Moving beyond fear and denial, or: Whither Environmentalism?

I have been hearing two forms of gentle criticism from some of my readers.

One is: omigod, this is so depressing, can’t you write about something else???

The other is: okay, we get it, enough with the exhortations, start telling us WHAT TO DO about all this scary stuff you’re laying on us.

I have been pondering both these responses, wondering how use my time and energy in this blog most effectively.

My major goal is to awaken more people to:

a) the realities of climate change bearing down on us all;

b) the incredibly fast, harsh and irrevocable impact that human over-population and careless industry has been having on the flora & fauna of our world–the real 99%;

c) the way big corporate interests have a stranglehold on crucial areas of our political system, our media, and our food supply, and thus on our political, mental and physical health, as well as the ability to control what we see, what we think and how we think it;

d) the way our education system is falling into line and failing to rise to the challenges of educating young citizens who will be forces for positive change in this dismal scenario;

e) and yes, depressing as it may be to contemplate, the dire consequences that will ensue if enough of us fail to wake up and act now to shift human society and our interactions with the natural world (of which we are a part) in a very different, more life-enhancing direction.

So that brings us back around to this key question: what should we do?

Believe you me, if I knew, I’d be trumpeting it loud and clear on this blog.  I wish I could claim to be the next Messiah!

Times have changed since the Biblical days when Moses could part the waters and lead everyone to safety–although I do find myself thinking more, as the sea levels rise worldwide, about good old Noah and his ark.

Moses drew on metaphysical powers to help him through dark times, while Noah got out his hammer and used technology to weather the storm.

In our own time and place, we are busy looking for technological fixes; those who believe in divine intervention seem to be resigned to Apocalypse, preparing themselves for Armageddon and the ascent to another, nonphysical realm of existence.

I think I am beginning to get glimmers of a middle path.

Yes, we need to be applying ourselves to the collective task of using technology to enable us to survive climate change, but our technological efforts need to be driven by a new reverence for all life on this planet, out of which a new ethics can grow that will replace greed and selfishness as the driving forces of human industry.

***

In the latest issue of Orion Magazine, environmental activists Derrick Jensen and Paul Kingsnorth both express their frustrations with the current environmental movement.

Jensen takes movement organizers to task for their drift towards actions that are “fun and sexy.”  “The fact that so many people routinely call for environmentalism to be more fun and more sexy reveals not only the weakness of our movement but also the utter lack of seriousness with which even many activists approach the problems we face.  When it comes to stopping the murder of the planet, too many environmentalists act more like they’re planning a party than building a movement,” Jensen says bitterly.

This criticism speaks to the first category of comments about my blog–the “oh it’s too depressing to think about” crowd.  Let’s face it, this is a big crowd!  The environmentalist party-planners are trying to reach these folks, who were suckled from birth on cheery feel-good media, by presenting environmental action as fun and sexy, rather than as scary and angst-ridden.  It’s environmentalism on anti-depressants, and it fits a big swath of our population, who don’t want to dwell on anything sad or depressing, unless maybe it’s a movie that you know will ultimately have a happy ending.

Harriet Tubman

Jensen ends his column by invoking the spirits of Harriet Tubman, Tecumseh and the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, who were deadly serious in their resistance, and willing to do whatever it took to succeed.

People like to be inspired by memories of heroes past; one of my most popular blog posts has been “Let Your Life Be a Counter-Friction to Stop the Machine,” which recalled Thoreau’s famous refusal to pay taxes to support a government whose policies he did not believe in.

In all these cases individuals were inspired by moral outrage to stand up and resist the powers that be in order to change the status quo.

That is certainly what each of us needs to be doing, in our own spheres, in our daily lives.  We need to become more aware of what is going on around us; of our place in the ecological web, and how the small actions we take each day contribute to a huge assault on the natural world that will soon lead to a climate crisis that will force us, willy-nilly, to change.

***

It is January, 2012, and when I look out my window I see brown grass, not a speck of snow.  It was 54 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday, for crying out loud!  You won’t find this story in the New York Times, but Brad Johnson’s recent report in  Alternet paints an unmistakeable portrait of serious climate change, not in the future, but right now:

“Fueled by billions of tons of greenhouse pollution, a surge of record warmth has flooded the United States, shattering records from southern California to North Dakota. “Temperatures have reached up to 40 degrees above early January averages in North Dakota,” the Weather Channel reports. Cities are seeing late-April temperatures at the start of January — Minot, ND hit 61 degrees, Aberdeen, SD hit 63 degrees, and Williston, ND hit 58 degrees, all-time record highs for the month of January.”

All very nice in midwinter, but what happens next summer, when temperatures are suddenly 40 degrees above average?  We won’t be laughing then, will we?

Which brings us back to the second criticism of my blog, that I only talk endlessly about the bad news, and exhort people to act, without giving any concrete suggestions for what to do.

Paul Kingsnorth

It also brings me to Paul Kingsnorth, whose long article in Orion, “Confessions of Recovering Environmentalist,” will be the subject of an open conference phone call on January 18.

Like Jensen, Kingsnorth is critical of the environmental movement–not for being too party-oriented, but for being too “utilitarian.”  Kingsnorth deplores environmentalists who have happily jumped on the technological fix bandwagon–the solar farm, wind farm, sustainable energy crowd–who are fixated on finding new ways to continue our same old depredation of the environment–just more sustainably.

“Today’s environmentalism,” he says,  “is…an adjunct to hypercapitalism: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge: a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions: a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections. It is our last hope.”

Kingsnorth declares he wants nothing of this “soulless” form of environmentalism.  “What is to be done about this? Probably nothing. It was, perhaps, inevitable that a utilitarian society would generate a utilitarian environmentalism….But for me—well, this is no longer mine, that’s all. I can’t make my peace with people who cannibalize the land in the name of saving it. I can’t speak the language of science without a corresponding poetry. I can’t speak with a straight face about saving the planet when what I really mean is saving myself from what is coming.”

Disturbingly, Kingsnorth ends his article by telling us he’s turning his back on the environmental movement, and striking off on his own.  “I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

What he means is that he’s going to go and quietly reconnect with the land herself.  That’s important for all of us to do.  But I can’t advocate “going out walking” as a strategy for the urgent task of changing human relations with our planet.

More positively, Kingsnorth calls for a renewed “ecocentrism,” as opposed to the environmentalism that he sees as having become hollow and “plastic.”

“The “environment”—that distancing word, that empty concept—does not exist. It is the air, the waters, the creatures we make homeless or lifeless in flocks and legions, and it is us too. We are it; we are in it and of it, we make it and live it, we are fruit and soil and tree, and the things done to the roots and the leaves come back to us.”

That is indeed the central message I have been trying to send in my blog posts about “the environment.”  We are part of the web of life on this planet, and every tree that falls, every bird that is poisoned, every tree frog that goes extinct, is a leaf on the great tree of life that includes us humans too.  Kill all the leaves, and the great tree will die.

Tree of Life--Guadalupe, by Jane Lafazio

***

What to do?  Don’t stand there asking what to do!  Look around, roll up your sleeves and get busy!  Offer your talents to the task.  If you can write, start writing and share your thoughts with ever wider circles of readers.  If you can farm, start an organic CSA.  If you are an engineer, you should be focusing on renewable energy.  If you are a chemical engineer, you should be calling out the Monsantos and the Dows, even if it costs you your job.

We all need to be working on overcoming our media addictions and our socially reinforced tendencies to pull the covers over our heads.  We need to be engaging, Occupy-style, with our political system, and sending a clear message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

There is so much to do, and so little time.  Let’s get out there, each bearing our own gifts and energies, and turn this earthship around.

Leave a comment

7 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jenny, for acknowledging the responses to your previous post. I had been contemplating writing something along the lines of the second group of responses, pointing out that our inaction comes not from a lack of caring but from sheer, overwhelmed bewilderment. What, exactly are we supposed to do? We humans don’t do well when faced with the uncertainty of not knowing. And yes, inaction arises also from that old standby that struck me as so relevant back in my environmental studies days, the tragedy of the commons. The air, the water, the earth itself belong to all of us and none of us, making it a huge challenge for most of us to feel a direct sense of responsibility for what happens to these shared resources.

    I spent a couple of days thinking about your call to us parents to WAKE UP–days that were, I admit, filled with exactly that question: “What can I do? What can poor, tiny, one-in-seven-billion-old-me actually DO to change anything?” Then I decided that what I can do will be the small things. Aside aside from taking part in the sexy environmentalism we have all been trained so well in (recycle, drive efficiently, keep the thermostat set low), I resolve

    1) to live with greater openness to the many other (albeit small) things I might do each day, week, month, toward the change we need.
    2) to talk to my children; to take the opportunity to have them grow up in awareness rather than blindness.
    3) to continue to nurture the families of the babies I witness coming into this world so that those families will have a more peaceful beginning that might lead to less violent childhoods for their children.
    4) to continue to write fiction that is both my own exploration of human frailty and the possibility of triumph, and, I hope, some sort of wake-up call to those who read it.

    I think this is what you mean by each bearing our own gifts and energies, and I hope it is enough.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 8, 2012

      Yes, this is exactly what I’m hoping to inspire in my readers. Although I don’t agree with all of Booker T. Washington’s ideas, his phrase “cast down your buckets where you are” has been resounding in my mind lately. All social change starts with individuals becoming aware (crucial first step) and then deciding to do whatever we can, wherever we are, with whatever tools we’ve got to use and to offer. And we need to TALK TO EACH OTHER about what we’re doing! That’s how individual actions become waves of social change.

      Thanks as always for all you do each day, including reading my blog!

      Reply
  2. Excellent post, I’d read Kingsnorth’s article and thought he made some really important points. Nature is important for so much more than how it supports human life.

    You are so right, we are all part of the web of life that is nature, that is the essence of what sustains the planet.

    I think that the environment movement is perhaps misguided in trying to bring a party like atmosphere to campaigning but at the same time doom and gloom doesn’t work and shouldn’t be the right approach – there is so much joy in nature and we really need to work out how to help more people to see that. Offering an endless party atmosphere perhaps seems the easy way to try to engage people. And engagement is what is needed for people to join in.

    Reply
  3. Here, in the middle of Europe, it is unseasonal warm too. In fact, this is the warmest winter that I ever experienced in my life!

    I agree with everything wholeheartedly, this comment is meant as an encouragement. I am busy with my own blog posts and only want to add a few cues about further issues that could to be addressed:

    noise pollution, visual pollution, information overflow
    gender inequality/patriarchal society
    violence, weapons, war

    Just a moment: As I read the post now a second time, there is one sentence that I cannot endorse: “We need to be engaging, Occupy-style, with our political system, and sending a clear message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.”

    Our message will be answered with an auto response, ensuring us that the concerned representative, whoever he or she may be, has taken our grievances into account and will work tirelessly to address the raised issues.

    Another sentence, that I have to comment: “But I can’t advocate “going out walking” as a strategy for the urgent task of changing human relations with our planet.”

    I’m not sure, how you meant this. I advocate “going out walking” in nearly every blog post. The daily walks in the forest with my cats around me give me the strength to face the challenges of this modern life. I get a clear head and I have the best ideas while I’m walking.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 9, 2012

      Thanks for your feedback Mato!
      Yes to all of these topics–I teach classes regularly that discuss all these issues:
      noise pollution, visual pollution, information overflow
      gender inequality/patriarchal society
      violence, weapons, war

      As for walking–I too could not stay sane without my daily walks, with my dog in my case, though I used to walk with the cats too when we lived in a more rural environment. But if you read Kingsnorth’s article, he seems to be saying that he’s giving up on environmental activism in favor of solitary walks. I don’t think one can make a choice between the two: you walk to clear your head and think clearly, and then you come back to re-engage with social activism. At least, that’s what I do.

      Will hop over and check out your blog now!

      Reply
  4. “Just a moment: As I read the post now a second time, there is one sentence that I cannot endorse: “We need to be engaging, Occupy-style, with our political system, and sending a clear message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.””

    I second Mato’s objection. They don’t want to hear our messages! Hell, they probably can’t hear them even if they wanted to. In any case, they are *not* hearing them. How long will it take you, progressives, to acknowledge that fact? How long will you keep on begging and demanding, like a cranky but powerless adolescent? I am so sick of this.

    What they do want is for us to keep our attention glued to them and their Spectacle. The first thing you can do is stop giving them that precious resource.

    Reply
  5. Eh. Dmitry Orlov says it funnier: “Still, the elections provide a spectacle, the media are conditioned to lavish attention on the candidates, and the people, being weak-willed, are once again beguiled into thinking that it matters who gets elected. A few years of Obama impersonating Bush should have taught them that it doesn’t matter who the Prisoner of the White House is. Likewise, watching the sad spectacle of Congress trying to raise the debt limit or to reign in runaway deficit spending should have taught them that this institution is no longer functional. (The US is about to bump up against the debt limit again; does anyone even care?) All of this should have been enough to make it clear to just about everyone that wondering what might be different if, say, Ron Paul got elected president, is like wondering what might be different if the moon were made of a different kind of cheese—your favorite kind, of course.”

    Check out the whole thing at http://cluborlov.blogspot.com

    Reply

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