Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Green Fields of Ecotopia are Fertilized with Bullshit

Big deep breath. Hold it in. Hold it ... and now let it out in one long rambling diatribe.

Al Gore is a pud. Sorry, this is not debatable. He's just a pud. Pud, pud, pud. PhD of Fap. Climate change is indeed something to worry about, but playing fast and loose with the facts does tremendous damage in the long run. I can't remember if he got the Nobel Prize for An Inconvenient Truth or The Day After Tomorrow. The rice fields of Bangladesh will not, in fact, start getting vacuumed in to space by daily monster-hurricanes next year (he didn't actually say that, but still). And to pick on other environmental pet peeves: industrial agriculture, in some form, is necessary for our well-being; driving a hybrid doesn't make financial sense and barely makes an environmental case; and extraction of natural resources--mining, logging, drilling--is inevitable and necessary. Lest the reader think I'm an anti-environmentalist, I'd love nothing more than for all of us to be running off of solar/wind/tidal energy, using biodegradable or recyclable products, and decreasing our need for primary earth resources. However, there is no magic bullet. For example: solar power panels tap a limitless source of non-polluting energy, but are created using toxic chemicals and facilitate further suburbanization of the country by decentralizing energy production/consumption.

Okay, back up. We need a better definition of terms. "Environmentalism", "green", "conservation", etc., are tossed about so much as to be meaningless.

Wait, no, in fact step back even farther. I'm going to reframe the entire topic.

I recently had the privilege to hear a lecture about humankind's effect on the geological record. Several authors have tried to quantify the human impact on sedimentary processes and species' extinctions. Low estimates start with our effects being on par with a gigantic impact (e.g. the event that finished off the dinosaurs: it pumped billions of tons of material into the atmosphere, sent epic tsunamis hundreds of miles inland to wash against the Appalachians and Rockies, and coated Earth in ash) on up to high estimates of us moving ten times as much earth material as is transported by river systems, glaciers, ocean currents, dust storms, and so on in a given year. Biologically, there is broad consensus that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass-extinction event on par with the five Big Ones of the last half-billion years. There is some debate about species extinction vs. entire higher-order extinctions (families, genera, etc.), but the fact that there is debate only over details is telling. The combined effect is so vast and utterly complete that a new Anthropocene Epoch has been proposed as a way to delineate our effects from the good ol' Holocene. Hopefully this conveys something about the scale of our footprint.

This leads to my first point: we can't unscrew the pooch. Humankind's effect on the globe is as devastating, complete, and entirely natural as any prior reworking of the biological and physical landscape. The only difference is that we have introduced morality in to the picture. Call it what you want--environmentalism, "conscious living"--but do not doubt for one second that most environmentalists, me included, view the world through a fundamentally moral lens. I feel it's important to make this point since traditional environmentalists have expressed alarm at religious types embracing the heretofore fringe beliefs about recycling, conservation, and "conscious" lifestyles. Why the horror? Are you interested in spreading your message outside your self-righteous circle of green? To make a difference, you've got to include more than your traditional lefty minority ... or are you more interested in a pissing contest with your enemies than you are in making a difference?

My second point: given the magnitude of our footprint, and the shear volume and diversity of people on the planet, our best strategy is to manage our impact. In short, compromise. This means that, yes, we need big ugly mines; yes, we need coal and petroleum for a while to come; and, oh shit, your beloved hardwood floors inevitably come from somewhere. It's no wonder "compromise" is such a loaded word. [There's special irony in me calling for compromise, as my inability to judge when and when not to is probably my greatest flaw; but, unlike many of my environmentalist peers, I at least recognize its utility.] We need to understand that our actions have irreversible effects on Earth, no matter how hard we try to minimize them. There is no perfect energy source, no true "leave-no-trace", and certainly no low-impact transportation. One example: wind turbine farms all across America (Montana, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, West Virginia, you-name-it) are facing NIMBY opposition from, ironically, conservation groups! Why? Most commonly they "ruin the scenic value of the landscape". Please. Have you ever been in an airplane? See all those straight lines on the ground? See how most of the arable land is being farmed? None of that was there a few hundred years ago ... looks pretty fuckin' ruined to me! If you value scenery, fine; if you value reducing greenhouse gas emission, fine. But don't rail against global warming and then turn around to fight windmills on the horizon. They've gotta go somewhere. Repeat after me: compromise, compromise, compromise.

And my final point: if we really want to make a change, our individual initiative doesn't come close to our collective impact. Buying a hybrid is a great salve for guilt, but does it make a difference? No. Higher CAFE standards make a difference. Tighter regulations on mining and logging make a difference. Widely-available organic foods make a difference. The biggest difference comes, however, if such regulation is economically viable (read: "sustainable" politically, socially, and economically--not just naturally). Organic fetishists were horrified when Wal*Mart started carrying organic foods. The new critique is "monoculture"; simply being organic isn't good enough any more. I have some sympathy with their critique, but seriously? Expanding the market for these foods and bringing their costs down is probably the most effective way to make them competitive with regular pesticide/antibiotic/preservative-enhanced foods. [This belies my conservative sympathies that over-regulation can choke off growth and ultimately undermine itself. I'll admit to a strong reluctance to embrace the Kyoto Protocols, though I suspect that Industry overstates their case for costs.] Religiously buying locally-grown organic food is, once again, a good salve for your guilt--but it's not so different from eating a religious diet (kosher, halal, whatever): you'll feel pretty good, even smug, while the rest of the world goes about its business as usual.

In sum: go help the other side figure out a solution, be they industry or conservationists. Prioritize your environmental beliefs--climate change, water quality, wildlife protection, waste management, and landscape protection can have conflicting needs. Understand that profit isn't always evil, science is debatable, and change is ultimately inevitable. Let us all rejoice that moderates and church-goers are stepping in to green. Some decades from now we'll have lessened our dependence on agricultural chemicals, greenhouse-creating power sources, and limited sources of fresh water.

And finally, espousing severe arguments almost inevitably undermines your position and weakens the entire effort once the facts come out. President Bush has experienced this (though he certainly hasn't learned) from his cases for Iraq, wiretapping, and interrogations. He has sown his own seeds for failure. As for Al Gore, I appreciate that his movie increased awareness of climate change but I could easily argue that the movie's message was already widespread. Gore's scaremongering and loose handling of the facts has only undermined his message by giving critics a nice big factual brush with which they can boldly paint the green movement. So Al Gore is a pud, Q.E.D.

Now I can breathe in before I pass out.


Blogger pasq242 said...

There was a series on NPR called "Consumed" that discussed consumerism and its effects. For one bit, they intereviewed Jared Diamond who wrote Collapse. In the interview, he also says that yes, there are 12 different problems we need to solve, and solving 11 but not the 12th still fucks us. What really gave me pause, though, was this:

DIAMOND: "If we carried on as we are now, then I would expect that we will not have a First World lifestyle anywhere sometime between 30 and 50 years from now."


3:12 PM  
Blogger Waan said...

This is exactly what I'm talking about. Diamond throws out phrases like "we're finished" and "between 30 and 50 years". It's doomsday talk. The authors of "The Population Bomb" in the '60s had a similar argument with substantially more evidence. I find this incredibly frustrating because there is a kernel of truth in his extrapolation of the trends--but making forecasts for our demise makes it all too easy to dismiss him.

His defense of "false alarms" being a necessary part of any protective system runs thin. A more accurate analogy is the boy who cries wolf--but in our case everyone is screwed when it finally comes true.

It's an issue of balance. Go too far in one direction (as I'd argue Diamond and, to a lesser extent, Gore have done) and you risk being marginalized; go too far in the other direction and you risk inaction until it's too late to avoid some serious pain.

There is also a kernel of truth in what that jackass from the Cato Institute says: if helping the environment will help humankind, you can be sure it'll happen--if only for selfish reasons. It's a sign of progress (and, depending on your point of view, a strike against human nature) that explicit links are being made between environmentalism and human well-being.

10:58 AM  

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