One of the biggest challenges in the sustainability arena is finding a balance between economic development and environmental protection. There is a good argument to be made that we are today paralyzed by two legacies: 1) the unfettered development legacy that helped build the bridges, dams, highways, cities and suburbs of the United States and, 2) in response to that, the regulatory legacy spawned at the height of the environmental movement in the 1970s. Read More
In the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection, there was much media discussion of the GOP’s ever-shrinking demographic base. As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out, with the aid of an astonishing chart:
That only 11 percent of Republicans’ total vote came from non-whites tells you everything you need to know about the large-scale demographic challenges that Republicans must confront. (The fact that 44 percent of all Democratic votes came from non-whites paints the Republican challenge in even starker terms.)
How and why this has come to be I’ll leave to the political pundits. Suffice to say, if Republicans don’t find a way to connect with (or not scare off) Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans, they are doomed to irrelevance.
The same might be said for the environmental movement, argues a recent story in Politico titled, “Greens confront own need for diversity.” The whiteness of environmentalism (along with the perception that it serves mostly a white, upper middle class constituency) has long been a nagging issue that the big national green groups have been unable to fix–beyond cosmetics.
This is a major concern that broadly extends to science, as well. Read More
George Monbiot is a terrific green Scrooge. Last week, the UK’s most popular and widely read environmental writer penned a cheery new column titled, “The Kiss of Death.” (The headline in the Guardian version is not quite so black.) In it, he rails against the culture of consumerism and advises people to stop buying (for their loved ones) the usual array of made-for-landfill Christmas toys and to instead:
Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.
The sanctimony of some greens is truly a renewable source. It never seems to run out. I say that as somewhat of a Monbiot fan. He’s got his head screwed on straight when it comes to the nuclear power issue, but man is he a downer, too.
Earlier in the year, after Monbiot realized that Peak Oil was no longer just around the corner, he got himself worked up into a tizzy:
There is enough oil in the ground to deepfry the lot of us, and no obvious means by which we might prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground…Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.
George, I know what you can do to make yourself feel better: Bake a cake, write a poem, give your children a kiss, but for god’s sake, stop the preachy moralizing. All it shows is that you’re holier-than-thou.
Last week, my Slate piece on environmentalism was read by many people who care (and write) about green issues. Some (okay, many of them) didn’t particularly like what I wrote. I felt the rumblings on Twitter and elsewhere. And I had planned on responding, but then the horrific tragedy on Friday happened, and I just didn’t have it in me to wade back into the nitty gritty of eco-narratives that still dominate our discourse.
I still plan on responding in full to the main rebuttals. Look for that in this space near the end of the week.
Meanwhile, I see that Bryan Walsh of Time magazine has just published a really thoughtful take on my piece. Which doesn’t surprise me, because it was Walsh’s thoughts on Twitter last week (in reaction to the essay) that got me thinking the most. He articulated implications of my argument that I hadn’t addressed (or much considered) and I’ve been brooding over them since.
In his Time piece, Walsh talks about the refreshing new strain of environmentalism modern greens have created. But he also wonders about the tradeoffs that come with eco-pragmatism. Go read his piece.
I’m pretty sure I’ll have it in the back of my mind today, as I wander around the American Museum of Natural History with my 8 year old son and his classmates during a school field trip. His class is currently learning about ecology, so we’ll be looking at exhibits on ecosystems and biodiversity.
In a perfect world, people would not let their ideology warp their thinking. In a perfect world, people would not use screechy hyperbole to fulminate against those who don’t share their position on a given issue.
In a perfect world, James Delingpole, the flammable blogger for the UK’s Telegraph, would only be permitted to shriek about which brand of toilet paper he prefers.
Delingpole, if you aren’t familiar with him, is to libertarian conservatives in Britain what Michael Moore is to liberals in the United States. Both are shameless, crusading showmen. (In terms of influence, though, Moore–because of his movies–has had a much bigger impact). Both are nakedly partisan and as such, appeal to the most partisan members of their respective camps.
Delingpole’s incendiary, vitriolic writing entertains his fans and further polarizes the discourse on important issues, such as climate change. (He also revels in the revulsion he elicits.) Like most ideologues, he doesn’t recognize when he is being intellectually inconsistent.
For example, here’s the headline of a recent post of his:
On the stupid Lefty Luddites, green ideologues, and Guardianista pillocks opposing our glorious shale revolution…
You might gather from this that Delingpole is pro-shale gas and disdainful of arguments made against fracking. And you would be right.
As it happens, I think that anti-fracking campaigners are a bit reckless with their facts and prone to exaggeration. Kinda like anti-wind campaigners. Indeed, if there’s one thing that unites both of these antis, it is the use of dodgy science and alarmist rhetoric to advance their respective causes.
Not that Delingpole, an outspoken opponent of wind turbines (he calls them “bat-chomping eco-crucifixes”) and the author of this ridiculously overwrought, scare-mongering piece of propaganda in the Daily Mail, would recognize that.
Discover magazine readers familiar with my byline know that I tackle science-related issues that are often controversial and that sometimes my take hits a nerve.
For example, in recent months I’ve written a few pieces for Slate on genetically modified foods (see here and here) that got a fair amount of play (at least in the enviro/science sphere). This week, I published another piece at Slate that generated some waves on the internet. It’s called, “The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement.”
Reaction to it has been strong and varied and has kept my twitter feed busy. Many seem to think the piece is a breath of fresh air, others have at least found it interesting, but many also have been greatly angered by it.
On Monday, I will be discussing the diverse responses to my piece and addressing the main criticisms leveled against it. Until then, have a read and let me know what you think.
Earlier this year, you might recall a pair of essays I wrote challenging green dogma. They were published at Discover’s website. The first was called “The Limits to Environmentalism” and the second, “Is Environmentalism anti-science?” This is a theme I’ve explored at Collide-a-Scape which, as one conservative reader has noticed, “provokes less than friendly responses from the environmentally correct.”
More recently, I’ve focused on how the GMO issue is covered in liberal media precincts and discussed by foodies and greens. That has been a lonely, thankless task. I know Chris Mooney thinks liberals are more open to new information than conservatives. That has not been my experience.
Anyway, Fred Pearce has now picked up on some of the same arguments I’ve been making in an essay titled, “Why Are Environmentalists Taking Anti-Science Positions?” He writes that enviros
have been making claims that simply do not stand up. We are accused of being anti-science “” and not without reason. A few, even close friends, have begun to compare this casual contempt for science with the tactics of climate contrarians.
That should hurt.
Oh, I think it has. The response to my Slate piece suggests that it hit a nerve.
Pearce’s essay may sting even more, given where it’s published and his standing in the environmental journalism community. More importantly, Pearce joins a brigade of prominent, refreshing voices, such as Andy Revkin, Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, and Emma Marris, who also are challenging entrenched, dogmatic positions in the green movement.
We may soon be at a tipping point, where greens are forced to honestly reexamine some of the dominant worldviews that have shaped environmentalism over the past 40 years. That will be painful for them, but such a reappraisal is long overdue.
Environmentalism, as a social movement, has atrophied. At the national level in the United States, it’s become reflexively oppositional, a marginal political force, and subject (with good reason) to caricature. This is because it remains wedded to an outdated paradigm, as I’ve previously discussed here.
Despite its long history of anti-pollution advocacy, which has helped lead to cleaner air and water, environmentalism is a nature-centric movement. It is popularly associated with polar bears, old growth forests, ecology. Thus the impression, in many minds, that tree-hugging environmentalists put the concerns of wildlife and nature above those of humans. That is one of the biggest reasons why the movement’s constituency remains narrow.
So for environmentalism to really capture the hearts and minds of people, and to expand its demographic, what will it take?
More stories like this:
Park by park a patchwork of green spaces has been taking shape, the consequence of decades of grinding, grass-roots, community-driven efforts. For the environmentalists, educators, politicians, architects and landscape designers involved, the idea has not just been to revitalize a befouled waterway and create new public spaces. It has been to invest Bronx residents, for generations alienated from the water, in the beauty and upkeep of their local river.
Also, coalitions that bring disparate interests together, such as this one, will perhaps demonstrate that conservation and development need not be mutually exclusive. For the sake of the planet and the future of environmentalism, I hope so.
“I think the expectation that there is one document or one approach that can solve one of the major questions of our time “” how do you maintain economic growth and protect the environment? “” there’s not one paper that can do that,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones.
Going forward, if greens are going to play a meaningful role in debates and policies that address global environmental problems, then they are going to have to take this question seriously (instead of dismissing it), and come to terms with economic growth. Many eco-minded commentators vaguely blamed the world’s governments for the failure of Rio +20, but that’s a gross oversimplification. For as Jeff Tollefson reported in Nature:
Throughout the meeting, the developing countries that make up the Group of 77 negotiating bloc (G77) objected to language that they felt might constrain their ability to grow and lift citizens out of poverty. In one case, the G77, along with the United States, blocked a European proposal to acknowledge the existence of global environmental thresholds that should not be surpassed. Such “˜planetary boundaries’ could include levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and acidification of the oceans. Developing countries also fought against commitments to pursue a green economy unless they were phrased in the context of economic and social development. For such nations, “inclusive growth and a rapid increase in per capita income levels are development imperatives”, declared Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his conference address.
You would never guess that such a development/environment gap existed if you read this hyperbolic essay by George Monbiot, which starts off:
It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations ““ the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia ““ could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth“, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.
The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it.
This narrow, earth-centric mindset, combined with a hostility to economic growth, is marginalizing environmentalism. When I touched on that in this piece, some critics complained I was painting with a broad brush. I disagreed. In fact, the notion that economic growth can be compatible with environmental protection is, if anything, scorned by prominent figures in the environmental movement. In a recent interview (do listen to the whole thing), Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich flatly said:
Growth is the disease, not the cure.
In the aftermath of Rio +20 , angry environmental groups and NGOs signed a petition called, “The Future We Don’t Want.” What they have failed to come to grips with is that there is a future that won’t be denied.
As I mentioned yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on environmentalism. The event centered on Roger Scruton’s new book, “How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.” (My fellow panelists included Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University and Kenneth Greene, an AEI resident scholar, who has posted his comments.)
I’m traveling today, so I don’t have time to gather my thoughts on the event or delve into the book (will return to it in a few days). But meanwhile, AEI’s Steven Hayward captured its theme well, when he said
it is difficult to summarize [Scuton's] book in a short blog post, beyond saying that he believes we should rest our environmentalism on “oikophilia,” love of place””meaning, our local places. In other words, instead of “Think Globally, Act Locally,” as the bumper sticker slogan goes, Scruton argues we should think locally, too.
I’ll just briefly add that the book scrambles my conceptions of “conservative.” That’s probably because my framework is political and U.S.-centric. For example, I don’t see Scruton’s conservationist ethic and concerns for biodiversity expressed in today’s GOP. But that is the subject for another post (it came up during the panel, when Sarewitz asked why, in accordance with the conservative environmental values laid out in Scruton’s book, U.S. Republicans don’t stake out the environment as their own issue).
The danger of categorization–of putting people people in simplistic boxes–was also made apparent to me by this article in today’s Guardian. I’m not that familiar with British politics, but I just assumed that anyone closely identified with environmentalist causes would fit more naturally in the Labour party. But clearly that is not the case:
The influential Tory MP Zac Goldsmith says the intense focus on climate change in the last decade has encouraged politicians and environment groups to drop key green issues like air pollution, biodiversity and food and avoid reform of the economic system.
“Climate change went too far. A lot of stuff slipped off the agenda. The environment became about carbon and not the environment that you can feel and touch and see. Food, biodiversity, air quality all got knocked off. When we talked about forests we talked about them as sticks of carbon.
Jonathon Porritt, former chair of the Ecology party and head of the Sustainable Development Commission, says that Margaret Thatcher and her environment secretary Nicholas Ridley did more than anyone in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda and swell the membership of groups like Friends of the Earth.
In the United States, membership rolls of environmental groups also swelled when Thatcher’s political soul mate across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan, occupied the White House. But it was in response to his perceived anti-environmental policies–and the anti-environmental rhetoric and actions of Republicans in Congress at the time. Since then, the trend has continued: Membership rises in green groups when Republicans are in power.
Today, because of this history (reinforced in recent years by the GOP’s hostility to climate science) but also because of the demagoguery of American greens, Republicans have been tagged as anti-environmental. Subsequently, environmentalism has become closely associated with liberalism and the Democratic party.
But in the UK, green issues don’t seem to be so monolithically associated with one political party and environmentalists are not so easily labeled. Why is this?