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Confessions Of A Recovering Environmentalist
April 11, 2012 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Confessions Of A Recovering Environmentalist. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so. Paul Kingsnorth (most recently of the Dark Mountain Project) in Orion Magazine on environmentalism, sustainability, and hope.

...I don’t have any answers, if by answers we mean political systems, better machines, means of engineering some grand shift in consciousness. All I have is a personal conviction built on those feelings, those responses, that goes back to the moors of northern England and the rivers of southern Borneo—that something big is being missed. That we are both hollow men and stuffed men, and that we will keep stuffing ourselves until the food runs out, and if outside the dining room door we have made a wasteland and called it necessity, then at least we will know we were not to blame, because we are never to blame, because we are the humans.

What am I to do with feelings like these? Useless feelings in a world in which everything must be made useful. Sensibilities in a world of utility. Feelings like this provide no “solutions.” They build no new eco-homes, remove no carbon from the atmosphere. This is head-in-the-clouds stuff, as relevant to our busy, modern lives as the new moon or the date of the harvest. Easy to ignore, easy to dismiss, like the places that inspire the feelings, like the world outside the bubble, like the people who have seen it, if only in brief flashes beyond the ridge of some dark line of hills.

But this is fine—the dismissal, the platitudes, the brusque moving-on of the grown-ups. It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.


Also see Wen Stephenson's exchange with Kingsnorth at the Thoreau Farm Trust: Hope in the Age of Collapse, Part 2, and Part 3.
posted by jhandey (125 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

I like that definition of environmentalism. I've always hated the 'Save the World' sentiment because when push comes to shove, it's really about 'Save the People'--and saving the world insofar as it remains habitable to humans in a way that we'd like.

It's kind of arrogant to think we could even be capable of destroying the world, but we can certainly change it so that we don't want to/can't live in it.
posted by tippiedog at 8:46 AM on April 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditized, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be.

Quoted for truth. We have lost so much that few of us have even an inkling of what we used to have.
posted by Scientist at 8:49 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Some people think it really is about saving the world.
posted by edguardo at 8:50 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's kind of arrogant to think we could even be capable of destroying the world, but we can certainly change it so that we don't want to/can't live in it.

As noted philosopher George Carlin pointed out, "The planet isn't going anywhere -- *we* are."
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:52 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone interested in this sort of meditation on "wilderness for wilderness sake" should read John McPhee's excellent Encounters with the Archdruid which is in theory a profile of David Brower but also articulates this debate in a very insightful way.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's kind of arrogant to think we could even be capable of destroying the world

No, it's pretty realistic, I'd say. The ozone hole we were busy creating a little while back would have in relatively short order wiped out all higher animal life as we know it on earth. It wouldn't have just forced us to go back to "darning our own socks." And that really happened. We almost brought it all to a hard stop, no exaggeration needed.

There's nothing arrogant about being realistic about our current destructive potential, which is considerable.

This article just struck me as pointlessly bitter and a little misguided. I agree that it's a shame we talk about every issue now as if economic efficiency were humanity's loftiest ideal (which I think is really the more fundamental issue that's setting this guy's teeth on edge), but all the same, I think he misunderstands the nature of the problem.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


tippiedog: For me, the sustainability movement (which for me is a thing distinct from the environmentalist movement, though I'll concede that there are large swaths of overlap) is sort of a fallback position, a last-ditch attempt to stanch the all-but-mortal wounds that we have inflicted upon the biosphere, to say "there's no way we can make this better, but at least maybe we can try to stop making it worse."

Of course, with seven billion of us crashing around and "standards of living" rising all the time among the six billion of us who are currently too poor to make massive resource demands, this is really sort of a sad joke. Even convincing policymakers to slow things down just a little bit is all but impossible. Attitudes tend to range from indifference to hostility, depending on whether or not sustainability recommendations are likely to have any impact on the Prime Objective of "growth".

The story of the environmentalist movement, of the conservation movement, and of the sustainability movement has to date been a story of localized successes, detailed cataloging and tracking of damage, but of systemic failure. Failure is the rule, success (even qualified success) is the exception.

Get out and see as much of the natural world (what remains of it) as you can, while you can. Encourage your friends and neighbors, your children. Try to see it as something worthwhile, something that has value for itself, not just as a resource or a curiosity or a place to have fun away from other people. Spread the word, try to change people's attitudes. It's the only thing that will lead to the kind of systemic change that we need, though the chances of it happening on the kind of scale necessary are vanishingly small.

Still, we try. Because what we had was so tremendous, what remains is so beautiful, and the future that stretches before us is so dismal and sad.
posted by Scientist at 8:57 AM on April 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


I picked up a recent article about Peter Kareiva, of The Nature Conservancy. He co-wrote an article entitled 'Conservation in the Anthropocene and gave a talk at the Long Now Foundation, on 'Environmentalism for THIS Century' and Conservation in the Real World (FORA TV)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:01 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


whoops, should be The Nature Conservacny
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:01 AM on April 11, 2012


In the end nothing is sustainable because eventually the sun is going to burn out. The question is, how will it be while we are here.
posted by wuwei at 9:02 AM on April 11, 2012


The planet isn't going anywhere -- *we* are.

It's pithy, and there's a kernel of truth in it, but it's not really meaningfully true. The loss of biodiversity is permanent. New biodiversity will arise given tens of millions of unhindered years, but the species that we are destroying now are gone forever. They will not return.

Yes, it's somewhat comforting to think that the world will go on with us or without us, just as the whole universe has done for billions of years before and will do for billions of years after us. But the damage that we are doing is nonetheless permanent damage, the lives that are lost (human and otherwise -- I reject the idea that nonhuman life has little or no value) are lost forever, and, just as importantly, the world that we live in today is immeasurably impoverished by the destruction of the natural order and our own disconnection from the terrible, beautiful splendor of diversity, pattern, relationship, and form that once surrounded us on all sides.
posted by Scientist at 9:02 AM on April 11, 2012 [25 favorites]


It's kind of arrogant to think we could even be capable of destroying the world, but we can certainly change it so that we don't want to/can't live in it.

There's a third possibility--we are quite capable of destroying the biosphere. Which is, most likely, the thing about the Earth that makes it special; otherwise, it's just a medium-sized chunk of rock.

Or on preview, what Scientist said.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:04 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Get out and see as much of the natural world (what remains of it) as you can, while you can. Encourage your friends and neighbors, your children. Try to see it as something worthwhile, something that has value for itself, not just as a resource or a curiosity or a place to have fun away from other people. Spread the word, try to change people's attitudes. It's the only thing that will lead to the kind of systemic change that we need, though the chances of it happening on the kind of scale necessary are vanishingly small.

A thousand times this. Go to Yellowstone Natl. Park and see the atrocities that occurred there, even in a national park, that were viewed as "right" but were anything but. Go to Glacier Natl. Park and maybe you'll be in time to see the glaciers that are disappearing. Go to rural eastern Kentucky or Northern Alabama and see what strip mining really looks like. Go look at the havoc that oil spills wreck on the coasts.

Then go home and think about what you can do or refuse to do that might help prevent, slow, or even stop these types of things from happening. It's depressing but 100% real. Something's better than nothing. Isn't it......?
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:07 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Never trust an idealist: they'll always morph into oposite- idealist.
posted by Artw at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


the world that we live in today is immeasurably impoverished by the destruction of the natural order and our own disconnection from the terrible, beautiful splendor of diversity, pattern, relationship, and form that once surrounded us on all sides.

We are the natural order.

There's a third possibility--we are quite capable of destroying the biosphere. Which is, most likely, the thing about the Earth that makes it special; otherwise, it's just a medium-sized chunk of rock.

If you pull back enough, it matters not one bit if Earth is a life filled bubble, or a barren rock. Sure, it matters to us. But the world is the way it is now precisely because it matters to us.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


All so bogus. Human beings are nature; flying from New York to Dubai on an A380 is as organic as strolling barefoot through a glade in a old-growth forest, just with a little more evolution added to it.
posted by MattD at 9:14 AM on April 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yes, it is a major concern that mankind's impact is causing a change to the biodiversity of the planet. However, from a total-history-of-the-planet perspective, there have been other eras when the biodiversity of the planet was dramatically changed -- and not at the hand of man. (Unless you're arguing that mankind had a hand in cretaceous-era events, or other, even earlier events.)

Mind you, this is not a reason to throw up our hands and do nothing. I instead take this knowledge as a sign of hope that life will find a way even if we fail.

Still we should try. Because life moves at a much slower pace than we do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:14 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is a weird sort of genius about an article that is so powerfully wrong that it actually works as a polemnic in favor the validity of the straw men it erects and then beats on. Hooray for sustainability! Deep ecologists are classist and ethnocentric!
posted by MattD at 9:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I live in Central Illinois, and people return from a drive and tell me they were "out in the country".

I gently remind them that isn't the country, that is the factory floor.
posted by dglynn at 9:17 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah I think Carlin's formulation is appealing because its comforting. Its falsity induces a post-modern unreality-inducing sort of unease. This falsity, along with the existence of nuclear weapons, really brings home the fact that modernity Really Is Different, for the history of the species and the planet. I can't blame people who, given the choice, would rather not live in such times.

In list form:

The collective us have a power that in many people's minds is reserved for deities.

From a certain perspective, humanity look like a giant pack of marauding ants, or worse, a cancer. The victim is the planet.

We have to reckon with the possibility of an unthinkable cosmic sort of destruction, that most people (other than Lars Von Trier) don't want to get anywhere near.
posted by tempythethird at 9:17 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


All so bogus. Human beings are nature; flying from New York to Dubai on an A380 is as organic as strolling barefoot through a glade in a old-growth forest, just with a little more evolution added to it.

In the same way cancer is nature.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:19 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


He demands nature for its own sake, people be damned. Is is not suprising that most people have self interest and don't share his view? I find it hard not to have an anthrocentric political process.

I deny the intrinsic value of nature. Nature is only valuable because we value it. And this value must compete with other values, quality of life, jobs, etc. Sneer at social justice all you want, but trees are cold comfort when you don't have a job, or the means to see them.

And this:

But this is fine—the dismissal, the platitudes, the brusque moving-on of the grown-ups. It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.

Flouncing? If he posted this on metatalk he'd be laughed out of the room.
posted by zabuni at 9:20 AM on April 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


What is to be done about this? Probably nothing.

This is his problem right here. It takes him an awful lot of smug, self-satisfied words to get to this and then, in two short sentences, he reminds you that you wasted your time reading them. That's why saulgoodman essentially eviscerates the article in a few paragraphs--the entire article is built on the false premise that sustainability and environmentalism are the same thing. They aren't. Sustainability is about keeping the planet comfortable for humans at current levels of resource consumption. Environmentalism is something different, and articles like this ("Fuck humans! I prefer flying fish!") aren't going to win it any converts.

If you believe (as I do) that wild places and wild things have value above and beyond their resource value to humans then there is not "probably nothing" you can do to save them--there is plenty you can do, not limited to activism and financial support, but starting with teaching your children the things that this author's father unwittingly taught him. But selling that philosophy, like any fundamentally aesthetic philosophy, is a hard road built on emotional resonances like "joy" and "wonder" as much as anything else. Sustainability, on the other hand, is a requirement: cold, hard and provable. There is a strong argument that, if you only have the resources to support one of the two, sustainability is the more urgent at this time.
posted by The Bellman at 9:25 AM on April 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


I find this "humans are cancer" perspective really odd. Life, the Universe and Everything only matters as perceived through the lens of human conscience. Remove humans and it all crumbles to dust.

Of course people who say "humans are cancer", feel that they themselves fit on a separate category that should be spared the upcoming holocaust and should get a shot at living the bucolic life of a Noble Savage they will be entitled to when it is all said and done. Have faith! All that recycling will pay off in the end.
posted by falameufilho at 9:27 AM on April 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Good. Fucking. Grief.

I got as far as him referring to the term "wind farm" as "Orwellian" before I had to quit. Does the Thoreau redux get any more nuanced and insightful in the later paragraphs, or is this just Appendix 22,396 to the great and good book of People Who've Turned Their Distaste for Cities & Crowds From Common Misanthropy into a Goddamn Crusade?

The key passage for me, which is basically a summary of Walden's thesis, is this one:
The relief I used to feel on those long trudges with my dad when I saw the lights of a village or a remote pub, even a minor road or a pylon, any sign of humanity—as I grow older this is replaced by the relief of escaping from the towns and the villages, away from the pylons and the pubs and the people, up onto the moors again, where only the ghosts and the saucer-eyed dogs and the old legends and the wind can possess me.
There is a single essential question that stuff like this never even attempts to answer, which is that it's well understood that the carrying capacity of pre-industrial human civilization is probably about 1.5 billion at best, and we are 7 billion strong with a bullet on this planet, and so if sustaining industrial civilization is an unredeemable project, which 5.5 billion have to go and who gets to choose who stays?

And if you can't answer that with anything but a shrug, then you can go take a flying fuck with the oystercatchers and do some reading on where Thoreau would've wound up if he hadn't had his mom's house to return to and leave it to the actual progressive humanists to try to figure out how to sort it out. The industrial genie's all the way the hell out of the lamp, and he doesn't go back in, and when you hear people talk about sustainability and carbon neutrality and wind farms, you're hearing the language of people who've abandoned the solipsism of Thoreauvian environmentalism for the humanist project of figuring out how the hell our grandchildren are going to provide for themselves.
posted by gompa at 9:29 AM on April 11, 2012 [33 favorites]


If you believe (as I do) that wild places and wild things have value above and beyond their resource value to humans

This idea is inherently contradictory. "Having value" only has meaning given a human mind to value things, even if it's for spiritual reasons. Unless you want to posit an anthropomorphic God who has His eye on the sparrow, it doesn't matter whether you like bears because they're a good source of Bear Oil or because they're majestic -- it's still human minds calling the shots and putting values on each species' existence.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:30 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


tempythethird: Yeah I think Carlin's formulation is appealing because its comforting.

Ah, that's the beauty of philosophy - you can interpret it any way you like! Personally, I see Carlin's comment as a reminder that humanity is not the defining center nor the arbiter of "nature" or "Life on Earth". Neither does it "only matter" because of us - that strikes me as a pretty arrogant claim.

We're a participant, a byproduct, certainly a contributer, for better or worse. But as EmpressCallipygos mentioned earlier, we aren't the only or even the worst thing that has happened on this planet.

None of which really addresses the central issue of this thread, really, but I felt it worth pointing out nonetheless.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:33 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


alligator: Not to piss on your rant, but you missed a word in my quote. The word is "resource". This isn't about theism--please don't use my comment to derail.
posted by The Bellman at 9:34 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is a pretty clear list of "existential" priorities here : (1) protect the planet form asteroids, (2) escape this planet and settle currently lifeless worlds, (3) develop artificial intelligence or whatever lets us escape earth more permanently, (4) preserve the biodiversity here on earth because all knowledge of biology flows from the biosphere, (5) cultural advancements that improve our chances with the first four, i.e. make another dark age unlikely, and (6) avoid a nuclear war that sets back the first five. Famine, economics, etc. simply don't register on the "existential threat" scale. Asteroids and lost of biodiversity do.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:35 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Of course people who say "humans are cancer", feel that they themselves fit on a separate category that should be spared the upcoming holocaust and should get a shot at living the bucolic life of a Noble Savage they will be entitled to when it is all said and done. Have faith! All that recycling will pay off in the end.

I don't. I feel I'm as much or more of a part of it as anyone else.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:36 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Although he makes it into more of an either-or scenario than it needs to be, he does have a point. At least for me, he recalled to mind a certain era I had long since forgotten about- the mystical time in the 90s of "Save the Whales" T-shirts, when Free Willy was a blockbuster and environmentalism was less about petroleum and more about PETA, animal rights and preserving the rainforests. Although his arguments attacking sustainability don't really hold up to intense scrutiny, he's right that the tone of the discourse has changed drastically.
posted by quincunx at 9:37 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, it is a major concern that mankind's impact is causing a change to the biodiversity of the planet. However, from a total-history-of-the-planet perspective, there have been other eras when the biodiversity of the planet was dramatically changed -- and not at the hand of man. (Unless you're arguing that mankind had a hand in cretaceous-era events, or other, even earlier events.)

We can make up for a lot of our species' damage-causing by continuing to keep eyes on the skies and get working seriously on the means to prevent such objects from making it to Earth and destroying all of us.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:39 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


My take on this is that, ultimately, environmentalism is about politics. That is, we need political institutions that are capable of listening to the needs of not just a certain class of people, but all people; and not just humans living today, but future generations as well.

The problem is that there's a fundamental incompatibility between how politics works (the slow boring of hard boards, as Weber put it) and the crises we face with climate change, biodiversity loss, etc., which are happening relatively rapidly and are irreversible. Despite the multiple setbacks we've seen in advancing a green political agenda, it's arguable that the human race is much more attuned to these issues than we were even 30 years ago.

But we're still not responding fast enough. And I fear we won't respond adequately until it's too late, not without doing violence to political institutions as we know them. Hard right fears that sustainability = dictatorship aren't so far-fetched when you consider that stabilizing global average temperatures anywhere in the neighborhood of 2 degrees C would require stopping all GHG production today. Which country wants to first? America? China? Germany?

Not to mention the political ramifications of trying to adapt to escalating temperatures, which are likely to involve immigration crises the likes of which we've never seen and dangerous geoengineering schemes (which may or may not occur with UN authorization). Of all the things we risk losing to ecological catastrophe, free and open political institutions may be the most dear.
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:43 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Greg_Ace: I see Carlin's comment as a reminder that humanity is not the defining center nor the arbiter of "nature" or "Life on Earth". Neither does it "only matter" because of us - that strikes me as a pretty arrogant claim.

I dispute your premise. Arbiter: A person who settles a dispute or has ultimate authority in a matter.

We certainly don't have ultimate authority over all life on Earth. Just a whole lot of it. Enough of it to call ourselves "arbiters of life on Earth", for better or for worse. And as for EmpressCallipygos's comment: well the fact that there were previous mass-extinction events caused by things like asteroids, and that the next one could be caused by us, thus putting us in the same league as giant honking asteroid. Well, I think that just reinforces the point.
posted by tempythethird at 9:43 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


s/Which country wants to first?/Which country wants to go first?/
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:45 AM on April 11, 2012


"I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words."

It's a good thing people didn't follow his advice back in the 60's and 70's. As others have pointed out upthread, we have made progress in turning the ship, if just a little - ozone hole, superfund sites, coal regulations, unleaded gas/paint, etc. It's a slow and frustrating process, and yes - a lot of it is focused on making it better for us humans, but where would we be today if we had all given up 40 years ago?
posted by jetsetsc at 9:45 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I disagree strongly that the idea of sustaining technological civilization is something that has supplanted or even overshadowed the idea of preserving (and what the hell, be optimistic) expanding what is left of the un- or less- altered by humans "natural".

I find all arguments extraordinarily unconvincing that anything besides large scale, organized, technological and relatively peaceful human civilization has a whisker's chance of forwarding the latter goal, in the face of the natural disaster of 8-14 billion human beings (very much a guess at the realistic peak of global human population in the hundredish year scale, projecting any further out than that seems not worth the bother to even speculate...)

Because we aren't going to just die. The rest of us aren't going to just give a peaceful salute and march gently into the sea because some idealists blew up a few dams and brought down a few cell-phone towers and fucked up a few pipelines. We will go to war. I will go to war. If the electricity doesn't come back on and the natural gas stops and I've been too stupid and short sighted to see that we haven't invaded warmer climes with the rest of the bilge rats and find myself watching the boy shiver in a climate-shift brutal unpredictable Minnesota winter why I will turn off the gas at the main stopcock (just in case it comes back) and harvest the ductwork from the furnace and the dryer to vent the fumes out the hole I knock through the wall and I will burn anything that burns before I watch him freeze to death. Not because I'm special and not because it's right, or even because it would work - it is just the way it is. The way we are.

If we go down we will go down hard, after the weak ones die, the rest (I don't know which kind I am, really) will go down very, very hard. One at a time and fighting all the way. And burn anything that burns on the way down. Not for an ideology. Not to make a point. Not to preserve a rich person's "comfort level". Just to stay warm, and hopefully kill most of the germs and parasites in the squirrel meat.

So in my book fuck the ones like Derrick Jensen who have the arrogance and temerity to announce with a straight face that they at last are the ones that have properly determined only the absolutely necessary type and objects of violence and destruction and compulsion of behavior by force that are necessary to save the world. These are enemies of humanity and nature both as far as I'm concerned. I don't particularly believe deep ecology will ever rate as big enough to be more than a sort of boutique terrorist anomaly but if they did I would surely join those that took up arms against them if it came to that.

And as for this guy who as far as I can piece out the narrative came up with, as his best idea of turning the tide, starting some kind of literary movement... Well this guy I sympathize with but I don't see the slightest relevance of his pining for the natural or his giving up after three years of promoting the transformational project of reasserting "the role of storytelling" to "weave reality." So, you know, good luck with your pilgrimage and all. But I'm going to keep paying attention to people with ideas like replacing coal plants with huge fucking desert-landscape-fucking solar arrays.
posted by nanojath at 9:47 AM on April 11, 2012 [14 favorites]


The word is "resource". This isn't about theism--please don't use my comment to derail.

I'm not trying to suggest you were making a theistic statement -- only that on its face, saying that animals have value always brings the power of evaluation back to humans. It doesn't matter whether we say they have value as a resource, or have value for aesthetic or emotional or transcendent reasons. We're the ones who say it matters if elephants go extinct. Nature doesn't care whether the only species on the planet are bacteria. Not only that, but which species we think are most worth saving is culturally mediated, and in many ways is maintained by imperialism and colonialism.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:50 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Hard right fears that sustainability = dictatorship aren't so far-fetched when you consider that stabilizing global average temperatures anywhere in the neighborhood of 2 degrees C would require stopping all GHG production today. Which country wants to first? America? China? Germany?"

It may not matter - in a good way. Western countries are lowering emmissions mostly by outsourcing them to China. China is probably the most centrally planned major economy left. If they willed a drastic re-focus on sustainability, they could turn, if not on a dime, then at least on a quarter.
posted by jetsetsc at 9:52 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


We are the natural order.

This is also comforting, but I'd argue is again untrue. The natural order is the result of billions of years of undirected evolution, weeded by blind natural selection. Part of the beauty of it is that it is undesigned, it simply happened, and we are a part of what happened. Now, unless you want to deny free will in favor of a totally mechanistic universe (an unusefully reductionist approach, I'd argue) it seems to me to be a bit facile to simply ignore the critical factor of human intent that directs the changes we've made to the biosphere.

It also seems somewhat feckless to declare that because our actions are merely an extension of our innate desire to survive and reproduce, they are necessarily OK. Morality is not something that is part of nature, but it is part of humanity and has been from the beginning of culture. Even a relativist morality must defend its judgements, and the judgement that our wholesale rape and destruction of the biosphere in the name of neverending growth is an acceptable expression of our desire to survive and persist is one which I find very difficult indeed to adequately defend.

It is comforting to say that our destructive, exponential, careless growth is simply part of the natural order, but to me it also seems to be an expression of willful ignorance and denial of responsibility in using the gifts of intent and free will that we have inherited as our evolutionary birthright.
posted by Scientist at 9:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


Get out and see as much of the natural world (what remains of it) as you can, while you can. Encourage your friends and neighbors, your children.

Except stay off my favorite trails, please. They're already far more crowded than they were twenty years ago.
posted by philip-random at 9:56 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


do some reading on where Thoreau would've wound up if he hadn't had his mom's house to return to and leave it to the actual progressive humanists to try to figure out how to sort it out. The industrial genie's all the way the hell out of the lamp, and he doesn't go back in, and when you hear people talk about sustainability and carbon neutrality and wind farms, you're hearing the language of people who've abandoned the solipsism of Thoreauvian environmentalism for the humanist project of figuring out how the hell our grandchildren are going to provide for themselves.

gompa, I think you're both right and wrong about this. On the one side, if human beings are to survive on this planet, we have to figure out a way to do it safely, respectfully and considerately with regards to our environment. I want my kids to be able to live in happiness and coexistence, not hardship due to the destruction of the biosphere.

On the other side, there is scale. Thoreau could develop his naturalism and still depend on his mother's house. They aren't mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, if humans are to survive, they have to do it as a society and a community which means reliance on others.

Both as a parent and as an individual, I'm very concerned about our changing environment, the why's and wherefore's of that change and how I can help reduce not only my impact on my environment but the impact of big business, and consequently the political ideologies of the world.

Don't get me wrong, I love "things". My computer, my home, my car, my internet, my backyard; but all these things exist partially out somebody else's desire to make a buck. When those people get greedy, horrible things happen - strip mining, 1%'ers, polluted land that makes us sick, poverty, smog, war, and on and on. But because I want these things I'm contributing to the problem, and I'm usually blissfully ignorant of it.

In so many ways we are so advanced but in other ways we're still like cavemen huddled around the fire, wanting safety and security so much that when we get it we hoard it, not thinking that the very act of maintaining safety will most likely be our downfall.
posted by ashbury at 9:57 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I just want to say that even though industrialism may not be going away, that doesn't mean that wilderness needs to go away. We need to keep some portion of true, wild, wilderness as long as we're on this planet. It's not because of 'nature's right to exist' or anything like that. It's for us. Take it from someone who had a transformative, genuinely life-changing experience of camping in wilderness for a summer. Experiencing wilderness is an important part of some people's lives, and to take that away from me would have been the most severe injustice. Few things are worth more than an experience like that. Maybe family. But family will always be here.
posted by victory_laser at 9:59 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I object to the use of cancer as a metaphor for the advance of human civilization on the grounds that it reduces my own lived experience to an abberration.

When I'm depressed--clinically, yes, but supposing it hasn't gotten bad enough to keep me in bed--I sometimes wonder what life for me would be like without the conveniences of modernity. Antidepressants, for instance. I suppose marijuana would still exist without modern pharmaceuticals but it doesn't really help me get to work when things need doing.

I don't think I'd be totally helpless if I lived in, say, one of the original thirteen colonies. I bet I'd spend a lot more time being terrified, since that's the only emotion that motivates when I'm all out of self-interest. I'd have to find someone to bully me into the necessities of life. Perhaps eventually I'd learn the correct habits to get through the day without feeling anything, like a good peasant or (presuming literacy and fortune) a file clerk.

Most of the experiences I've had that got me to change my mind about the general futility of everything occurred over telephone and internet. They're not strictly impossible without those, but; due to the particular difficulties I have with sense processing, following the give-and-take of a conversation, and comprehending others' emotions; I'd have at least needed those conversations to happen in writing (presuming literacy again). I imagine there were some people who got those sorts of written exchanges, but my odds of finding them myself seem very slim, and I don't think I'd have ever thought to look for it. Getting those experiences from IRC was a happy accident.

Without the modern pharmaceuticals industry, my life would be one not worth living. Surely, this industry is one of the most socially and environmentally problematic this side of the United States' military, but while I acknowledge these problems and hope for their resolution, I nonetheless think it provides something worthwhile, and so should be maintained in some form or other.

Therefore, it's not cancer.

Neither am I, thank you.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is also comforting, but I'd argue is again untrue. The natural order is the result of billions of years of undirected evolution, weeded by blind natural selection. Part of the beauty of it is that it is undesigned, it simply happened, and we are a part of what happened.

Glad you're just arguing. I just saw Tree Of Life again last night and am inclined to suspect it ain't all just a random stew of blind selection we're caught up in. But rather, there's some kind of intention to the whole thing, some high and cosmic artist messing around with the oils, trying to invent new colors ...
posted by philip-random at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


The natural order is the result of billions of years of undirected evolution, weeded by blind natural selection. Part of the beauty of it is that it is undesigned, it simply happened, and we are a part of what happened.

Actually, mankind may be more of "a part of what happened" than you think - part of the "natural beauty" in Yosemite Valley is actually the result of years of controlled burns done by the Miwok peoples for years, at least according to the displays on hand when I visited Yosemite. All those "natural" wide-open vistas were actually man-made.

We certainly are a part of what happened. But we've not always been a "bad" part of what happened, and we can't cease being a part of what happens. All we can do is affect what that part is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm a big fan of Carlin's idea that environmentalism is about saving us rather than the earth and biodiversity isn't about collecting and maintaining everything forever, its more like the pop charts with organisms ebbing and flowing as the environment change.

For me environmentalism is about not being an asshole. If I'm born into a world of green hills and blue clouds and leave it covered it smog and dirt I'm just being an idiot to future generations. It's the equivalent of cleaning up by yourself after camping. Litter doesn't particularly damage the earth, it just makes things unpleasant for the next person to come along.
posted by Damienmce at 10:02 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I deny the intrinsic value of nature. Nature is only valuable because we value it. And this value must compete with other values, quality of life, jobs, etc. Sneer at social justice all you want, but trees are cold comfort when you don't have a job, or the means to see them.

I'll bet you a gold penny your chainsaw is made of Rearden Steel too
posted by Damienmce at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Phillip-random, if you want to posit supernatural intervention in evolution, then all bets are off, causality goes out the window, and a whole host of other serious philosophical problems arise. So I'm not sure how that's a useful avenue of inquiry.
posted by Scientist at 10:06 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


The ecology movement is floundering because it hasn't rejected the materialist premise of contemporary scientism. If you operate within the materialist paradigm, surprise! You wind up a materialist. Only a spiritual foundation will empower the ecology movement over the long term. There needs to be a recognition that the whole of nature is one single mind that we perceive as a multiplicity of inter-related physical phenomena.
posted by No Robots at 10:08 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


No Robots, I consider it my personal calling to find a way to reconcile the raw power of materialist science with the guiding principles of holistic spirituality. It's an interesting journey.
posted by Scientist at 10:12 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


That was an interesting essay. I had similar feelings to the ones the author is describing when I saw the Amory Lovins interview on UCTV. Lovins is a world leader in environmentalism and sustainability, i.e. an alpha monkey corporate manager tool who is at least three pay grades above me and anybody else who would return my phone calls, text messages, or e-mails. To make eco progress we are going to have to employ such people.

My Economics 1 professor told us his definition of an environmentalist--that is a person who has already attained his cabin in the woods. Snarky but not completely false. My favorite example of the guy with his cabin in the woods is the director George Lucas. You can easily find his house on google satellite view. It is the one with the artificially constructed two acre lake sitting next to it with the water he needs to protect his mansion when the fire zone inevitably flames up on all sides of his ass.
posted by bukvich at 10:13 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also I'd like to say that the humans-as-cancer metaphor, while not without a certain visceral power, was tired and old long before it was ever invoked in The Matrix. Using it nowadays is as lazy as saying "nature will go on without us so we shouldn't worry" or "what we're doing is just natural anyway so we shouldn't worry". We can do better.
posted by Scientist at 10:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Scientist, try inverting it, try reconciling the raw power of holistic spirituality with the guiding principles of materialist science. As Constantin Brunner put it, we are absolute idealists and relative materialists.
posted by No Robots at 10:26 AM on April 11, 2012


If the goal of deep ecology is a world where humans aren't relevant, why should any human support it? Aesthetics? The confusion of aesthetics with politics has a long, dark history.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:28 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Natural" is arbitrary, and mostly irrelevant. A lot of people have been and are oppressed because they or their behavior or identity are not "natural." I'm kind of over that word.

I want to live, and I want to live in a world that is worth living in. There's my kind of environmentalism.

Various things threaten that. Some of them are stupid, pointless, and unjust things, like gas-guzzling SUVs, inadequate safety/health/environmental regulations for the sake of a little more profit, or multinational corporations stealing water from poor people to put it in plastic bottles and ship it halfway around the world to sell to people who don't need it. Frankly, capitalism is to blame for nearly all of that category. We should be furious that those in control of our world find having a little more money more important than not giving ourselves cancer and making ourselves sterile and sickly.

Other environmental issues are a bit less ethically reprehensible and more a matter of innocent mistakes, or even perhaps the inevitable result of the success of our species, or simply the way the universe works. I'd rather the human race was wiped out by an asteroid or a supernova or the heat death of the universe than by the Koch Brothers' desperate need for another billion dollars under their mattress.

And maybe that's my own way of judging what's "natural" and what's not.
posted by Foosnark at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Until we start being willing to give things up, we aren't going to change the direction. Everyone wants to recycle, but no one wants to reduce in a significant way. There aren't any free solutions, and as far as I can see we aren't willing to pay the bill to change.
posted by Forktine at 10:32 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


. . . basically a summary of Walden's thesis.

It's worth remembering that Thoreau lived in the center of Concord for most of his adult life, documented its history, people, and buildings with affection in his journal, and that he wrote (in The Maine Woods), "The partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets such as compose the mass of any literature. Our woods are sylvan and their inhabitants woodmen and rustics . . . A civilized man . . . must at length pine there like a cultivated plant, which clasps its fibres about a crude and undissolved mass of peat."

Thoreau's ideal was the "half-cultivated" place - a sane, considered mixing of wilderness and civilization. Also, from the dean of Thoreau scholars, Walter Harding:

"... Walden is [a] satirical criticism of modern life and living. Strangely enough this is one side of Thoreau that is sometimes misunderstood by the reader. Some take everything Thoreau says literally and seriously ... A large portion of Walden cannot — or at least should not — be read literally. Thoreau had a rollicking sense of humor and used it extensively throughout the pages of his masterpiece. He used just about every humorous literary device on record — puns, hyperbole, slapstick, mockery, parody, burlesque, and so on. And just about every one of these devices was used with satirical intent." ("Five Ways of Looking at Walden")
posted by ryanshepard at 10:33 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


LogicalDash, re: depression and survival outside of modern society, I think there's a very good argument to be made that psychological diagnosis is in large part a societal move to get people to pathologize and internaliew (that is, regard as part of themselves) feelings which have arisen due to fundamental flaws and lacks in one's environment. That is to say, the things you feel are not solely the result of your own deficiencies or imbalances, but also (perhaps mostly) the result of deficiencies and imbalances in the society you are forced to live in. There are powerful arguments in favor of the validity of this view, which I wish I had time to explicate in detail, though they would be somewhat derailing anyway.

Anecdotally, my own depression has never been milder than when I've spent long periods immersed in nature. Particularly during my summers in Boston Harbor, when I was exposed for weeks on end to the rhythms of sun, tides, weather, daily temperature fluctuations, lunar cycles, and all the other normal patterns which are part of our evolutionary heritage but which we have recently isolated ourselves from in the name of increased comfort and productivity. Is this anecdote enough to form a basis for remodeling our society? Of course not, but it *is* enough to form a basis for remodeling my life. I can't wait to finish school and get out of this city.

Bringing it back on track, I feel like it's important to bear in mind the author's message back in the article which for me was that our disconnection from natural processes (the ones we evolved with, not Airbuses) is harmful not only to the biosphere but to us, now, and in ways that are insidious yet profound. In our quixotic quest for ever more power and control over our environment, we incrementally disconnect ourselves from the natural environment that once connected with and penetrated us in pervasive, intimate, powerful ways. We have given up so much, and we are so much the poorer for it. What we have gained is in many ways a pale, sick shadow of what we once had..
posted by Scientist at 10:41 AM on April 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Good point, ryanshepard (but your link's busted).

I'll confess I've never heard Walden described as primarily a satire. In any case, it's mostly one of those "it's not the band I hate, it's their fans" things. The anti-urban latter-day Thoreauvians can be absolutely insufferable, tossing around that same damn quote about "wildness" from his "On Walking" essay (and taking it way the fuck out of context) in order to justify opposition to everything from wind farms to high-speed rail lines to midrise apartment blocks in dense urban neighbourhoods.

My bigger point is sort of a riff on Carlin: As sustainability/climate/stewardship advocates, we're in the business of saving our own asses or we're not even in the game. The capital-N Nature of the capital-R Romantic poets was always a fiction, and it's now a distraction from the real project, which is figuring out some way to keep this great monstrous machine running smoothly and cleanly enough to keep us from both mass suicide.
posted by gompa at 10:43 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bringing it back on track, I feel like it's important to bear in mind the author's message back in the article which for me was that our disconnection from natural processes (the ones we evolved with, not Airbuses) is harmful not only to the biosphere but to us, now, and in ways that are insidious yet profound. In our quixotic quest for ever more power and control over our environment, we incrementally disconnect ourselves from the natural environment that once connected with and penetrated us in pervasive, intimate, powerful ways. We have given up so much, and we are so much the poorer for it. What we have gained is in many ways a pale, sick shadow of what we once had.

I agree and I don't. I know it's going to sound like I totally don't. But I do -- I wish to God that New York City was laid out totally differently, with more open space and more green.

But by the same token, I have to point out that your argument about "gaining control over our environment disconnects us from the natural world" is probably cold comfort to the family of a person who died of heatstroke in summer because they didn't have an air conditioner. I mean - I agree with you in theory, but it's just not as simple as that, you know?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:02 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


When people discuss things like, "IF we are going to survive as a species..." confuse me. We will not survive indefinitely as a species on this planet. Humans will die out, it is certain. Not to say we should give up trying to make things liveable NOW, but it IS inevitable.
posted by agregoli at 11:12 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Humans will die out, it is certain. Not to say we should give up trying to make things liveable NOW, but it IS inevitable.

Well, with that attitude, maybe...

Me, I'm still holding out hope for mankind to achieve whole new, previously undreamt of levels of self-determination and scientific/technological sophistication. I'm not necessarily placing any bets on it, but it's the outcome I'm still privately rooting for. And there's no a priori reason to conclude we couldn't survive as a species indefinitely. Species don't have fixed, natural life-spans like individuals do. We can survive as long as we can maintain the conditions necessary for our survival in some form--hell, who cares if the sun goes supernova in a few billion years if we're no longer stuck here on earth when it does? Even heat death isn't necessarily so scary in a multi-verse.

posted by saulgoodman at 11:32 AM on April 11, 2012


Sorry if the analogy of humans as cancer offends people or isn't fresh enough. It just makes sense to me. We, as a species, are slowly killing the planet and everything on it, are we not? True, unlike actual, we, ultimately, have the power to stem our own malignancy although so far we don't seem to have a lot of desire to do so.

Don't get me wrong, humans can be wonderful taken as individuals and most of us don't intend to do harm but, to make another broad analogy, we're like those teenage vampires who never asked to be born that way but nevertheless are going to do great harm just by existing.

I guess I'm just very different, ideologically from most people here, in that, I don't have a blind allegiance to my own species. I don't feel that we are the only beings that matter and that without us, nothing would. I think that kind of thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place. Why should we conserve for future generations if we're not even going to exist 100 years from now?
posted by Jess the Mess at 11:45 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've always hated the 'Save the World' sentiment because when push comes to shove, it's really about 'Save the People'--and saving the world insofar as it remains habitable to humans in a way that we'd like.
One thing to keep in mind is that "a way that we'd like" keeps changing. "Saving The World" may just be higher on the hierarchy of needs than "Saving My Job" - which would mean that if world civilizations keep getting richer, then the value they place on the environment for its own sake will keep rising, and any irreversible (or even just very-expensively-reversible) damage done now will be regretted later.
Famine, economics, etc. simply don't register on the "existential threat" scale. Asteroids and lost of biodiversity do.
True at first glance, but on the other hand the former threats help to create the latter threats. Local economic success determines whether deflecting dangerous asteroids is inconceivable vs. studyable vs. doable with a megaproject vs. doable as an incidental marginal expense alongside other space operations. Local famine levels determine whether apes are bred in captivity for science and entertainment vs. exterminated in the wild for bush meat.

It's also hard to say how much of an existential threat global famine or global economic collapse would be, since we've never really had one before. I don't think a natural disease could ever be the existential threat that an engineered disease might be, for instance, but I wouldn't want to see a collapse of sanitation levels trying to prove me wrong.
posted by roystgnr at 11:45 AM on April 11, 2012


I have to point out that your argument about "gaining control over our environment disconnects us from the natural world" is probably cold comfort to the family of a person who died of heatstroke in summer because they didn't have an air conditioner.

You don't have to maintain control over the environment in order to, for example, live comfortably and at a reasonable temperature. Passive heating and cooling is a real thing, but it means that costs of building increase immediately, rather than costs being outsourced to the people that have to pay for lots of AC over the years, people that have to live near coal burning power plants, pay for health care for their asthmatic children who miss school, don't make it to college, live on welfare, &c. This is a real thing that happens, BTW. I believe that cities need industry, but communities around ports, factories, and power plants suffer greatly from that proximity. when people in cities chortle over their electric cars, the likelyhood that electric energy powering that car is coming from a filthy coal plant is high, as is the likelyhood that some other schmuck is paying for it in some way. A holistic approach is the only way this sort of thing can be grappled with, but no one seems to want to dig in to the data, even though we have it in abundance.

Framing the argument as either Air Conditioning or the Environment makes no sense, but it is a great way to make no headway whatsoever. You can have both, but it requires a societal shift in the way we think about who is actually paying for what, and over what time frame, and what the true costs are. Is it okay that developers can build housing with minimal insulation, poor air circulation, and no trees? Sure, run the air conditioner, and pay more for electricity, while the people living downwind have to pay more money for healthcare because their kids all have asthma, and they miss days of school, and drop out at some point. Not to mention what happens as more CO2 is pumped into our atmosphere, and AC units locally increase the heat island effect, and cause rolling blackouts, and strain the aging grid, &c. It's these interconnections that allow costs to be offset, but it is also interconnections that make environmentalism so important to solving these problems. It's very strange to see people in this thread talking about not needing trees and forests, as if we don't need oxygen, clean water, fish to eat, jobs provided, storms buffered, temperatures mitigated, lumber, or rain- all things forests directly affect. It's strange to hear people talk as if they will take pharmaceuticals over ecology, yet so many pharmaceuticals and medical innovation comes directly from plant and biology studies. We don't have pharma if we don't have those significant chemical factories, natural ecologies, to learn from. All the things that got us where we are today came from this planet we live on. We need these resources in the future, and that includes functioning ecosystems. It's crazy that smart people don't recognize this intrinsic web that we live in, that as it changes radically we are going to change radically as well. I'm not even talking about buying organic and driving cars with batteries. I'm talking about civil unrest, and countries going to war over natural resources, and refugees crossing borders to avoid ecological disasters, and the surging populations of coastal cities at risk of more frequent and more powerful storms. We're not investing in infrastructure, we're not working to keep people cool as the temperature increases. We aren't looking at how a country with a huge aging population is going to feed, house, and care for it as oil becomes more expensive and we are still using it to fertilize taxpayer subsidized corn for oil companies, as if that makes any sort of sense. We're not making any fucking changes in the way we do business because people can only focus on having AC when it gets hot, and as long as that's the conflict being sold as the issue, people in the US aren't going to support environmentalism.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:59 AM on April 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


Saul, attitude is irrelevant. Humans, despite our cleverness, are only animals, and animals don't reign forever.
posted by agregoli at 12:01 PM on April 11, 2012


Remove humans and it all crumbles to dust
If you removed humans from the planet, there wouldn't be a massive crumbling to dust. Things would go on as they had for 4 billion years prior to humankinds arrival on the planet. The lens of human consciousness is important to you, but the universe exists regardless...

I find this "humans are cancer" perspective really odd.
I find the "we must use up as much of the earth's resources as we can during our short lives" perspective much more odd. It is a behavior that you don't see very often in the animal kingdom, probably because species who exhibit those behaviors don't last very long.

It's not that we don't deserve to be here. But do we really need to kill and use everything else on the planet? because we can?
posted by ryanfou at 12:01 PM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Framing the argument as either Air Conditioning or the Environment makes no sense, but it is a great way to make no headway whatsoever.

Speaking of framing, that's....quite a way of re-framing my point. My point was not "air conditioning vs. the environment," my point was "throwing yourself 110% into some mythic 'older and more natural way of doing things' in some attempt to 'reconnect with what mankind has lost' is somewhat naive."

You're absolutely right, that there are ways of controlling heating and cooling which do not impact on the environment. But the way to convince people to use them is NOT by trying to woo them with dewy-eyed platitudes about "what mankind has lost by losing touch with the natural world", because the people you're trying to convince WILL be the ones to reframe it by saying, "fuck that, I want my air conditioner."

My point is, instead, why not do what I've finally seen start to happen appeal to some of the practical realities people deal with as well as making it an environmental argument? There are people who will tune you out if you start talking about how "we've lost touch with the natural rhythms of the earth" because they think you're going to ask them to start lighting their house with candles and churning their own butter or something, but if you show them some kind of financial study that "you know, this candle here costs only $4 and throws off as much light as 68 light bulbs, so you'll save [whatever dollar amount annually]," you'll get people saying, "oooh, tell me more."

So my point wasn't "it's the environment vs. the air conditioner," my point was "trying to win people over by saying we've lost touch with our natural roots is not going to convince many people."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:22 PM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


A holistic approach is the only way this sort of thing can be grappled with, but no one seems to want to dig in to the data, even though we have it in abundance.

Yes, and unfortunately the hard problem is: how can a grassroots movement implement a holistic approach? The deeper problem of capitalism and the "growth gospel" as it were is partially the Jevons paradox, wherein improvements to efficiency of resource extraction (which, unfortunately, quite a lot of environmentalism boils down to) simply entails further extraction. "Cleaner coal" means burning more coal, hybrid cars mean more driving, etc. Top-down solutions like carbon taxes are a start, but they're only a start: they redirect human behaviour in less destructive ways, but they don't necessarily mitigate the underlying destruction unless the revenue from those taxes is invested in environmental capital (eg. subsidizing responsible agriculture). We need ongoing, responsible, science-based management of the world economy to even stand a chance at achieving something resembling "sustainability," which we certainly aren't getting right now. Instead we have a bunch of transnational corporations greenwashing the status quo, reminding us to take cloth bags as we drive our hybrid SUV to the nearest Whole Foods.

I've written about this before, but the industrial agriculture is a great example of how completely useless "greening" production without associated reforms, regulation, and social investment is: despite the enormous yield improvements achieved by the Green Revolution, starvation has barely budged. Obesity has eclipsed it, though: 1.1 billion obese and 800 million undernourished in 2010. As far as the markets are concerned, that's efficient allocation of resources: we took all that cheap grain and put it where it was most economical. The mouths of livestock, the tanks of car engines, and occasionally flooding the markets of developing nations, with the effect of destroying peasant agriculture and obtaining cheap labour for factories while rendering them dependent on imported grain for survival.

As long as free market ideology dominates the development narrative, we're doomed. Environmentalism which works within a capitalist framework is inevitably assimilated by it.
posted by mek at 12:26 PM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you removed humans from the planet, there wouldn't be a massive crumbling to dust. Things would go on as they had for 4 billion years prior to humankinds arrival on the planet.

... once all the various nuclear reactors had melted down and spewed their poisons into the atmosphere, oceans, across the land ... not to mention all the other toxins etc ...

I heard the figure a few years back (I believe it was a Mother Jones article) that we're caretakers for the next 20,000 years whether we want the job or not.
posted by philip-random at 12:27 PM on April 11, 2012


That is to say, the things you feel are not solely the result of your own deficiencies or imbalances, but also (perhaps mostly) the result of deficiencies and imbalances in the society you are forced to live in

Heard it.

Mostly from people close to me who honestly cared, so I'll presume you said this in good faith.

My dad liked to take me hiking and camping when I was a preteen. Sometimes I even enjoyed it; at least, I remember a few good visuals.

The way my depression works, the least irritation becomes intolerable cruelty. After the novelty of the hike wore off, and Dad started to push for longer camping trips on the routes you couldn't get through in one day, I started dreading those trips... because... I didn't want to shit in the woods.

I'm pretty sure we even had a chamber pot, but I just didn't care. I wanted plumbing.

I can't say how much of my depression would be ameliorated if I just happened to be born in the society most congenial to me. It's moot. But if you're suggesting that a return to nature would suffice for all those who suffer as I have--and if you're not suggesting that, I cannot perceive your argument--well, I don't think you appreciate this kind of suffering at all.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:33 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is a paradox that we try to value the natural environment only in political/economic/utilitarian terms, while the actual roles of natural resources and functioning complex ecosystems in sustaining human life have been discounted by conventional economics as "externalities". As if the work of air, water, soils and other species was an inexhaustible freebie.

If the value of things comes down to supply and demand, then the dollar value of wilderness should be skyrocketing as the supply dwindles -- and they don't make wilderness any more. Instead, politicians see wilderness as an optional extra or a waste of space just waiting for humans to exploit it.
posted by binturong at 12:34 PM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess I'm just very different, ideologically from most people here, in that, I don't have a blind allegiance to my own species.

Well and good. You'll have to forgive us humans if we think that your declaration of indifference makes your take on what humans should do approximately as relevant as David Duke's opinions of rap music.

Remove humans and it all crumbles to dust
If you removed humans from the planet, there wouldn't be a massive crumbling to dust. Things would go on as they had for 4 billion years prior to humankinds arrival on the planet. The lens of human consciousness is important to you, but the universe exists regardless...


You misunderstand. Without humans, the universe would, of course, continue. The universe will also continue if humans blow a hole in the ozone layer and wipe out every living species on the planet. Given that there seem to be a lot more worlds with the biodiversity of the Moon than the biodiversity of Earth, perhaps the universe would find such an outcome more congenial, if the universe could have an opinion. The only one who cares if the natural world is dying are those same humans who you profess to care so little about, such as yourself.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:39 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The key to solving the problem of ecology in general is to address directly the problem of human ecology. We need a rational, scientific approach to the management of the human population; or, in other words, we need socialism, and a spiritualized socialism at that.
posted by No Robots at 12:40 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


As for whether a planet without humans has any value, I think this poem says it in a provocative way:

James Stephens. 1882–

The Shell

AND then I pressed the shell
Close to my ear
And listened well,

And straightway like a bell
Came low and clear
The slow, sad murmur of the distant seas,
Whipped by an icy breeze
Upon a shore
Wind-swept and desolate.

It was a sunless strand that never bore
The footprint of a man,
Nor felt the weight
Since time began
Of any human quality or stir
Save what the dreary winds and waves incur.

And in the hush of waters was the sound
Of pebbles rolling round,
For ever rolling with a hollow sound.
And bubbling sea-weeds as the waters go
Swish to and fro
Their long, cold tentacles of slimy grey.

There was no day,
Nor ever came a night
Setting the stars alight
To wonder at the moon:
Was twilight only and the frightened croon,
Smitten to whimpers, of the dreary wind
And waves that journeyed blind—

And then I loosed my ear ... O, it was sweet
To hear a cart go jolting down the street.
posted by binturong at 12:44 PM on April 11, 2012


The only one who cares if the natural world is dying are those same humans who you profess to care so little about, such as yourself.

You don't think the natural world itself cares? You honestly don't think the millions of other species we share the earth with, from elephants to beavers on down to millipedes, not to mention plants and bacteria (after their fashion) don't give a fuck whether they live or die?
posted by spacewaitress at 12:45 PM on April 11, 2012


We need a rational, scientific approach to the management of the human population

like a good 85% of people who are reading this are going to take it the wrong way
spiritualized socialism

yeah, that too
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:48 PM on April 11, 2012


You honestly don't think the millions of other species we share the earth with, from elephants to beavers on down to millipedes, not to mention plants and bacteria (after their fashion) don't give a fuck whether they live or die?

....The key word there is "after their fashion". And again, it's not that simple.

I'm sure that the deer cares very much whether it lives or dies, and so too does the wolf. And yet, in order to live, the wolf must eat the deer. And if you took the wolf aside and said "now, don't you think the deer cares whether it lives or dies?" the wolf would not alter its intent to eat the deer because it's not going to understand what you're trying to do because it's a wolf.

This is not meant to be an excuse for mankind to scour the earth in some game of Darwinian chicken or anything, mind you. I'm just trying to get you to understand that trying to advance the cause of environmentalism with this kind of argument is too easily knocked down.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


like a good 85% of people who are reading this are going to take it the wrong way

Nobody said this was easy!
posted by No Robots at 12:56 PM on April 11, 2012


"...We're not making any fucking changes in the way we do business because people can only focus on having AC when it gets hot, and as long as that's the conflict being sold as the issue, people in the US aren't going to support environmentalism.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:59 AM on April 11 [+] [!]"

The people who focus on having AC when it gets hot are the ones that don't have it. Similarly, the people who focus on having a refrigerator are the people who would like to keep their food cold but don't have a refrigerator.

I would guess that people who have ACs and refrigerators and all the mod cons considered to be luxury items in the developing world, are now focusing on saving the world from global warming.

Even the people who deny, or could care less about global warming, but nonetheless have satisfied certain economic priorities, may find themselves willing to pay for less pollution in the short run as long as a payoff exists in the long run. Certainly LED lights are a luxury item at $35 a bulb, but when all basic living needs are met, and the long run return on the purchase of the bulb is likely to be in the black, then the $35 investment is pretty compelling.

It's almost as if wealth allows for the luxury of focusing on long term environmental issues. Sort of the reason the previous, previous, previous, owner of my house in New Jersey didn't have to cut down all of the trees in the backyard for heat once one those new fangled coal furnaces was installed.
posted by otto42 at 12:59 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I get what you're saying, EmpressCallipygos. The thing that drives me nuts, though, is that humans have self-consciousness and rational choice. We can understand the larger implications of our actions. In that way, we are different from the wolf and the deer.

I guess part of the problem is that our "self-consciousness" and "rational choice" exist in a part of our brain that is only a veneer laid atop a structure that has evolved alongside that our vertebrate relatives for milennia, and it is so easy for those older parts to kick in and take over when there is a (real or perceived) threat to survival.

I wish there were some way to get everybody on the planet comfortable, well-fed, and safe now. I feel like life as we know it is in peril of, if not being extinguished, at least being dramatically impoverished. This makes me incredibly sad. At the same time, it does seem like, for most people, their basic needs have to be taken care of before they have the seeming luxury of worrying about the planet as a whole. However, I truly believe it's not a luxury.
posted by spacewaitress at 1:00 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Population management is of course marred by the horrors of eugenics, forced sterilization, and that whole Hitler thing. But population management today means: access to education, healthcare, contraceptive services, and a minimum standard of well-being. The most important factor in reducing birthrate is women's access to education. It's not rocket science, we know what to do, we simply lack the will.
posted by mek at 1:00 PM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yes, mek is dead on---there are lots of ways to reduce population that increase human freedom and autonomy, rather than threatening it. But people who believe that humanity is a cancer will find such approaches uncongenial, because who wants to increase the freedom of a cancer?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I get what you're saying, EmpressCallipygos. The thing that drives me nuts, though, is that humans have self-consciousness and rational choice. We can understand the larger implications of our actions. In that way, we are different from the wolf and the deer.

The fact that we are different from the wolf and the deer is exactly my point about why arguments like "don't you think the wolf and the deer care whether they live or die" don't work. And that's also what people mean when they say "the only ones who care whether the natural world lives or dies are other people" -- they don't mean "fuck the deer", they mean "you're anthromorphizing the natural world and that tactic isn't going to work".

I guess part of the problem is that our "self-consciousness" and "rational choice" exist in a part of our brain that is only a veneer laid atop a structure that has evolved alongside that our vertebrate relatives for milennia, and it is so easy for those older parts to kick in and take over when there is a (real or perceived) threat to survival.

And thus, the trick is to work with that structure. Altruism is not a "natural" concept -- self-preservation, and one's own comfort, is. That's why arguments like "consider the sanctity of the life of the spotted mayfly" aren't going to convince many people to give up their own creature comforts. I've seen a lot more people convinced into "going green" if they do the math and realize that it saves them money on their heating bills -- so much so that I'm honestly baffled why the environmental movement doesn't make that the primary argument.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:07 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


LogicalDash, my apologies. I did not mean to hold up your specific experience as necessarily an example of the kind of phenomenon I was trying to describe. I am aware that for a great many people with psychological difficulties, fixing them is not nearly so simple as getting folks out into the sun and making them hike around in the woods.

I do nevertheless think that there's probably something to the idea that the high incidence of psychological diagnosis in our society has a lot to do with our society's psychic deficiencies and also with our society's need to refocus the blame for those deficiencies on its victims if it is to sustain its credibility. This is not to diminish your very real suffering or that of the many millions of people throughout the world who suffer from mental illnesses of one stripe or another.
posted by Scientist at 1:13 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Altruism is not a "natural" concept -- self-preservation, and one's own comfort, is.

"The fang and claw conception of life in the wild has been overemphasized by a society devoted to propagating the philosophy of greed under the guise of free enterprise." - J. Frank Dobie

Animal altruism - or at least behavior that does not solely and directly benefit the individual - has been recognized at least since Kropotkin's time, and is no longer broadly in question.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:20 PM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not anthropomorphising the natural world, though. Saying that other living things care whether they live or die is not ascribing specifically human characteristics to them. It's a fallacy that humans are the only beings that experience emotion -- those emotions, after all, come from those older, shared brain structures that also direct our desire to survive.

It's been documented that elephants mourn their dead. To state this is not to "anthropomorphize" them. There's nothing uniquely human about having a subjective experience of the world.
posted by spacewaitress at 1:31 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ryan and Spacewaitress, do you understand my broader point, though?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2012


Behavior that does not "solely and directly benefit the individual" is indeed quite common in nature, otherwise a great many insects would not be so willing to be fed to their young.
Behavior that impedes one's own desires for the sake of members of another species? That is much rarer.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:33 PM on April 11, 2012


"Before life on earth becomes finally merely impossible, it will, for a long time before, have become completely unbearable."

-- Tony Kushner, Angels in America
posted by hermitosis at 1:33 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ryan and Spacewaitress, do you understand my broader point, though?

That it's not the strongest argument in practical terms? Yeah.
posted by spacewaitress at 1:34 PM on April 11, 2012


Behavior that impedes one's own desires for the sake of members of another species? That is much rarer.

This is likely the kicker - framing things in terms of imminent, local human catastrophe, vs. "consider[ing] the sanctity of the life of the spotted mayfly" is a tactic that I wish more environmental organizations would take. There are certainly some interesting facts to work with.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:40 PM on April 11, 2012


Corrected link
posted by ryanshepard at 1:42 PM on April 11, 2012


This is likely the kicker - framing things in terms of imminent, local human catastrophe

But interestingly Al Gore tried exactly this tactic in "An Inconvenient Truth," and the result was widespread, steadfast denial, an explosion of global warming skepticism. Scholars such as William Rees have built on this, considering the limits of human cognition when faced with impending catastrophe, the influence of factors such as "system justification", etc. It's not at all clear that "Impending DOOM!!!!" is the best strategy for environmental advocacy - far from it.
posted by mek at 1:49 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Humans collectively, ie under democracies, plutocracies, and high-percentage oligarchies, lack the will to do anything meaningful about existential threats. We will always vote to lower taxes and raise benefits. We will always decide that the voters are to gain from the non-voters' losses. We will always allow policy to be purchased. It's just how we are.

Individually, we deal with threats just fine. A person is smart; people are stupid.

If the "earth is to be saved"--a phrase that unpacks into sll kinds of things, but summarizes to "humans are no longer an existential threat to humans"--it will take individual will, expressed as collective action. Dictatorship or monarchy or tiny-percentage oligarchy (like a council of generals or bishops, or board of directors - no more than a few dozen individuals). Under this model, extreme opinion can drive policy. Under democracy, extreme opinion gets averaged out.

This has, historically, been the way that human societies deal with existential threats, and indeed dictatorships themselves have constituted existential threats to other societies. A democracy faced with existential war (WWII was the last time this happened in the First World nations) switches quickly to a dictatorship. It may retain the pretenses of democracy however the vast hordes of humanity in the nation look to one, or a small number of, individuals for leadership, and they obey their leader(s).

What I am getting at, is that if pollution is to be stopped, perhaps it will have to be stopped under dictatorship, or at least, a system where those in charge are immune to monetary corruption.

A problem cannot be solved in the same paradigm that created it. A step up, or sideways, or down, is required. Much of the handwringing over how we can possibly stop the polluters polluting (and we are all polluters) comes from the unspoken recognition that they, for whatever reason, are allowed to pollute. They can buy that permission, or buy immunity from personal consequences. How do you stop someone from doing something that you believe they are allowed to do? You basically can't. You lost at the starting line.

Pollution will only be solved when pollution is thought of as something that people are not allowed to do, and that includes not being allowed to buy policy that enables it. Currently that is extremist thinking. I do not have much hope of it becoming mainstream thinking in a democracy or plutocracy.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:54 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


But interestingly Al Gore tried exactly this tactic in "An Inconvenient Truth," and the result was widespread, steadfast denial, an explosion of global warming skepticism.

I wonder how much of that was because it was coming from Al Gore, though. Not denying your point, that's something that just struck me....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:55 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting read, thought the back and forth here is better (as usual!).

We have a hard time pinning down what "nature" is. Is it that which isn't touched by humans? I'd rather think of myself as part of nature rather than the opposite of it. From either perspective you can want to protect animals and plants and landscapes, but there's a difference in both *why* you might want to protect nature and *how* you might want to protect it.

The funny thing is that I think the ostensibly more hippie "we are part of nature" view might be more common among "users" of the land (farmers, hunters, loggers, etc) while environmentalists fall in the "protect nature from humans" camp. Interacting with nature like you do when you're growing crops or hunting a deer is very different from just standing by and appreciating it.

Reconciling those two viewpoints is critical, because people who give a shit are in short supply and need to be coming together to stand up to people who are perfectly willing to completely destroy the world.
posted by pjaust at 1:57 PM on April 11, 2012


It's true, Al Gore as a figure was already highly politicized. The same doomsaying style from Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, with a lot more rhetorical flourish, was vastly more effective. I suspect the difference stems in the change in mediascape between the 1960s and the early 21st century, though; Internet echo chambers, conservative talk radio, and all that "epistemic closure" stuff.
posted by mek at 1:58 PM on April 11, 2012


I think that it is possible to match one's arguments to one's audience while still being personally guided by a more radical, even spiritual, agenda. It can be difficult, but it can and should be practiced by effective radicals of all stripes. For instance:

If I were talking on MetaFilter about human impact on the desert and why I think that the city of Phoenix is basically an abomination that should never have been built and which we should seriously consider unbuilding, I might wax poetic about the surreal beauty of the sonoran vs. the brutality of Phoenix. I might enthuse about how gorgeous and affecting the myriad of stars are at night in the pristine desert, and complain of how Phoenix pollutes that crystalline blackness for a hundred miles in every direction; I could go on and on about the subject from a purely personal, spiritual, philosophical perspective. Depending on my intent in the discussion I might or might not speak of other more directly practical human concerns as well, but I feel that here I have an at least somewhat sympathetic audience already which is interested in hearing about peoples' personal experiences with nature and is at least willing to consider valuing empty spaces for purely aesthetic reasons.

Now, if I were in a bar and I were discussing the same thing (as I have done) with the person sitting on the barstool next to me, I would talk about much more pragmatic issues. I would mention the depletion of the water table in the area around Phoenix and its impact on farming, food prices, cost of living, and health for the humans who live in that area. I would speak of the fact that there is little inherent reason to put seven million people in that part of the desert, when those seven million people could perhaps have lived somewhere else at less cost to the public coffers. I would talk about how ridiculous it is that we should have to pipe water into a city of that size, and how patently absurd it seems to use such a scarce resource to water golf courses and mist the faces of people passing by shops, when so much of that water simply evaporates uselessly into the air anyway. I would discuss alternatives that could have been and might yet be, would talk about the foolishly untapped solar and wind resources that exist in that area, about the sensible idea that when one lives in a desert one should not insist on having a wide lawn of perfect green grass. I would use pragmatism, ridicule, and common sense -- the kind of arguments that work well in bars. I would not go on and on about the beauty of the desert and the right of the gopher tortoise to exist and the virtues of wilderness for its own sake, because I know most people don't give a crap about that stuff, despite how important it is to me.

I guess what I'm saying is that just because I and others are here in this thread talking about environmentalism from a spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic perspective, one should not assume that we are not also sensitive to the fact that in general we would be more effective environmental advocates if we put that stuff aside and focus our arguments on specific human needs and goals. We also can try to warm people up to the idea that there might be things worth valuing aside from basic human wants, but we hopefully are able to change the way we talk to suit the people we are talking to. It's a skill that everyone should try to be proficient at.
posted by Scientist at 1:58 PM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I guess what I'm saying is that just because I and others are here in this thread talking about environmentalism from a spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic perspective, one should not assume that we are not also sensitive to the fact that in general we would be more effective environmental advocates if we put that stuff aside and focus our arguments on specific human needs and goals. We also can try to warm people up to the idea that there might be things worth valuing aside from basic human wants, but we hopefully are able to change the way we talk to suit the people we are talking to.

Apologies. It wasn't clear that you also saw the "guy at the bar" perspective. (Although, I think there are a few more bargoers in here than you'd think...)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:01 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unless we address the overpopulation problem, things are going to go to hell for both humans and the rest of the Earth. I'm not sure why environmentalists won't address this problem anymore, as it is the root of all--or virtually all--environmental evil. It is simply not feasible--nor is it desirable--to crank down the standard of living so low that 7 billion people can live on the planet without destroying it--much less 10 billion. It seems unlikely that most people could live like many Americans I know even if we got the population back down to reasonable levels. So throttling back on the population may not be sufficient for saving the planet (and the species), but it's at least necessary.

Sadly, many environmentalists and other leftists and liberals have decided that it's racist to talk about overpopulation. Corporations want the population to keep growing because they want more "consumers." Conservatives think that the economy can grow forever, and think it'd be a disaster if it didn't. They also think that the brown people are going to take our stuff if our population doesn't keep growing. So, basically no one will address the problem.

If we addressed it now, and slowly throttled back on growth, then started to bring the population down, it'd be doable without disaster. Sadly, I don't see that happening. Any talk of zero or negative population growth brings out the crazies. I've heard intelligent people say the nuttiest things about this problem--like "everyone in the country could find in three counties in Florida!" Anyone who thinks that claim is relevant to the debate has no business being a part of it.

*sigh*
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:02 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


No worries! It was not at all clear that I did see that, I suppose. It's just that that kind of discussion is not what I personally come to MetaFilter to have. I like to think that when I'm here I can speak from a deeper and more personally authentic place than I am able to when I'm out mingling with the general population, so that's the place that I try to speak from when I'm here, and talking about things that are important to me.
posted by Scientist at 2:05 PM on April 11, 2012


I like to think that when I'm here I can speak from a deeper and more personally authentic place than I am able to when I'm out mingling with the general population, so that's the place that I try to speak from when I'm here, and talking about things that are important to me.

I hear you. I just suspect that some people treat Metafilter like....that bar, is all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:08 PM on April 11, 2012


I've got next round. ;)
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:09 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fists O'Fury, I think that part of the problem may have to do with the fact that the high standard of living that many of us enjoy here in the Developed World is directly predicated on the ruthless exploitation of the rest of the human beings on the planet, in order to provide we lucky few with cheap goods and services. We don't currently have a way of providing a high standard of living to all seven billion of us, because the (relatively) cheap electronics and cars and oil and clothing and food and housing and everything that we enjoy so much here require armies of exploited, impoverished humans toiling ceaselessly to build for us. If you take out the exploitation, not to mention multiply the demand by roughly an order of magnitude, all that stuff stops being cheap enough for "middle class" people to buy.

This is why we can't do anything about overpopulation. We need it to sustain our lifestyles, as much as or more than we need environmental exploitation. Part of the idea of sustainable development is that if we can get more efficient at using resources, make smarter choices about what we buy and how we get it, stop externalizing costs and pushing them off on people who have no choice but to bear them, and generally take a somewhat longer, more holistic view of the way that we exist in the world, we might have enough resources and enough money to spread around a little more and maybe not so many people would have to toil away in crushing poverty. It turns out that when you raise people up out of poverty and give them some more choice and control over their lives, they also tend to have fewer kids. We'd also take some of the stress off the biosphere in the process, both by becoming more efficient and making better choices about how much crap we need to be comfortable, and eventually by slowing and hopefully reversing population growth. It's crucial to understand that the two go hand and hand, and that sustainable development, practiced correctly, benefits both humans and the biosphere as a whole.
posted by Scientist at 2:14 PM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Unless we address the overpopulation problem, things are going to go to hell for both humans and the rest of the Earth. I'm not sure why environmentalists won't address this problem anymore, as it is the root of all--or virtually all--environmental evil

It's just really not clear this is actually true, though. There's a lot of evidence that population growth is slowing and will be stabilized within the next generation:

World population is stabilizing

Forecast sees halt to population growth by end of century.

The Overpopulation Myth

In fact, when all the fanfare happened with the announcement of the 7 billionth child being born a while back, one thing that failed to get much attention was that it was all hooey. More current actual population data didn't support the rates of growth the models that were used as the basis of those stories did.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:20 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I simply don't see over-population as a major problem. As mek and saulgoodman pointed out, education, wealth-distribution, health care, and emancipation of women are taking care of this problem. Even energy production is starting to improve with the turn away from nuclear and toward solar. The one really big hurdle left, as far as I can see, is the respect for other life-forms.
posted by No Robots at 2:23 PM on April 11, 2012


It's not population growth that worries me most about overpopulation, though that's part of it. I think you'll find that the seven billion of us who are living on Earth right now are plenty enough to wreck the place, unless we're considerably more careful about our impact than we have been to date. Even if we can manage to be careful enough in our resource use to manage a sustainable global impact, I have some serious doubts about how stable the situation would be. Personally I'd be a lot more comfortable with the 1.5 billion figure mentioned up thread, though I'll concede that it's a seriously difficult topic to make good predictions about, and that number might easily be too high or too low.

Either way, we need to be checking our numbers. MOAR HUMANZ != BETTAR, after all. We should be working toward putting ourselves in a position, globally, where our numbers are gradually declining. Yes, we will run into problems when most of us are old (the sort of thing that Japan is dealing with now, and the U.S. too to a lesser extent with the boomers) but it's not like we're not having some problems already and it seems to me that decreasing our numbers is the only path that leads to a truly stable, sustainable situation in the long run.
posted by Scientist at 2:32 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Any talk of zero or negative population growth brings out the crazies."

Yeah, those are the crazy people. There are 5.5 billion more people on the planet since Thomas Malthus came up with his perfectly sane ideas 200 years ago and everyone of his predictions has come true. There is no reason the next 200 years shouldn't be as disastrous as the previous. I must now feed my dog, who does not hunt, round up sheep, or protect my premises, with meat from a can that I bought on Monday from a store located in Iowa.
posted by otto42 at 2:37 PM on April 11, 2012


It is a behavior that you don't see very often in the animal kingdom, probably because species who exhibit those behaviors don't last very long.

Generally because something evolves to eat you or gets good at evading you, not because an internal thingee measures that the habitat can support X number of rabbits. Plenty of things would reproduce out of control if it weren't for one or the other factors, but blooms of life are usually met with some other enterprising organism stuffing itself. The natural world is not a good role model for how humans should order themselves- this is the planet where most of the self mobile life forms are thriving on killing things innocently harvesting free energy or killing things that eat these things, and cuckoos and specifically preying on the young/eating the soft fleshy bits off a still living prey are viable, favoured strategies.

I'm not even anti-enviromentalist, I'm generally on board with general efforts. But you don't need the all-humans-not-living-like-Jains-are-sinners mentality to tackle pollution and resource conservation. That is covered quite nicely under not shitting where you eat, and saving for a rainy day, and doesn't require futile efforts to make humans have empathy for the non-human. Greenwashing, teaching school kids to chant the three Rs (Reduce Reuse Recycle!) like some sort of prayer, and Captain Planet are a form of religious expression not a relief on general suffering. Yes, treating the communal habitat like it's unbreakable is probably unsafe, but this cycle of nature/eternal balance stuff is unrealistic.
posted by Phalene at 2:50 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Captain Planet and teaching kids the three Rs is not religious expression. What it is is propaganda. It's needed propaganda, if we are to teach people that being careful of our impact on the environment (not shitting where we eat) and being efficient in our use of resources (saving for a rainy day) are things that we actually should do.

We have a history (with foundations that can probably be found in evolutionary psychology) of not needing to care about these things and of being able to use the Earth as if it were a limitless resource, because until recently the Earth was able to regenerate resources pretty much as fast as or faster than we were able to use them.

That is no longer the case, but it's a truth that is not really intuitive and which a lot of people have made a lot of money and acquired a lot of power by ignoring. These people would like to hang onto their money and power and so are happy to help encourage us to believe that we don't need to worry about our impact on the biosphere and can go on pretending that the Earth can just absorb whatever damage we do.

We need good propaganda to counter this, to change attitudes and raise awareness. Taking care of the environment is not common sense, though it can be helpful to frame it as common sense, as you have done.
posted by Scientist at 3:06 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Environmentalism = birth control. Managing industrial waste is a nice afterthought, but that has its own checks and balances in a dozen different other industries such as medical and insurance, and people are already afraid of toxins. As for animals, even hunters care about animals. Birth control is the root issue in the long run, and currently has ZERO checks and balances, and no other institutions care to curb it other than healthcare providing governments. Most investments rely on the cheap labor and natural pyramid scheme that exponential population growth offers. Birth control is our human destiny and needs believers and actions in support of it.
posted by Brian B. at 5:12 PM on April 11, 2012


"Environmentalism = birth control"

Birth Control = Capitalism

But that would go against the left's narrative, after all, didn't the author of the article make the point that today's environmental movement is made up of dejected socialists.

Chinese style birth control is maybe the preferred course of action. It would seem though that a principled environmentalist would find the eventual imbalances in sex ratios to be unnatural and destabilizing to more than just the environment.
posted by otto42 at 7:19 PM on April 11, 2012


Anyone advocating outright birth control, especially "Chinese-style," needs to do some research. That's just clueless and counterproductive.
posted by mek at 8:07 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that would go against the left's narrative,

Birth control isn't capitalism is most countries. Traditionally, and in today's poorer countries, children are regarded as sources of income and social security. Whatever narrative the "left" lives by, it isn't to be the opposite of Norway, also the richest country in the world. I imagine a system where people can have as many children as they want if they meet the requirements, which may range from ability to suitability. The malgenics movement will Godwinize any attempt improve on humanity, so it may need to be simply economic or uniformly restrictive, as they seem to value those parameters the best.
posted by Brian B. at 8:17 PM on April 11, 2012


Also, framing every issue as a failure of socialism is getting tired.
posted by sneebler at 8:24 PM on April 11, 2012


It's needed propaganda, if we are to teach people that being careful of our impact on the environment (not shitting where we eat) and being efficient in our use of resources (saving for a rainy day) are things that we actually should do.

It rather isn't, it gives nothing constructive and tarnishes the issue by failing to present a nuanced picture. It's like those hokey videos showing the evils as the earth as literal devils plaguing man to be fought off by a good Christian of faith. All it begats is a generation of voters still more concerned with health care than the environment (my Canadian cohort, the Captain planet one, picks medicare over going green when polled on the issues they care about). Kids don't need Fern Gully giving them the impression pollution is a blob creature and corporations knock them down because they are sooper evil. And they don't need detached slogans that don't even lead to any demonstrations of recycling, they need something realistic and constructive.

It's like... I have had even the tsunamis explained to me as being directly brought about by global warming. It's stupid, silly thinking and it make environmentalism inaccessible. Add green washing and sloganeering and it's no wonder it's such a turn off. Religion is exactly the right word for it; there's a definite self flogging apocalypse cult aspect being transmitted along with the much saner stuff. Come on- you have a movement that you don't seem at all bizarre if you refer to your species as the great blight on the planet.

Birth control is our human destiny and needs believers and actions in support of it.

You mean the thing all the westerners except for the weird ones are doing already? The huge families tend to go with lower impact countries, and generally correlate with regions that have horrific infant mortality.

I mean you can say "stop having people!" but with a few exceptions anywhere with a relatively good across the board standard of living stops the baby factory mindset and starts declining fast enough the old people and those who love them fret that there won't be the taxable workers for their social security.
posted by Phalene at 8:26 PM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


You mean the thing all the westerners except for the weird ones are doing already? The huge families tend to go with lower impact countries, and generally correlate with regions that have horrific infant mortality.

Rates can slow as a trend, it the base just keeps growing by the numbers, adding irreversible problems with soil quality, overgrazing, deforestation, overfishing, and poaching. We discuss all those things openly, but rarely in connection to population curbs. Smells like denial all around, as I would expect.
posted by Brian B. at 9:59 PM on April 11, 2012


No, it's pretty realistic, I'd say. The ozone hole we were busy creating a little while back would have in relatively short order wiped out all higher animal life as we know it on earth. It wouldn't have just forced us to go back to "darning our own socks." And that really happened. We almost brought it all to a hard stop, no exaggeration needed.
That doesn't seem particularly accurate. We're talking about a small amount of UV radiation being absorbed. It wasn't enough to kill all "higher animal life", it would have meant increased skin cancer rates for humans, but most animals are covered with hair/fur that would have absorbed it.

That isn't to say we couldn't destroy the planet if we deliberately tried to do it. We only ever built a few thousand atom bombs, what if we built millions and set them all off at once?
posted by delmoi at 12:46 AM on April 12, 2012


That doesn't seem particularly accurate. We're talking about a small amount of UV radiation being absorbed. It wasn't enough to kill all "higher animal life", it would have meant increased skin cancer rates for humans, but most animals are covered with hair/fur that would have absorbed it.

delmoi: read the cite before you shoot off your mouth.

Life on earth is utterly dependent on the presence of the ozone layer, from the bottom of the food chain all the way up. That's a basic undisputed fact of earth science. And the hole on the ozone we were producing was definitely on track to make earth uninhabitable had we not curtailed those activities with an international ban.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:51 AM on April 12, 2012


delmoi: tl;dr (since reading comprehension doesn't always seem to be your thing) - the biological web that sustains life on earth cannot continue without the ozone layer.

I guess you could argue there would have been negative feedback effects that would have killed us off before we were able to do enough harm to destroy the ozone layer completely, but there's enough lead time between our putting the stuff in the atmosphere to its destroying the ozone (and so much of the use of the stuff was on an industrial scale) that it's doubtful those effects would have stopped us before we'd already passed the point of no return.

Even Republicans, in those days, weren't dumb enough to deny the reality of the threat. Reagan personally championed the international regulations that banned the production of CFCs.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:02 AM on April 12, 2012


Smells like denial all around, as I would expect.

I'm not sure, with that sort of language, you're trying for a sincere conversation. However many, many of the world's countries are well organized to give at least close to accurate census reports on their population. Of the wealthy European ones, only France manages an increasing birth rate, facilitated by heavy maternal support, while places like Germany are facing a sharp decline. What conspiracy are you alluding to? In countries like mine all these births aren't just being tabulated, but billed and paid for by the state. The data simply doesn't suggest it, and I have no idea how you intend to impose birth control on the places where the government is crap enough not to do a reliable head count, thus where we rely more on estimates and these births you don't like are occurring.
posted by Phalene at 11:41 AM on April 12, 2012


...and these births you don't like are occurring.

If you don't think the world is overpopulated, just say so.
posted by Brian B. at 3:17 PM on April 12, 2012


these births you don't like are occurring.

This kind of language is just inflammatory. Advocates of population management aren't inherently racist nor are they "anti-birth." As I've said before, access to education and contraception is the big ticket item, and meanwhile we have anti-contraception forces actively fucking up shit in Africa like the Catholic Church, that the Pope literally telling people that condoms are wrong.

Condoms are a great example, actually: why the hell aren't these things completely government-subsidized yet? That is some criminal negligence, right there.
posted by mek at 5:16 PM on April 12, 2012


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