature took on a whole new meaning for me. I didn’t know about ecology yet, so Emerson and Thoreau served as my intellectual guides to an eco-philosophical world that I found intoxicating. Some years later, when I discovered John Muir and and Edward Abbey, my stoic romanticism (so precious for a well-off suburbanite) evolved into a lusty affair with wilderness. While my ensuing dalliances with nature in national parks and forests were enjoyable (and still are), they never developed into a religiosity that others came to embrace.
Eventually, I learned enough environmental science and environmental history to recognize that I had fallen victim to what I would call ecologies of the mind–modes of thought that are culturally and socially constructed. Read More
Bill Moyers has asked an array of luminaries to play speechwriter for tonight’s State of the Union Address. Everybody has their own pet cause or issue, of course. So here’s what Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva wishes President Obama might say (my emphasis):
For the sake of the Earth, our family farms and our children’s health, we must send a signal across America and the world that organic is the future. Every child must have access to healthy and safe food. We’ve started an organic garden at the White House, and I will work to create a system to ensure that healthy and safe food is a reality worldwide.
I have realized that neither genetic modification nor chemicals help to produce more food. Gardens and small ecological farms are the basis of food security. Currently, 90 percent of all food commodities grown become biofuel or animal feed; this is a crime when 1 billion people go hungry. So I will work on a transitional plan for phasing out subsidies to a wasteful and unjust agriculture system.
I had promised in my first election campaign that I would ensure that genetically-modified foods be labeled as such. I apologize to my fellow citizens and to citizens of the world that I did not keep my promise. The right to know what you are eating is fundamental to any democracy.
Vandana Shiva has long been treated by environmentalists—and far too many environmental writers–as a font of green wisdom. She’s got an eco-schtick that many otherwise smart people find irresistible. Read More
It’s not often that an aging social movement gets a chance to redefine and reinvigorate itself. Environmentalism has that opportunity now, with the Anthropocene, which National Geographic has dubbed, The Age of Man. What does that mean? As I recently wrote in Slate, the Anthropocene represents a
growing scientific consensus that the contemporary human footprint—our cities, suburban sprawl, dams, agriculture, greenhouse gases, etc.—has so massively transformed the planet as to usher in a new geological epoch.
This sounds like The Age of Man is bad for humanity and the earth. But that’s too simplistic. As The Economist noted in its 2011 cover story:
The advent of the Anthropocene promises more, though, than a scientific nicety or a new way of grabbing the eco-jaded public’s attention. The term “paradigm shift” is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real.
The question is, what would this new paradigm shift signify? Might it offer a fresh new lens to view the future? Or will it merely reinforce the bleak view that environmentalists have held for the past 40 years?
The answer to that rides on the narrative that emerges from the public discourse on the Anthropocene. Read More