Why Environmentalism Isn’t Really a Thing

Lest anyone characterize me as a shameless, dyed-in-the-wool liberal, I like to have it on the record that I know how to take both sides down. (It just so happens that conservatives are usually stupider and thus merit more scorn.)  Hence today’s discussion on the fallacy of environmentalism.

First off, let’s start with a simple statement of fact:  Our planet’s going to be just fine.  Yes, our planet, the third one from the Sun, the one we named “Earth” —  it’s not going anywhere.  It’s not dying, and most importantly of all: WE ARE NOT KILLING IT.

I say this just because it seems helpful to remember every now and then, especially with all the hyperventilating that seems to happen around climate change and whatnot.  No, we don’t need to “save the planet.”  Saying we need to “save” it, or that we’re “hurting” it, is really a magnificent arrogance — as if we, little insignificant human beings, can either really damage or really help the planet in one way or another.

By way of explanation, a thought exercise:  let’s presume that the “life-span” of the earth is 9-10 billion years (this is generally when scientists believe the Sun will become a Red Giant and incinerate our particular ball of compacted galactic dust).  We’re at about 4.5 billion years right now, meaning Earth is approaching 40 in human years (assuming a typical human life of 75 years).  Human beings have been on Earth for 100,000 years, more or less.  So that means, if we convert Earth’s life-span onto a human scale, that humans have been around for about one morning of one day in the life of the earth.

Let’s just repeat that: humans have been around for ONE MORNING of ONE DAY in the Earth’s 40th year of life.  In that sense we’re kind of like a muscle cramp.

Moving on: if humans have been around for, relatively, one morning of one day of the Earth’s seventy-year life, then the industrial revolution (i.e., pollution) has lasted about 45 seconds of that morning of that day in Earth’s life.  The resulting contamination – what we’re currently experiencing in the form of oil, carbon dioxide, and nuclear waste – will remain, by some estimates, for another 100,000 years or so, which I believe is a generous estimate (nuclear waste becomes as inert as the original uranium ore after 1,000-10,000 years, and other pollutants probably faster).  Another way to say it is that the contamination will last another single morning for the earth, maybe the morning after a heavy drinking binge, with a raging hangover of human pollution.

To sum up: human life is Earth’s crazed, one-night drinking and drug binge, the industrial revolution was its hit off a PCP-laced crack pipe, and our pollution is its excruciating hangover.  That’s about the extent of the impact that we can ever hope to have on Planet Earth.  It’ll sleep us off and move on with its life, preferably moving in other, less rowdy social circles.

So then, when people say things like “save the environment” or “save the Earth,” what they are really talking about is saving OURSELVES, i.e., our species.  It’s all 100% anthropocentric — they’re only worried about us people.  Because even when we talk about mass extinctions as a result of climate change or water pollution, there will still be animals that survive, and there will still be new flora and fauna that thrive, just as it did after previous extinction events.  Just as it did after the dinosaurs, and the ice ages.

Again, even  in talking about saving other species we are only talking about the plants and animals with which we — 21st century human beings — are familiar.  We mostly ignore that other species used to exist and that current species are constantly changing and dying even without our help.  We ignore that everything is always in flux and that we are a part of that flux.  We continue to make everything about us-in-this-moment (not even really us-to-come), no matter how much people try  to claim otherwise.  Even when we talk about our children and subsequent generations, vanity and egocentrism are primary motivators.

All of this means that reminding ourselves to treat the environment respectfully and sustainably is redundant; there’s already a rule for that and it’s called Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”  In modern terms: you should act only as you would have everyone else act.  It’s a pretty damned close cousin of the Golden Rule, only it’s backed by dozens of pages of dense philosophical argumentation.

What this means is that If you don’t want to live in a trash heap, you shouldn’t throw trash on the ground.  If you enjoy drinking, bathing, and recreating in clean water, you should support restrictions on certain industries (e.g., chemical, energy, agriculture, etc.) that poison it.  If you like breathing freely, you should drive less and support regulations on carbon emissions.  If you like beaches and coastal cities, you should probably look into that global warming thing.

To relate this redundancy to current events, it’s an analog of the idiotic bathroom bill that recently passed in North Carolina.  People are allegedly worried about men dressing up as women to molest little girls, so they made a new law against it despite the fact that it was already illegal.  But you only need two laws preventing the same thing if you didn’t trust the first one to begin with.  So basically, by introducing a 2nd law against a previously outlawed action, you are saying your existing laws are worthless and cannot be trusted, whereby the 2nd law is also worthless.  So congrats to NC legislators for invalidating their own laws and calling into question their entire raison d’etre.

The same goes with environmentalism.  We don’t need a movement called environmentalism to “save the Earth for our children.”  We only need to remind ourselves that poisoning humans is wrong and illegal, and we should probably work harder to make sure people stop doing it.

WHAT I’M NOT SAYING:

  • We should trash the environment because it’ll be able to take care of itself.  Yes it will, in the long run, but it’s still immoral according to the Categorical Imperative.  And it hurts human beings which is, you know, bad.
  • Going out of your way to save the environment is bad, wrong, or a waste of time.  No, because it helps human beings which is, you know, good.

WHAT I AM SAYING:

  • Can we think about retiring the term “environmentalism”?  What we’re really talking about is anthropocentrism or humanism.  Let’s all take a deep breath and admit that we don’t really care all that much about the Earth beyond its capacity to house it’s most powerful and egocentric creations: us. Once we can honestly admit this we’ll be better off in terms of policy, advocacy, and mental health.  We’re just not as altruistic as we like to think we are.

All of this reminds me of one day about a decade ago when I was riding a bus with a Colombian friend in Bogotá.  We passed the Presidential Palace, outside of which sat a huge inflatable whale among Greenpeace activists, who were protesting Colombia’s whale-hunting.  My first thought to my friend was, ‘Don’t you think Colombia has bigger problems right now than a bunch of whales?’

(Aside: this first thought ignored the fact that our desire to protect whales is usually justified by their role in the food chain, which could lead to numerous marine extinctions, affecting ultimately — you guessed it — us humans and our food supply.  So again an argument about animals and the planet is really about us.)

My friend replied to this comment that ‘Whales are important too.’  I understood that at the time and I still do.  But it also struck me at the time that our priorities are pretty unbalanced if we were more worried about saving whales than people, especially in Colombia where they, at the time, happened to be dying by the thousands every year at the hands of guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitary squads.  The entire episode really made me dislike environmentalists for the first time.  Are humans more important than whales?  You know what? I thought,  I’m going to go ahead and say yes.  And I’m not even going to explain why.  So take that and suck on it awhile.

But the issue isn’t really whether or not humans are more important than whales.  There’s a more fundamental question, which is:  Is it easier to convince people to care about whales or other humans?   If you are living in a country or a society where they don’t even value other human lives, how can you expect them to care on a large scale about something as alien as a whale?

It’s a matter of priorities, based on logical, realizable goals.  Protecting humans in Colombia is a more feasible and worthwhile goal.  And framing the environmental movement in terms of helping WE THE PEOPLE is more likely to garner support than if we just talk about saving an impersonal Earth.

 

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2 Responses to “Why Environmentalism Isn’t Really a Thing”

  1. I agree with you, but also think people have a tendency to prioritize problems that are simple, because complex problems require complex solutions, and nuanced thinking is hard and time-consuming.

    Not controlling or regulating pollution enough hurts people, because it reduces the supply of oxygen and potable water. But there’s resistance to doing it because of competing concerns about the negative impact on some businesses. Tracking pollution sources and regulating them by crafting legislation is complex. Being worried about losing your job is simple.

    I think your example about whales in Colombia works the same way. You have to imagine the systemic corruption caused by the dynamics of the international drug trade. That’s a complex cognitive requirement. By comparison, you can see a floating whale carcass, and understand the problem directly, with empathy.

    • You raise an important point about the relative complexity of each problem, although I’m skeptical in the sense that you can always find nuance if you look closely. True evil is the stuff of storybooks. Concerning the whales, for example, there are businesses and cultures that depend on their slaughter, just as there are businesses/jobs that virtually depend on poisoning water and air. The whaling industry is certainly not as big, but a large part of our general disdain for them in the U.S. surely has to do with the fact that it’s not an integral part of Western (U.S.) culture.

      I’m also skeptical that people who have been utterly desensitized to human violence (in a country like Colombia that regularly shows dead/mutilated bodies on nightly news) will feel empathy upon seeing a whale carcass. But I do agree with you that the problems of Colombia and environmentalism are inherently more complex than I’ve characterized it here, and I appreciate you pointing that out.

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