Occupy Environmentalism

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 1, 2012 7:06 PM


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When an institution remains wedded to a bygone era and unresponsive to change, It becomes irrelevant to people's lives. Like the Catholic church. Many Catholics in the West don't take the church's anachronistic doctrine to heart. If they did, 98 percent of Catholic women wouldn't be using birth control. Now when people criticize the Catholic church, they're talking about the Vatican. They're not talking about your local church, or your priest. Or Sunday School. They're talking about the rigid ideology that keeps the Catholic church--the institution--in the dark ages. It is an ideology that, as recently demonstrated, brooks no dissent or deviation. Environmentalism has an ideology that is similarly rigid and outdated. It has to modernize to keep from wasting away. This is what I recently argued here and here. The sum of these two pieces add up to a general critique of environmentalism, of its institutional creed. Numerous environmentalists, particularly those working at the grassroots level, took offense at what they asserted was a one-dimensional portrait of the green movement. I will defend that portrait in a moment, but first I want to say that many environmentalists are indeed doing very important, mostly unheralded work. I know this because I worked at Audubon magazine from 2000 to 2008, where I helped bring many of their stories to light. So when some responded angrily that I was unfairly caricaturing environmentalism, I can appreciate why they would take my critique as a personal slight. That said, I'm disappointed that many reflexively dismissed the thrust of my argument. The most common complaint on twitter and in blog comments was that I concocted a strawman, which infers that I painted a portrait of environmentalism that wasn't true. Let's look at that charge closely. In the main, here's what I argued, but in broad strokes, as one science journalist pointed out on twitter. Environmentalism is anti-technology. By this I mean anti-nuclear power and anti-genetically engineered crops. (I haven't even broached the anti-fracking fervor that environmentalist groups have embraced as their latest cause du jour.) These are, as I wrote in the Discover essay, "two technologies that experts say will be necessary to expand" to meet global energy and food demand. If, for example, reducing carbon emissions is your objective, I have a hard time understanding how you do that in the near to medium term without nuclear power. Others wonder, too, how that can be pulled off. If providing food for additional billions of people in the coming decades (while not overtaxing already overtaxed land and water resources) is something you care about, I have a hard time understanding how you do that without biotechnology. Others, wonder, too, how that can be pulled off. Do any mainstream green groups support either nuclear power or GMOs? On the contrary, many greens continue to either oppose outright or scaremonger on both the nuclear and GMO crop issues. So on two key environmental concerns--energy and agriculture--mainstream green groups turn their backs on existing technological solutions for ideological reasons. They are either opposed to nuclear or silent about the misinformation spewed by their more excitable colleagues. (Nice relevant comment on this by one reader over at the Discover thread.) Same goes for biotechnology and GMOs. Where's the strawman here? The eco-disaster narrative. Anyone who pays attention to the messaging of green groups and their spokespersons quoted in the media knows that the main frame is doom: Ecosystems are on the verge of collapse, species are going extinct every day, the climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Sure, of late we also hear happy talk about green jobs, but mostly we get an unending litany of dire warnings about the state of the planet. The result: People tune out or throw up their hands in despair. Still not seeing a strawman. The de-growth brigade. In my Discover piece, I discussed the positions of a leading environmentalist and a well-known environmental think tank, their arguments being that growth in developed countries needed to be cut back. (Similarly, reducing consumption is also one of the principal recommendations of the UK's Royal Society report released last week.) A commenter at Discover scoffed that I was relying on "academic types." I countered:

It's disingenuous to suggest that there is an important distinction to be made between environmental think tanks and advocacy groups. There is not. You suggest that such think tanks and "academic types" (as I have cited) don't characterize environmentalist thought or have much sway with environmental advocates. That's like saying conservative think tanks and conservative thought leaders don't influence conservatives or conservative rhetoric. I also find it curious that you would downplay the importance of environmental writers and academics/scholars/thinkers, which belies the history of environmentalism. From its origins, the environmental movement has been hugely influenced by a number of scholar/scientists, from Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner to E.O. Wilson and Bill McKibben.

Speaking of the history of environmentalism, Joe Romm, in his odd post (he goes to great lengths to tie my Discover essay to the New York Times, because Andy Revkin briefly noted it at his Dot Earth blog), says I got it all wrong about environmentalism:

This analysis, which would have been relevant 20 years ago, is simply the opposite of the truth today. Indeed, anyone who follows the history of the environmental movement knows that the most serious complaint offered against it these days is that it has become too corporatist and too focused on the techno-fix. I'm not saying I agree with that critique 100%, but it has far more truth to it than this critique. If you look at the major environmental groups "” the ones with the power and money that this analysis purports to be about "” they all work closely with industrial corporations, generally take lots of industry money, and they aggressively supported a climate bill that was absurdly pro-technology and pro-industry, that was business friendly and market oriented.

It's true that the big green NGOs have cozied up to corporate donors, including the fossil fuel interests that Romm & company love to demonize. Which is funny when you consider that the Sierra Club was recently outed for taking $25 million from the gas industry. Romm's parent organization drank from the same trough, it turns out. But none of these corporate ties has much to do with the brand of environmentalism I'm describing--the one that is opposed to nuclear power and biotechnology, unrelentingly catastrophist, obsessed with carbon footprints, and still besotted with romanticized notions of nature. As for Romm's take on the Royal Society report, well, you might want to compare it with a few others, such as Mark Lynas, author of the recently published bookThe God Species: Saving the planet in the age of humans. I'll also take up the report's specifics in a separate post. They are worth looking at in more detail. Meanwhile, there's another study out recently that environmentalists would do well to pay attention to. It's the one that found young people are turning off to environmental issues. This quote in the AP story from Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, caught my eye:

It's not so much that they [young students] don't think it's important. They're just worn out. It's like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it.

M. Sanjayan, a lead scientist with the Nature Conservancy, made a similar point in USA Today:

...our rhetoric is relentlessly about "less." Limit your footprint. Reduce your consumption. Why are we surprised that, for the majority of American youth, protecting nature seems a joyless exercise in deprivation?

Yes, environmentalists, why are you so surprised (and scornfully dismissive) when even some of your own colleagues point out how irrelevant you've become?

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