Friday, April 07, 2006

what is environmentalism?

Just what the hell is environmentalism? This post will examine the topic and come to a conclusion arrived at years ago by no less a wisdom figure than George Carlin.

Regarding what's really happening to our environment: I'm willing to let the agenda-driven scientific types battle it out as to whether we're going to be entering Dante's hell in the next few years, or whether we're merely seeing inevitable statistical hiccups in the current climatic trends. Personally, I think there's a lot we can do to clean up our act. We don't want to suffer the curse of Roseanne Roseannadanna, who once groused about how goldfish basically spend their lives swimming around in their own toilet. If we're truly fucking things up for ourselves, then yes: it's advisable for us to clean house.

I think, however, that the environmentalist war cry of "Save the planet!" makes for a ridiculously wrongheaded slogan. Biodiversity, to take one talking point from the enviro agenda, is not inherently good. It's not inherently anything, which is what the Darwinian conception of life is all about. Values don't enter into it: values are a human imputation. So-- along with George Carlin, I suggest we get real about why we like biodiversity and beautiful green things and intact food webs. It comes down to this: the survival of the human species. We're not trying to save the planet. We're trying to save ourselves.

Here, then, is my definition of "save the planet" environmentalism (STPE):

STPE is a movement whose tacit goal is the arresting or otherwise controlling, on the global level, of human and nonhuman macroprocesses to maintain an environment congenial to human existence for an indefinite period, all while claiming that the movement's actions are performed in the service of the planet and not merely of human life.

I wanted my definition to capture the disingenuousness that is central to STPE. I have no problem with the superficial layer of the movement: if people want to, say, preach that our vehicles are polluting the atmosphere, then fine: I agree! When I lived in the Chongno district of Seoul in the mid-1990s, I used to get black boogers from the horrific traffic exhaust. There's no doubt that things need to change, and radically.

But to argue that we're doing this for the planet, or that this should be done in the name of some twisted vision of bogus eco-harmony (which has never existed-- just ask the Indians who, even to this day, get eaten by tigers), is sophistry. Empty rhetoric. Farting out of one's mouth. Environmentalism is speciesism, no less selfish than greedy consumption and pollution of the environment. As a member of the human species, I have no trouble with the idea that we should keep the environment friendly to us, but let's not bullshit ourselves about what we're really aiming to do, which is to maintain the status quo as long as we can.

The earth has other plans, however. History shows us this. We can try to lock the macroprocesses down or channel them to our ends, but the earth will find a way to confound our puerile attempts to bend it to our will.

If, ultimately, the environmentalist argument boils down to some form of "Humans make dirt, and dirt is bad," well... I got news for ya': dirt ain't bad; dirt is dirt. The planet used to have an unbreathable atmosphere and a barren landscape. So what if we reduce all life to the much-feared "gray goo"? It's only bad for living things; it makes not a bit of difference to the planet as a whole.

Here's George Carlin's rant on environmentalism (found here; I've edited the text for purposes of flow), which is your required reading for the evening. Carlin says this so much better than I can:

We're so self-important. Everybody's going to save something now. "Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails." And the greatest arrogance of all: save the planet. What? Are these fucking people kidding me? Save the planet? We don't even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven't learned how to care for one another, and we're gonna save the fucking planet?

I'm getting tired of that shit. I'm tired of fucking Earth Day, I'm tired of these self-righteous environmentalists-- these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren't enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don't give a shit about the planet. They don't care about the planet. Not in the abstract they don't. You know what they're interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They're worried that some day in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn't impress me.

Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked. Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. Been here four and a half billion years. Did you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years. We've been here, what, a hundred thousand? Maybe two hundred thousand? And we've only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the conceit to think that somehow we're a threat? That somehow we're gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that's just a-floatin' around the sun?

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles... hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages... And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans, are going to make a difference? The planet... the planet isn't going anywhere. WE ARE!

We're going away. Pack your shit, folks. We're going away. And we won't leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. A little styrofoam. The planet'll be here and we'll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet'll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.

You wanna know how the planet's doing? Ask those people at Pompeii, who are frozen into position from volcanic ash, how the planet's doing. You wanna know if the planet's all right, ask those people in Mexico City or Armenia-- or a hundred other places-- buried under thousands of tons of earthquake rubble, if they feel like a threat to the planet this week. Or how about those people in Kilauea, Hawaii, who built their homes right next to an active volcano, and then wonder why they have lava in the living room.

The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we're gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, 'cause that's what it does. It's a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it's true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn't share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn't know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, "Why are we here?"

Plastic... asshole.

Carlin points to the same bullshit I see in the environmentalist movement: the underlying romanticism that gives rise to dangerously false notions of natural harmony, coupled with the avaricious speciesism to which many (or perhaps most) environmentalists do not wish to admit. Where I differ from Carlin is that, if said environmentalists were to drop their romanticism, actually dialogue with more scientists than those who agree with their agenda, and wholly advocate an aggressively speciesist project (e.g., "stapling" fault lines to keep them from moving, weather control, and other sci-fi dreams), I'd be all for their movement.

Michael Crichton's controversial 2003 speech titled "Environmentalism Is a Religion" also expresses how I feel. The speech seems to have been designed specifically to piss environmentalists off, which might not be the most constructive approach to dialogue. Also, as certain critics of the speech have noted, Crichton doesn't name sources for some of his facts and figures (perhaps he has done so elsewhere, in which case I'd appreciate an email from you, with relevant links), especially when he claims that second-hand smoke is harmless and that "environmentalism" (never fully defined in his speech) has already killed off tens of millions of people, particularly among the poor, through the banning of substances like DDT, which are not toxic as has been claimed.

Crichton also makes the mistake of saying "religion" when he really means "Judeo-Christian religion." He calls environmentalism a religion because, in his view, the environmentalist worldview depicts us as having been thrown into the polluted wilderness after having enjoyed an Edenic, harmonious past, and that divine retribution in the form of an apocalyptic eschaton will engulf us should we not change our sinful ways. Environmentalists are also religious, Crichton contends, in the sense that they are rarely amenable to scientific facts. Perhaps Crichton has a point, though some critics quite fairly point out that (1) environmentalists are far from a monolithic bloc and (2) many are scientists themselves.

Carlin, Crichton, and Kevin: the latter two agree that working toward cleaning up our own messes is all well and good; all three of us see environmentalism as a movement shrouded in far too much romantic self-delusion and speciesist arrogance.

When I go hiking, I don't drop trash on trails. When I camp, I pack out my trash. I hate seeing pollution, whether in the Shenandoah Valley or on Korean mountains. In America, I often pick up the odd scrap of refuse while hiking; here in Korea, in the mountains ringing Seoul, there's simply too much crap to pick up. I hike because I do appreciate nature's beauty, but I also know that beauty is something my mind reads into the landscape. Should all this beauty disappear along with humanity, I know for a fact that the earth won't give a shit. It doesn't need saving. So let's stop kidding ourselves. When I pick up pieces of trash, I'm doing it for me and other people, not for some romantic quasi-deity called Mother Nature.

Not for the earth.

UPDATE, April 7, 2010: In 2008, I also wrote on this subject at my other blog, Kevin's Walk.

UPDATE, February 15, 2014: From 1880 to 2012, the average global temperature went up—wait for this—less than one degree Centigrade. See here. Are you frightened yet? Terrified? Are the polar ice caps melting away? Are the coasts flooding? Is global geography being reshaped à la Al Gore's computer model in "An Inconvenient Truth"? Strangely enough, the ice caps have been enlarging in recent years. Fancy that.



Anonymous said...

As an environmental studies major, I have to say that I agree with the gist of your post. On a geological time scale, anything we do is not really that big of a deal. However, it is alarming to many people to see their world change so radically in such a short period of time. I think the human brain is wired to see the short-term effects. Thinking in the long-term is a difficult thing to do sometimes. It was a long time before plate techtonics was accepted by the scientific community.

Regarding biodiversity, we have a vested interest in preserving it, but right now people don't see the costs of losing it. We don't need to save everything, in fact it would be stupid to suggest such a thing, but it would be nice if we didn't make preventable mistakes that could be avoided with a little mitigative thinking.

Let's use genetic modification as an example. Monsanto is committed to having everyone use their seed, which is insect and disease resistant- a good thing in general. There are some major flaws in using one super-cultivar:

1. If a pest adapts the ability to overcome the resistant traits of a cultivar, it will quickly become a super-pest, able to mow down all of the crops that share the same DNA.

2. Genetic leakage will get back into the natural system, polluting stocks of tradional cultivars that have been developed over centuries by local cultures. These locally developed strains have been naturally selected over long periods of time to best utilize the local climate, geology, and other environmental factors specific to micro-geographies.

3. These super-cultivars require a lot of chemicals in order to maximize yields. For poor farmers, the cost of the seed and the chemicals is often prohibitive in such an unstable business. An unnatural surplus of crops in the market puts some farmers out of business, forcing them to become migrational workers.

4. Increased yields also tax the land. Salinization renders the land useless for long-term cultivation in some cases, and runoff from the fertilizers contributes to eutrophication in the watershed, impacting eco-systems on a micro and macro level.

5.Even though it may not be necessary to have a wealth of organisms, it would be sad to see them go if it they didn't have to.

It's so hard to convince people that it is in their best interest not to trash the planet.

On the other hand, people are easily convinced that any activity that humans do is unnatural and bad for the environment. This is bullshit. The human is an animal, and our actions are an extension of nature. It's presumptious to say that humans are divorced from the natural world.

We can only screw up the environment so much before the negative feedback kicks everything into balance again. When that happens, people will die and eventually learn from their mistakes or just die off.

Personally, I am optimistic about the future of the human race. Though sometimes the social conciousness is slow to learn, it seems to me that we have made great strides in the way that we accumulate, process, and assimilate information.

Or maybe a comet will smash into the earth and everything will start all over again...

Anonymous said...

Well said! I am an environmentalist myself, in the sense that I'd like to keep the planet as friendly to me as long as possible. I have a car, out of necessity, but you will never see me driving an SUV or other fuel-guzzling beast. I pick up trash that floats down the little creek outside my study. At first, my wife and my family thought it was kind of weird that I was picking up trash I didn't put there. But hey, it's my backyard, and I'd like to have a clean backyard.

If everyone just kept their own little corner of the earth clean, we'd be a lot better off.