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
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.