Thursday, May 17, 2012

Are you an environmentalist?

The bandying about of labels has always made me cringe, in my Facebook profile, under political affiliation, I put down: "Contrarian." But there are a few labels I do not have a problem adding to my list of credentials. For example, I always considered myself an environmentalist inasmuch as I believe (as I mentioned a few posts back), that the protection of the environment not only makes common sense, but is also a moral obligation. In other words, I believe we have no right to sit back and watch as one species after another becomes extinct, if we can do something about it. And I believe that the preservation of the environment merits its own consideration, regardless of whether or not it directly benefits humanity.

Given all that, one would think an article titled provocatively: "Don't Call Me an Environmentalist" would fly in the face of my core beliefs on the subject. It does not, it is in fact one of the most insightful pieces I've read on the subject in a long time. Its author, Lisa Curtis, a self described young, liberal idealist, who works for a solar energy company, has distanced herself from the old ideals of the environmental movement that lived and died with the notion that the best way to help the earth was by changing legislation that would regulate all the evils that contribute to the degradation of the earth's environment. She also decries the idea that the needs of Planet Earth can somehow be separated from the needs of human beings.

Here's her money quote:

In the 21st century, with 7 billion people to clothe, feed, and shelter, there’s little environment left that we haven’t altered. We’re changing the natural world and we will continue to do so. When the tradeoff is between survival and preserving the pristine, survival will always prevail.

This is a very controversial stance to take among environmentalists, especially those who see people as the problem rather than the solution. The most strident of these "Green" activists believe that the earth would have been better off had the species Homo sapiens never existed.

Perhaps they're right, but "better off" in this case is a value judgment, sprinkled with a little fairy dust, making the struggles of maintaining a pristine environment (that is, untouched by human hands), have little more substance than a Disney movie.

Subtracting human beings from the equation of nature is preposterous, we are just as much a part of nature as the Whooping Crane or the Southern Corroboree Frog, regardless of the fact that our impact, not to mention our numbers, are much different.

Curtis says, in not so many words, that it's easy and convenient for those of us who live in a cocoon of relative prosperity, to demand laws mandating change on environmental policy, when those changes have little adverse effect on our own livelihoods. She once worked for the Peace Corps in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, and witnessed first hand the daily struggle for survival among the people. She found that practical solutions to everyday problems could be found even in such desperate conditions that would benefit both the environment and the people. In her words:

The women in my village loved getting more efficient cook stoves, not because they saved trees but because they saved hours spent collecting wood.

Curtis argues that the new environmentalism should put the practical and economic benefits of Green technologies into the forefront, and I agree.

You can see from the comment section of her blog post which was later published by Grist, that Curtis set off a firestorm of criticism, most of it directed at her lack of understanding the true motives and directions of the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies. They say she doesn't realize that sustainability was as much a part of that movement as the rhetorical flourishes. Fair enough, anybody remember the Whole Earth Catalog? The environmental movement set into motion the world wide concern for Planet Earth, and its health and its future. It deserves nothing but the highest praise. But we can't keep living in the slogans and the rhetoric of the past if our concern is to make our planet healthier place to live.

Given the current ideological standoff both in government and in the body politic, no one on the pro-environment side is going to get very far with the augment that we need to take care of the environment simply for its own sake, even if it is the right thing to do. This is especially true in difficult economic times. It's like a religious person trying to convince nonbeliever by quoting the Bible; that is to say, speaking a language that the other side either doesn't understand or accept. In that respect the Greenies may as well be speaking ancient Hittite.  

Lisa Curtis is right, if we truly care about our planet, we need to get everyone on board.

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