The Arizona Desert Lamp

Man and Environmentalism — a riposte

Posted in Politics by mattstyer on 20 December 2008

Hey folks, I’ve been having some problems with WordPress and haven’t been able to post. As you might recall,  Evan wrote a column on environmentalism over a week back, and I wrote this as a response. I pretty vehemently disagreed with Evan, perhaps as is par for the course. Evan’s post could still be at the bottom of the main page; but as a refresher here are his main points:

“It is a luxury good to be able to worry about the environment”

“Nature, for all intents and purposes, has waged a no-holds-barred war against Man for its entire existence”

“Fight for the environment insofar as it is an element of human society — an environment beholden to man, and not the other way around”

This kind of thinking will get you in a lot of trouble with environmentalists – self-proclaimed, or just people who worry about it like me.

I don’t understand: how exactly is it a luxury good to be able to worry about the environment? We can put it out of sight, out of mind because we let our economics make an externality of it. But this is not a luxury; it’s short term thinking. I’d have to argue that it’s the short term thinking that’s a luxury, enabled for us by our vast, insulating material wealth and hubris about our ability to harness the environment to our own ends. Jared Diamond has written a few books about that, and that’s not even brushing the extent of the literature about it. In the not so long term – e.g., right now – our treatment of the environment is coming to catch up with us.

But a note on the word “environment” or “nature” – why are we not a part of it? Just because we can build houses and levies to hold the elements at bay, doesn’t mean we aren’t still enmeshed in it. Isn’t that exactly why we build the stuff? Again, I think it’s the luxury of our material wealth and short term thinking it allows – under which we’ve done urban and economic planning while ignoring our surroundings – that lets us form the impression that we’re separate from it.

And I think once we realize that we’re a part of it like everything else, we also realize that to speak about it as a homogenous term (in most contexts) is simply wrong. So it’s not us vs “the environment” or “nature,” but against all the interlocking parts that comprise it. That in mind, who ordained us proud conqueror and king of the Earth? What right do we have to subsume every other creature’s ends to our own?

“Sustainable,” to my mind, is replacing “environmental” because it’s a more vague and innocuous term, and thus better suited to marketing purposes. In this country, only marketable things are of any value, or catch any sustained attention.

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One Response

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  1. lauradonovan said, on 23 December 2008 at 6:31 pm

    It’s not a luxury to worry about the environment. Our country has always been plagued with problems, and it’s easier for most to put more energy into solving personal crises over environmental and social issues. We know the globe is overheating, but we can live with it right now because our lives aren’t -currently- at risk.

    A lot of people got laid off this month, and those who didn’t are still losing money and trying to make up for any further losses. Ultimately, we experience the bad economy more than we -really- experience the negative effects of global warming. I agree with you that we should respect and take care of the planet, but I think people overlook environmental issues when they can barely support themselves and their families. It’s sad, but people tend to respond to their own turmoil before addressing everything else that needs fixing in the world.

    And yes, we should realize that we don’t actually have to be at war with the environment.


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