Tuesday, February 22, 2005

My Beef With Environmentalists

Alright, I don't have a lot of time for people who construct strawmen of the "environmentalist" movement that portray us all as granola-crunching, commune-living, winter cyclists. So I'd like to say from the outset that what follows is meant to apply only to the examples cited, and not the environmental movement at large.

What the hell is wrong with us, though? I picked up the most recent Adbusters, and in between a passionate defense of Yasser Arafat and a condemnation of Wal-Mart (surprise!), there was this short piece about this couple living in Germany (I think) who owned their own farm, tilled their own land, grew their own food, etc etc, essentially holding this up as the model of sustainable living.

I can't think of a worse message for us to send, really. First off, there's nothing positive to this vision - it's all regressive. Never mind that most people would never want to have a farmer's life, given the choice - look at the depopulation of rural North America, for example. This vision is eminently impractical - for every person to be given their own organic farm, tilled by horse or oxen - like this farm in Adbusters was - would mean either several more planet Earths or several billion dead. The ironic thing is that this is exactly the critique of the current economic system usually levelled by environmentalists. Well, that cuts both ways.

Similarly, around Christmas I was walking through Chapters when I picked up this book Powerdown, in which the author advocates a number of policies for dealing with the coming oil shortages. Which country does the author suggest is worth of emulation? That bastion of civlization, Cuba. The author's example of a sustainable lifestyle? The Quakers.

Now, more than anything else these are PR mistakes. That doesn't make them unimportant. We need positive, progressive views of the future that we can sell the public on, not half-baked ideas about everyone living on organic communes. That mean not tying environmentalism to whacked-out social movements or unnecessary political debates. Could someone please tell me what sustainable development and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle have in common?

In previous posts, I've tried to explore what a positive, technological future would look like. I recently discovered that I seem to be channelling Freeman Dyson, who has called for a return to village culture. It's a nice vision - which I share - but it's important that these dreams be goals, not mandates from on high. If we in the environmental movement come off as Moses on Sinai, people will either ignore us entirely, or listen to us until we end up being wrong (which, inevitably, we will be) and then ignore us entirely.

Fortunately, neither Adbusters nor Powerdown have nearly the clout that a more reasonable group like the Rocky Mountain Institute has. If you haven't read Natural Capitalism, you really should.

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