The Crux of the Matter

Some of my (admittedly purely hypothetical) readers may have noted that for someone who’s ostensibly an environmentalist, I spend a lot of time complaining about environmentalists.  This is a fair criticism- most of my content has focused on the flaws (as I perceive them) in a lot of environmental thought at the moment.  Why do I do it, especially if it may end up hurting my “own” side?  Well, partially because there isn’t a whole lot of this kind of critiquing coming from within the movement itself (most of the criticism comes from, instead, right-wing commentators, who usually have an axe to grind a priori).

But also I do it because there are major themes in the environmentalist/ecology/sustainability movement that are not only holding it back, but could be detrimental if allowed to reach their logical conclusion.  I feel I have a responsibility to point these out, in the hopes that we can avoid the harmful repercussions of these thought-traps.

I’ve mentioned, usually in more specific context, what these issues are, but after thinking over all of them, I’ve figured out what they are in more general terms:

1. A lack of imagination.  I’ve definitely touched on this issue before, but it’s a big problem.  We are currently engaged in perhaps the greatest challenge our species has ever faced- the need to build a truly sustainable society.  This is something that hasn’t really ever been done before, not at this scale, or with the risks this high.  Almost by definition, the end result (if we’re successful) isn’t going to look like anything that’s preceded it.  It might have some elements from past and present societies (if nothing else, they can be useful for reminding us that globalized growth-driven capitalism hasn’t been around forever, and isn’t necessarily the end-all be-all of human achievement), but it will almost certainly be unique compared to contemporary civilization.  There is tremendous potential here, and we should work hard not to limit ourselves conceptually.  This is an unprecedented crisis, and calls for unprecedented solutions and changes to our society.  Envisioning the future we need will require vast and almost unbounded imagination, if we are going to succeed.

And yet, there seems to be a severe paucity of imagination in environmentalism and sustainability, which I’ve complained about before (Transition Towns in particular comes to mind).  It’s assumed, almost right off the bat, that since past societies (as environmentalists like to imagine them) were more sustainable than ours (not that that’s hard to do), the future will look like the past (ignoring whether or not the past societies of interest actually were, you know, all that sustainable).  Which drives me nuts- past societies didn’t have to deal with what we do, why should we try to so thoroughly emulate them?  And that’s not even getting to all the unpleasant social baggage that the more reactionary environmentalists tend to gloss over (or, if you’re James Howard Kunstler, take weirdly sadistic glee in).   It’s like these people believe society can only exist in two forms- agrarian paradise, or industrialized hell.  There’s no middle ground, and, more tellingly, no alternatives.  Which also drives me crazy- why on Earth are we restricting ourselves to such an obvious false dichotomy?  There are entire avenues of human development, both culturally and technologically [1], we haven’t even explored yet.  Further more, for a group of people who are usually pretty good about addressing alternative and non-dominant points of view, this dichotomy reeks of Western-centrism.

I mean, I can sort of understand why they might have this response- being creative is risky, and we’ve already got plenty of risk that we’re dealing with.  The stakes are awfully high- they include literally almost everything, up to and including the habitability of our homeworld. It may be comforting (or at least less scary) to assume on the conservative side, that things will end up like they did in the past.  People sometimes psychologically need that kind of certainty. But if we aren’t creative, if we aren’t imaginative, if we don’t think beyond our preconceived notions, I don’t see how we’ll be able to rise to the challenge.

2. A lack of radicalism.  This may seem odd, since a lot of the people I speak of would probably be considered radical environmentalists by the mainstream.

But the truth of the matter is, many of them aren’t, not really, at least not by judging by their responses.  They may be romantics, or even ascetics, but they are not radicals.  For example, if you go to the anti-capitalist/anti-globalization website Popular Resistance and look at their Create! section (which mostly deals with their solutions to the problems of environmental degradation and economic inequality), most of them are actually pretty underwhelming- start a time bank, a community garden, join a worker cooperative or a credit union, and so on.  While it’s true these do challenge the status quo, they only barely scratch the surface- and yet, these are being treated like saviors of our age, instead of merely being step 1 of a long and involved restructuring of society.

Another side of this lack of radicalism is most obvious when it comes to discussion of impact and sacrifice.  A past target of my ire, Erik Assadourin, recently had a yet another article haranguing pet owners and basically suggesting the sustainable thing to would be to eat our pets.  While it’s true that pet ownership does have a carbon footprint associated with it, part of me can’t help but feel like this accusation is unfair, in the sense that Assadourin is basically telling me and, say, Mitt Romney, that we should get rid of our dogs for the sake of the planet, despite the fact that only one of us has a private jet and multiple homes (and the other is a grad student making a whopping $14,000 a year). While it’s true we both have greater ecological footprints than the average Bangladeshi [2], I would argue that even in this country, the very wealthy (1% and above) probably bear a proportionally larger responsibility for environmental degradation, and that this should be acknowledged.  This isn’t a new thought, either- Murray Bookchin argued this very same point in Remaking Society [3].   Guilting the average citizen about the environment when statistically they only contribute very little to the nation’s collective ecological footprint ultimately won’t fix the problem, and ignores the very real problem of privilege.

(Also, why all the focus on pet ownership as a destructive industry, and not, I don’t know, the entire military and weapons industry, which I would imagine has a vastly larger direct and indirect environmental impact, and doesn’t even do anything productive- its sole purpose is, ultimately, to destroy things).

Lastly, part of being radical is examining things from a systemic point of view- something that environmentalists are strangely not very good at it (which is odd, given the historic role “systems thinking” has played in the ecology movement).  To bring up Assadourin again, he complains about how pet ownership is being exported to the developing world as a manufactured cultural norm in order to make pet supplies corporations more money- yet he never explicitly attacks the corporations for doing this, or, perhaps more importantly, the economic system in which they operate (and which demands this kind of expansion).  As an exercise, compare his writing to, say, that of Richard Smith-they’re both calling for economic and material contraction, but who do you think is the real “radical”?  Who seems like they’re actually addressing the problems at hand? And, perhaps most importantly, who’s world would you actually enjoy living in?  I don’t know about you, but my money’s on Smith (and not just because he used Curiosity to prove a point)[4].

From a more practical point of view, a lack of radicalism also makes it easier to avoid systematic change.  Too often, environmental thought frames the dilemmas of sustainability in purely individual terms- what can you do to help the environment (such as giving up your dog)?- which puts the onus on the individual citizen, and ignores the systems he/she lives within [5].  Not to mention that, ultimately, even if we were to go back to homesteading and never flying and making everything locally, if that is still embedded in an economic system that prioritizes economic growth, we’re still in the same mess- things will just get worse more slowly.

3. We should never stop exploring.  This, I think, is probably the biggest reason I make the criticisms I do.  Perhaps it’s the romantic impulse, or the technophobia, but there seems to be a dark tendency in environmentalism to turn away from science and exploration, and inward/backwards.  In some respects, this is understandable- nuclear physics gave us the H-bomb and nuclear meltdowns, chemistry DDT and dioxin, biology GMOs.  If your point of view on science is mostly shaped by the less desirable things it’s produced, you’re probably not going to be too keen on it.  And in a more general sense, it reflects a fear of change, and a fear of the new- which, of course, is hardly unique in humanity, but seems to be magnified by these concerns of science/knowledge run amok.  It is far less scary to instead embrace what worked (or in some cases, didn’t work) in the past, and turn away from the unfamiliar.  As tempting as this may be, it is tremendously short-sighted.

While it would be possible to build a static society that discouraged innovation and knowledge-seeking (well, at least beyond certain permissible boundaries), such a society (ironically) would not be sustainable.  The world changes- sometimes too slowly for us to notice- but changes it does.  A civilization must be willing to innovate, to be flexible, and to change, in order to adapt and survive.  Those that don’t (such as the Viking colony in Greenland, which somewhat mysteriously refused to eat fish even after they lost most of their cattle), usually don’t last very long.

On a more personal note, I have a deep aversion to this kind of thinking (and not just because it tends to degenerate into crank mysticism[6]), but because it represents an incredibly incurious, even wilfully ignorant mindset.  Humanity turning inward and ceasing to explore the world around us strikes me as a profound tragedy. Curiosity is one of the defining traits of our species, even if its not universally expressed- while many species have language, altruism, domesticate animals (well, aphids, in the case of ants, anyway), even make love and make war, none go so far as we do simply for the sake of understanding the universe around us.

The other problem with this fear of science and of change is that is saps radicalism.  I remember seeing a short article in Adbusters lamenting that while there was a Curiosity on Mars, there was a lack of “wonder” here on Earth [7].  First off, these people clearly don’t know any scientists (why do they think we do what we do? It sure as hell ain’t for the money), and secondly, there is nothing revolutionary or romantic about ignorance.  If anything, it’s the opposite- socioeconomic elites usually want their populaces to be superstitious and uninformed, as it makes them easier to manipulate!

Conclusion- tying it all together

The major common element of all these concerns basically comes down to this:  I critique environmentalism because I fear that many tendencies in the environmental/sustainability/ecology movement will lead to a society that, while perhaps sustainable in the short term, will be, for lack of a better term, boring.  It would be a stultifying society, an inflexible one, one that is cheerily making its way into a new Dark Age in the name of ecology, and one that is solely focused on its own survival, with no energy and no interest in anything else.  And the worse thing is, it’s not even appropriate for the situation.  With the climate disruption that’s already coming down the pipe, the world will be anything but boring- we will need to be innovative, to be adaptable, to think with vivid imaginations.  We need dreamers who dream big.  We need scientists and explorers, people who are curious enough to question if there might be more possible than what we currently know.  We need radicals, people who won’t accept anything but true, systemic change. And we need to recognize that while the world is full, there are still frontiers to be investigated and understood- after all, it’s an awfully big universe out there (and down here, for that matter, too), and we know so very little about it.  Call it the Carl Sagan school of environmentalism.

There aren’t too many environmentalist thinkers out there in the Carl Sagan school. In the capitalist(-ish) camp,   Alex Steffen is probably one (though he as an oddly dim view of human space exploration), and David Bergman is another.  Lester Brown probably qualifies, as well, and might be the most influential.  Richard Smith and Murray Bookchin may provide socialist perspectives.  But there really ought to be more of us (and, ideally, more than just a couple of white dudes plus me).   After all, the sustainability crisis is probably going to require humanity to reinvent itself on a scale never seen before- why limit it ourselves in what might be possible?

NOTES

[1] One area that I think has tremendous potential is microbes (admittedly, as a microbial ecologist, I’m a little biased).  We’re just now beginning to assess what microbes are capable of, and what we’ve found so far has been pretty amazing- microbes can clean up toxins, mine metal, produce medical compounds, produce fuel, generate electricity, even solve mathematical problems.  While a society run on microbes would be very different from ours, I see no reason while it could not be just as sophisticated.

[2]This line of thought, taken to its logical extreme, also runs into the fallacy of relative privation

[3]That, and his epic takedown of John Zerzan and anarcho-primativism, are some of the reasons Bookchin is one of my major influences in environmental thought.

[4] He also takes pain to make the point that economic contraction doesn’t mean deindustrialization, and going back to log-cabins and riding horseback everywhere, which is (sadly) rather refreshing in these kinds of writings.

[5] Which is odd, given how often these types of people tend to have such an obsession with community and social cohesion.

[6] Crank mysticism here refers towards the unfortunate tendency towards New Age gibberish, backed-up by half-understood scientific theories, and a reliance on the hopes of some kind of mass shift consciousness to implement one’s societal aims, and is sometimes coupled with a disdain for science as being “too reductionistic/mechanistic”.  Leaving aside the fact that if your plans for saving the world are dependent upon a spontaneous change in the temperament of the global population, you’ll be in for a long, long wait, I find this sort of thing irritating because (unsurprisingly) its criticisms of science are based on a strawman view of the subject.  Science hasn’t been purely mechanistic since quantum physics came on the scene in the first half of the 20th century, and while reductionism is still used as a tool for experiment design, scientific analytical thought usually makes use of both holism and reductionism.  Honestly, though, I suspect most of these are smokescreens for the real issue at fault, namely, the threat science poses to the warmfuzzies of the holders of these kinds of belief. Well, I hate to say this, but get over it- you can’t argue with the physical laws regarding climate change (as many conservatives seem to try to do), and you can’t argue with them either when it comes homeopathy, pyramid power, or biodynamic argriculture.

Also, the typical emphasis on the “mystery” of the universe is usually in the context of leaving the mystery unsolved (because, hey, if you figure it out, it’s no longer mysterious) is another example of the lack of curiosity (which, as a scientist, is infuriating on a visceral level- it’s wilful ignorance of the worst kind, the kind that says “Well, we could figure this out and understand it, but that would ruin it. Somehow.  It’s better just to be blissfully unaware and, subsequently irrationally impressed by everyday phenomena”)

[7] Adbusters represents a subgroup within environmentalism/anti-globalization which sprang from the art world, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, tends to value style of substance (though they’d never admit to it).

However, perhaps the most egregious example of this is Paul Kingnorth’s[8] Dark Mountain Project, which, as far as I can tell, is treating the potential collapse of industrial society, and perhaps even civilization itself, as some kind of art project.  Even ignoring the horrendous ethics of such an approach (I mean, if that happens, a shitload of people are going to die, and, based on historical examples, probably take their surrounding ecosystems with them), I find this view ultimately contradictory: trying to be non-anthrocentric, despite conceptual art being (so far as we know) the sole domain of humanity.  To wit- despite seeking to dismantle the “myth of human centrality”, all the publicly available stories published by the Dark Mount Project focus pretty much exclusively on humans.  I’ve been tempted to submit a story to them entitled something like “The Day of the Earthworm” and just have it be “EXTEND. CONSUME. RETRACT. EXCRETE. EXTEND. CONSUME…” and so forth, for five or six pages, but I’m afraid they wouldn’t get it and I’d be inadvertently encouraging them.

[8] But hey, what would you expect from a guy who’s adolescent dream ambition was to be a goatherd.  Another example of an ascetic who merely thinks he’s a radical.

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About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
This entry was posted in Criticism, Environmentalism, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Crux of the Matter

  1. Brad Fisher says:

    Some thoughts:

    1, great article. Absolutely fantastic.I agree with you wholeheartedly, for the most part, and you do manage to hit the nail on the head with a lot of what’s wrong with the modern environmental movement.

    2, the Bookchin piece also manages to nail everything that’s wrong with anarco-primativism, Seriously, he managed to call up every single counter-example I could think of, and several I hadn’t known about.

    3. The Smith piece was also very good. I agree with a lot of his points (over-consumption, planned obsolescence, creating needs that didn’t previously exist, the focus on growth, etc), but I feel like he stumbles a few places. For one, as you previous mentioned, most of your average American’s income isn’t going into new toys, but healthcare, food, and housing. There’s no mention of how exactly Smith’s system would compensate for that.

    Building on that, he neglects how much more resource and time consuming these older, contracted forms of production are. Being a cobbler or tailor takes years of training. Organic gardening, the movement’s favorite panacea, is intensely time-consuming and uses more resources (just not petrol-based ones). After all, natural fertilizers aren’t as effective, pound for pound, so you need more of them. It’s also risky, since you could easily loose your crops to insects, blights, etc. Not to the mention the fact that depending on local production inherently limits your diet-say good bye to fresh fruits and vegetables between November and March.

    Additionally, he never really addressed how he would deal with all the people displaced by such a massive economic shift-since the new means of production would undoubtedly cause prices to rise for reasons mentioned above, how are we going to keep these out of work people fed. Retraining is one option, but again, it’ll take time.

    Finally, I think he vastly underestimates the difficulty in running such a system-a planned economy with a democratic base would probably be fair, yes, but also incredibly slow to respond to any sort of change.

    4. A lot of these guys should really just go ahead and join the SCA. We’ve already been doing this pre-industrial stuff for years. I know a few people who have created their own cottage textile industries, literally from start to finish. They raise the sheep, sheer them, process the wool, spin it, weave it, and make garb out of it. Really impressive, if again, time consuming. PS. I’m actually reading a book right now entitled “Lost Country Life” which deals, in great detail, with all the facets of pre-industrial agriculture in England. I think they would love it.

    5. Kingsnorth needs a good therapist. And his group strike as being something of a pagan death cult, something I’d never though I’d see.

    6. Excellent conclusion. As I’ve mentioned before, these folks either don’t know how incredibly dull pre-industrial or deindustrialized communities are, or they’re ascetic enough to actively crave such boredom. The rest of us will have to settle for booze, shisha, and oft-repeated stories, I guess.

  2. spacermase says:

    Yeah, Smith falls into the same problem a lot of socialists do, I think- he’s *very* good at identifying the problems of the current economic system, but runs into trouble when he tries to come up with something better. Generally speaking, while I do think economic democracy is something that we should further, I don’t think macro-scale planning (even if it’s decentralized) is going to be achievable any time soon, at least not without some major boosts in computing power and real-time consensus polling of the populace (think the Demarchy in Revelation Space), or unless it’s oriented towards a single goal (e.g. WWII). I was also a bit disappointed that despite not being a romantic, he still has bought into the organic agriculture hype. With that said, he apparently has a book coming out at some point in 2014, which I totally plan on checking out- I’m hoping he might elaborate on some of his theses.

    Also, Bookchin is awesome- he’s a great writer, and he doesn’t put up with any sort of bullshit. It’s a pity he isn’t still around- I’d love to hear his take on, say, Transition Towns.

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