Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Shallow New Environmentalism?

The June issue of Harper’s has two pieces that make some excellent points about the shallowness of much of the new green movement. One, by Edward Hoagland, laments our destruction of wild places as well as the loss of our ability to appreciate their wildness. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a creation that is still largely a mystery, the modern American sees everything in terms of what serves our own imagined needs.

Hoagland writes with distaste of the trend of city people buying remote acres in Vermont to use as weekend hideouts or even full-time escapes, indulging fantasies of having land to farm in case of the collapse of civilization. He also pricks the self-indulgent concerns of the new environmentalism. Hoagland describes the new green movement as more concerned about managing the environment, so that it is safe for people to go on living and using resources in the ways we already do, than in conserving wild spaces for their inherent value, which may have little to do with humans. He writes,

“Conservation, which used to embrace national parks and forests, wild rivers, and the like, has blurred into a new term, Environmentalism, concerned with petroleum efficiency, groundwater quality, ozone statistics, sea-level maintenance, tradewinds pollution, recycling yardsticks, climate stabilization. People want mobility, yet a hideaway ‘off the grid,’ and to have the heart muscles of a hunter-gatherer, attained in a gym, though practically living in cyberspace, but still touch the earthly verities through yoga. Meanwhile, the pace and enormity of destruction is paralyzing, as is our general indifference.”

Ooofff. It’s criticism that is a bit hard to take, but in its way is a refreshing blast of reality. I partly fit the image of the type of person Hoagland is criticizing, the type who wants it all—my modern comforts and conveniences yet the weekend retreat in the wilderness. My husband and I have even talked about our fantasy of buying a few acres in the country and living off the land. But I am too much of a realist to indulge this fantasy for long. I support the idea of living in harmony with the land, of being self-sufficient with food, of not being dependent on the modern grid of systems that seem increasingly fragile and out of control. Yet, aside from knowing that I would not prosper as a full-time farmer, the idea is not realistic for broader social reasons. A movement of a few people indulging their wishes to withdraw from a corrupt society and have an Armageddon back-up plan isn’t going to solve a planetary crisis involving overpopulation, widespread destruction of land, and unpredictable changes in climate.

The only approach that could work to head off a global environmental crisis is collective sacrifice of “staggering” proportions, writes Garrett Keizer. A call for collective sacrifice is highly unlikely in the current American political climate, in which the political agenda is dominated by affluent elites who believe green technology will be our savior. We need to acknowledge that it is precisely our misguided worship of technology that has brought on the climate change crisis. Keizer writes,

“It is not enough to acknowledge that global warming exists; we also need to ask what global warming means. Surely one thing it means is that a culture that has as its highest aim the avoidance of anything remotely resembling physical work must change its life. If you want an inconvenient truth, there it is: that the very notion of convenience upon which our civilization rests is a lie that is killing us. And if you want to see how quickly green can turn yellow, make mention of that abundant, renewable fuel source whose chief emission is human sweat.”

I have been thinking a lot about convenience this week, living without driving. Convenience is growing to seem more like a euphemism for laziness or self-indulgence. The excuses I make to myself in times I don’t feel like riding my bike two miles to buy food or run errands are just childish. I don’t want to get hot. Get sweaty. Exert myself. My attitude at these moments boils down to a child whining, “But I don’t waaant toooo.!!”

When did convenience become a politically untouchable American right? Why was it ok for Roosevelt to call on Americans to make large, inconvenient collective sacrifices during World War II but not for our leaders today to invoke the notion of collective sacrifice to combat climate change?

The criticism offered by Hoagland and Keizer is sweeping, and it is not easy to respond or come up with pat solutions to the systemic and cultural problems they highlight. It is a relief to me, however, to read serious and provocative pieces that get at the roots of global warming—us and our attitudes—rather than the more typical article pointing the finger at particular polluting industries, or promoting the latest green technology.