Has Environmentalism Lost Touch with the Wild?

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Desperation. Rising seas, phantom hurricanes, the polar bear’s plight. To channel the climate deniers and the corporate right, environmentalists have long resorted to “alarmism” and “fearmongering” to spread their message, appeals to arouse our society’s collective fear of dying. As an unabashed environmentalist, I have to agree with the opposition: our prophecies may be based in fact, but that doesn’t make them any less sensational – and subject to the criticism sensational rhetoric will get. But if environmentalists abandon this script, are we watering down the message beyond repair?

In a piece published by the LA Times, Yale Environmental Protection Clinic director Joshua Galperin takes on the theme of desperation. These days, he argues, young environmentalists use the language of the “enemy” hoping for nominal, halfhearted concessions. They’re into appeasement, not bold progress. They’re desperate. Galperin yearns for the days when environmentalists rallied behind their “awe at the grandeur, interconnectedness and unpredictability of the ecosystems and wild landscapes.” Lifted out of themselves by the natural world, the old guard advocated for transformative change, an end to pollution and corporate malfeasance.

The argument is this: old-school environmentalists demanded revolution and got concessions. The new generation demands concessions and gets nothing. Cue desperation.

I think Galperin gives “young environmentalists” too much credit. His Yale students may be revolutionaries at heart, but I wouldn’t say the same for the majority of professionals in the environmental field. For one thing, the American public already supports environmentalist aims despite the power brokers’ successful campaign to stymie real action. Faced with an uncertain future, Millennials are hedging their bets, going along with the corporate responsibility narrative in case this blows over and the revolutionaries are left out to dry in a vibrant clean economy.

The die-hard greens, meanwhile, find themselves in a world that talks their talk without doing any of the associated legwork. Dirty capitalism is rebranding itself and maybe that’s how it should be. Climate change is happening, but maybe, um, it won’t really be that bad for people like us. Maybe people will live happy, decent lives in Elon Musk’s new order.

The left-wing magazine Jacobin published an article today chronicling how government power was (and is) essential to the development of capital. The piece touts the Soviet Union, not as a model to emulate, but as a gray counterweight to liberal economics, a bogeyman that let mid-century leftists extract concessions from corporate America. That “viable alternative” disintegrated around 1990, when Galperin notes the last substantive federal legislation on climate was passed. Back then, people my age were infants, poised to grow up in the world’s first truly global civilization.

With the Soviets gone and European “socialism” looking less attractive – as it botches immigration from its former colonies – we’re left with a voracious global economy and those who say we can knead it into shape. Meanwhile, inexorably, the old guard’s awe has slipped away. Where did it go?

For some young people it’s still there, hidden in a different place. Human civilization, for better or worse, has achieved cosmic proportions worthy of awe. The engines of global capital, people in their teeming billions, and now the omniscient, omnipresent digital overlay on our lives – these things are grand, interconnected, unpredictable, beyond understanding.

As the world urbanizes and cities grow at unprecedented rates, we find more everyday awe in man-made things. Green is an afterthought and an ornament. We drive through endless sprawl adorned with facsimiles of nature. We walk in tightly-bounded parks, places to pause and watch the cars go by. Increasingly, only those of us with stability, with disposable income, with time to spare can escape to “real nature.” And what about people who live far from the city center? Against Galperin’s narrative, they favor the policymakers who want to sully their hills and valleys for a better bottom line.

Centuries of science have convinced us that we know something about nature. And decades of unprecedented human change have us convinced that civilization is a mysterious thing. I agree with Galperin: mainstream environmentalism needs to rediscover wilderness, to see a new Apple laptop beside a houseplant and recognize which one is more complex, more awe-inspiring. Environmentalists need to study the human world, to acknowledge things like the federal government, investment banking, and the tech industry not for their innovation, or their evil, but for their simplicity.

The planet doesn’t require desperation, but it does deserve awe. The environment isn’t some fragile thing in need of protection – it’s us we need to worry about. If we can get beyond the relative smallness of global capital, we might find wilderness again, beyond the city lights, up in the stars, in ourselves.

Photo credit: Kevin Krejci via Flickr

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Preppers, Guns, and Environmentalism

 

I know next to nothing about guns, aside from what the odd video game has to say. I’m a west coast liberal, a progressive, and I chuckle with wry agreement when Europeans refer to the “sick gun culture” in America. They’re right, of course. There are too many guns. But I’ve never been an ardent gun control advocate, and I only just realized why.

As unlikely as it sounds, guns and green have a lot in common. Modern environmentalism aims for the same psychological sweet spot that shows like The Walking Dead – in all their high-caliber glory – target for high ratings and repeat views. I’m referring to the strain of millenarian end-of-the-world environmentalism that lies beneath every viral article on melting permafrost, oceanic die-offs, and refugees from submerged cities. When it comes right down to it, the green movement needs the apocalypse as much as the gun lobby does. Which brings me to the American prepper.

I’ll admit to a fascination with the prepper phenomenon. The stereotype of rednecks hiding out in bunkers belies an active and earnest subculture of regular folks (often from the “heartland”) who prefer self-reliance in the face of major catastrophe. A whole cottage industry has sprung up, especially online, marketing specialized survival goods, manuals, and assorted bric-a-bric to preppers. There’s even a TV program about the subculture (American Preppers), which I haven’t had a chance to see.

The lengths to which some of these individuals pursue their hobby is impressive. In the event of TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), preppers prefer to own a rural “bug-out” location already stocked and ready to serve as home for the long-haul. They mull over ways to keep their families away from the “Golden Horde” of panicked non-preppers. (It’s always families: apparently the single person is rare in prepper-land.) They often accumulate a vast array of canned food, survival equipment, and, of course, weaponry. If a sudden TEOTWAWKI event does occur, I’m certain they’ll have the last laugh.

As mass shootings dominate the news, tired old arguments for and against gun control get dragged back and forth, achieving little. I wish more critics would brave the liberal-conservative border fence and acknowledge the real issue: we Americans love us some autonomy. And we love being able to say that we have more autonomy than those drones on the other side. The prepper movement is the face of a powerful undercurrent in the collective American psyche.

What’s funny is that most preppers are sustainability advocates. Their love of autonomy and self-sufficiency – being “off the grid” – drives them to solar energy, recycling, composting, and conservation. And their predilection for the end of the world (as we know it) sounds mighty similar to the torrent of articles about climate scientists and their worst fears. Guns, like household solar panels, symbolize the common person’s power in the face of global threats.

The fact that modern environmentalists align so closely with “liberal” positions like gun control, queer rights, abortion rights, and the like is a recent fluke of political history. Previously, conservation environmentalism embraced hunters, cowboy enthusiasts (Edward Abbey), and assorted wild men who’d laugh out loud at Dick Cheney’s famous steady hand. The modern pivot toward a progressive environmentalism has attempted to forge common cause with successes in identity politics, letting some of the previous generation’s prized autonomy slide.

It’s been said before, but I think we need to take another hard look at the green movement’s inherent conservatism. As in “conservation,” not “Republican.” Too often, those of us caught up in the fervor of today’s identity movement (a heroic and worthwhile endeavor) see the past as a dark stain, a pit of obscene human rights violations, of racism, of misogyny, of homophobia. Amid all this valid criticism, we miss the fact that the neoconservative/neoliberal agenda cares nothing for tradition, autonomy, or identity. In a blind quest for maximization and growth, silly human notions like “love” or “religion” mean very little.

For all its tragedies, the past is a fertile field for useful stories. Stories that explain things like conservative and progressive, liberal and authoritarian, capitalist and corporatist. It’s up to each of us to look at those stories and decide which labels are good and bad, and in which circumstances. What I can say is that the current global system is fundamentally at odds with both environmentalism and autonomy. We have allowed most of our ideological markers to fuse and blend into meaninglessness.

Sanders’ and Trump’s populist campaigns prove that autonomy remains a viable force in the American mind. They also prove how divided we have become. Through shotguns or solar panels, I hope our love of self-reliance can help us find some common ground other than liberal capitalist progressive authoritarian conservative libertarian corporatism. (I choose the solar panels.)

L.A. activists push EPA to heighten ozone regulations

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In February, I traveled to Sacramento to testify before an EPA panel, arguing that they should further limit ozone emissions. This is an opportunity for the agency tasked with safeguarding our air to exercise its mandate in a sweeping way. Accompanying me was a delegation of concerned citizens from Los Angeles. Click here to read a piece I wrote about this key issue for the Sierra Club.

 

Image credit: Sierra Club Angeles Chapter

MaddAddam and the story of green apocalypse

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conquest, war, famine, death

 

[This contains minor spoilers. Just so you know.]

Sorry environmentalists, but the apocalypse is still a long way off. I know, we are trying to heal the earth, not destroy it. We want a sustainable society, not civilization’s demise. But underneath it all, isn’t there that perverse wish to see the predictions vindicated? Do we not share a great deal with the Tea Party preppers, our counterparts across the aisle? Case in point: solar energy, still a bogeyman in the eyes of fossil fuels apologists, enjoyed a recent surge of support from the Christian community. It is a healing font, manna from heaven, and it frees individual citizens from unending dependence on the government/corporate system.

For all their Republican politicking, preppers share the greens’ vague belief in a center that will not hold. Theirs is a lifestyle of self-reliance, community cohesion, and environmental sustainability. This is shared ground. The extreme wings of both movements also demonstrate an undeniable Millenarian bent: apocalypse prep stems from prophecy and hope, not just fear and prudence.

Some call this dangerous. I call it human. We have no choice but to indulge in the products of the modern culture industry, so I’m sure you’re fatigued with the deathless zombie meme, the survivor group story, and every other eschatological iteration imaginable. Netflix speaks volumes.

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, highly praised and soon to grace the small screen, treats the end of all things with a nonchalance reminiscent of ancient scripture. Everybody dies, life goes on. It is a thoroughly environmentalist and thoroughly religious story (only just now do those two things stand opposed).

The trilogy makes a marked departure from the genre’s usual fare, setting the bulk of the action before everything changed. Like students of holy writ, we find ourselves troubled not at all by the death of a hateful and irredeemable civilization. Far from demonizing the architect of this genocide, the survivors – with some discomfiture – present him as creator god. Final judgment upon humanity is tragically appropriate.

MaddAddam calls to mind medieval adventure tales like Mallory’s Le Mort De Arthur, the Welsh Mabinogion, and Chaucer, along with their casual presentations of extreme acts. Without Victorian-Protestant whitewashing, religious matters appear alongside the kind of explicit violence and debauchery that necessitates faith in the first place. Aspirations to highest virtue right next to pornographic vice. The presence of virtue, not the ubiquity of vice, makes this a rarity in modern literature.

The cumulative effect of MaddAddam is as religious as its subject matter: deepening suspicion that something is dreadfully wrong with the world, with salvation bound up in that revelation. You or I may not be living in the “deepest pleeblands” or an Orwellian corporate compound, but what if some people already are? In America even! The realization that you might be like the character Jimmy, fretting over petty problems in a protective bubble, makes you question the world’s reality as you witness it. The deranged man gibbering on the bus attests to the many different worlds we inhabit.

But to succumb to a total postmodern annihilation of meaning would be unwise. The basic thesis of MaddAddam is simple. It is the environmental story that binds us all together, and the physical world we inhabit is the only one we’ve got. We may not all think about environmental reality the same way, but there it remains, unfailingly and unflinchingly present. In fine mythological tradition, the world must undergo a catharsis, passing through storm and struggle to achieve, well, not utopia, but a manifestly better situation.

As queasy and extremist as that might sound, in the story humankind’s fascistic cleansing is fraught with irony: the surviving transhuman “Craker” and “pigoon” races symbolize old sins by their very existence, even as they begin to populate a world reborn. Even in a tale of near-perfect annihilation, traces of the old order are necessary to spark a new one.

In our own world, we need to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to ripping out “obsolete” segments of social and economic infrastructure. Already, the abandonment of traditional urban forms for the auto suburb has gutted cities. Already, digital media as a life-encompassing platform has hijacked the development of young people in ways we don’t yet understand. Apocalypse is unnecessary: are these the end-times on slow burn?

What we’re left with is the old question of defining humanity. The MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t judge whether the survivors were right to encourage writing, religion, and other aspects of the old order in the bioengineered Craker population. But maybe it’s not a matter of right or wrong. Maybe the environmental story’s simple lesson is: find out what makes you human and hold onto that, and discard everything else.

 

Image credit: Waiting For The Word via Flickr cc

Keystone XL is a steampunk fiction

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Big Oil: fierce and ridiculous

 

Ah yes, the Keystone XL pipeline. Like an overexposed internet meme, this crude phantom has risen to the forefront of public consciousness. A fight of Congressional proportions is in the works. In the Pyrrhic struggle now unfolding, both sides have invested far more political capital than the damned thing is worth. Every other day an email hits my inbox – Keystone passage close at hand, please donate. And now the pipeline bill is through the Senate, with only the presidential veto in its way.

Names do matter. Judging by its name, Keystone XL must be some final nail in the planetary casket, an extra-large Cadillac Escalade of an abomination, the final aria of American Decadence, the opera. Or else it’s gotta mean the Holy Trinity is at hand: petrol the father, profit the eternally begotten son, and the ghost we call jobs, holy and hard-to-find.

In the end Keystone XL is just a word stenciled on a blueprint. The pipeline may yet get through, stealthily and with a less-newsworthy title, once the media’s eye wanders from matters infrastructural. Perhaps the question will suffer a slow-cooked death in the beckoning 2016 presidential flame wars. Keystone XL is nothing but a totem, and its physical reality is less important than what that reality represents.

As we all know by now, Keystone XL won’t be the only trunk-line to serpentine down from Canada spewing forth the elixir of American life. To OPEC’s variable dismay, an array of similar lines is already in place. While I am no expert in wholesale extraction, it’s worth noting that the bulk of this oil infrastructure lies in Middle America, land of freedom and the K-Mart. It bypasses elite coastal enclaves, and we urban lefties end up sounding a bit silly when we oppose it, never having seen it.

Which isn’t saying, of course, that we shouldn’t object to Keystone. But what are we proposing in place of the pipeline? And no, localized solar linked to a couple of Teslas doesn’t count. In fact, we’re proposing nothing at all, besides the philosophical category “no-Keystone”. And this is where the environmental movement comes up short.

For all the talk of living growing things, death and destruction lie at the core of modern environmentalism. Against the wishes of techno-progressive zealots, green means fighting for no new construction, for getting back to the way it once was. Aside from a few select projects – clean energy, affordable housing, social entrepreneurship – the green mainstream maintains a continual argument against new things. Thou shalt not drive, thou shalt not eat meat, thou shalt not build thine Keystone pipeline.

The current birthing panic in Japan and Italy bears witness: society at large cannot yet accept a future of retrenchment, decline, and intentional downsizing. When that sort of thing occurs we call it “negative growth”, a local sacrifice for wider systemic growth. Environmentalism is a deathly movement because it rejects that premise and accepts biological change and cyclical mortality. Like growth, decline is part of human living, beautiful because it is inevitable.

That is why it’s impossible to win an argument against Keystone XL in a rhetorical space defined by liberal growth. The pipeline is construction, and in that world construction is an inherent good.

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Look upon my works ye mighty

 

Economic growth apologists have the wool pulled over our eyes. We are convinced their thinking is rational good sense. To them, environmentalists are a romantic fringe of aesthetes whose inconsequential concerns, far from cutting to the heart of the human condition, flounce with great frivolity and pretense from the halls of the liberal arts school. To speak of “revolution” is historically naïve, to appear on the streets with a sign invites ridicule and contempt. Earnest flower children have been transmuted into bearded hipsters, posturing and insincere. To imagine a kinder world is to lay bare your bleeding heart.

Reality, my dear reader, is a hard red pill to swallow. Here is reality: the corporate growth apparatus no longer serves the best rational interests of the human race (if it ever did). Since the Soviet project’s well-deserved dissolution, we’ve seen few positive prescriptions from the left. In their place we have a liberal Disneyland, an anesthetized world of hybrid cars, minority lawn crews, and the ubiquitous Silicon Valley ping-pong table. Amid rampant greenwashing, the American dream of perpetual expansion is robust as ever. But I don’t want artisanal coffee. I want you to say “don’t be evil” and mean it without a hint of flippancy.

Why has this happened? When did dystopia change from a pitted, radiation-stunted wasteland into Dubai, the perverted gleaming wonderland where dreams come true? An answer – maybe not the answer; I’m not that smart – lies in the realm shunned by everyone on the left, activists and academics alike. I’m talking about aesthetics.

If a movement wants to change the world, it needs to be sexy. Take away the Beats, Jimi Hendrix, the Summer of Love, and watch Clean Air, the EPA, and King’s Dream fade from reality. Before the personal computer, before cell phones and the Ipad, came the room-sized Cold War mainframe with its pocket-protectored technicians straight outta Revenge of the Nerds. But then Tupac says they get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone, and here we are.

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Nerdy no longer

 

Until environmentalism gets sexy, I’m afraid we won’t see much real progress. And I’m not talking about Silicon Valley sexy, which affects a faux-leftism at best, and a deeply problematic retrenchment of old power structures at worst.

The 1960s had their share of failed utopias and misplaced ideals, but they spurred successful leftist activism because their sexiness admitted imperfections, even celebrated them. Since then, sexy has become a cosmic state of wealth and dynamism, an immortal, self-involved, expansive lifestyle that values cool experiences even more than material pleasures. Anti-growth environmentalism, meanwhile, retreated with haste into the land of plaid and Birkenstock, reveling with great irony in the music of sensitive frustrated bearded men with banjos.

The fight over Keystone XL cannot be won by economic argument, not until a petroleum economy becomes untenable on the short run. The pipeline may be immoral; it might even be uneconomical. But it won’t go away until it becomes uncool.

Problem is, necessary infrastructure has a certain immunity from aesthetic condemnation. Power lines, sewers, etc. are NIMBYs we need in our backyards, so we cover them up and pretend they aren’t there. Aside from occasional corporate-logoed orange-vested workers, we hardly notice the boxes, manholes, poles, wires, and drains cluttering our cities.

One theory holds that cool (and its cousin sexy) lies on a spectrum: uncool to cool, unsexy to sexy. However many things are outside that spectrum. Neither cool nor uncool, they’re simply there. That’s how most people view the physical environment and infrastructure: static, unquestioned, extant. As of today, Keystone is not yet infrastructure, it’s an idea. If it does get built, it’ll be infrastructure and most of us will cease to care.

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That vintage appeal

 

That’s why I want to talk about steampunk. Harried as it is by pompous hipsters and obnoxious cosplay, Queen Victoria’s favorite subculture makes an aesthetic out of industrial infrastructure, thrusting it onto the cool-uncool spectrum. Steampunk is a realm of ambiguous morals: it understands that political corruption accompanies wondrous inventions. The clockwork automaton can be ally and friend one day and turn to ruthless killing machine the next. But it never loses its cool.

Steampunk is the vanguard of a wider post-industrial urbanism that values the diverse, multifaceted, honest city. Tech royalty want to live in urban San Francisco rather than verdant suburbia. The urban hipster finds the former industrial “loft space” idyllic. People want to get off the freeway and bike to seamy streets in search of authentic cuisine. In this atmosphere, the underlying infrastructure of our cities takes on new interest, enters the realm of cool.

All the attention Keystone gets – including the Republicans’ obstinate insistence on building it – earns global oil infrastructure a place on the cool-uncool spectrum. For the moment, it doesn’t matter whether or not we consider Keystone cool: some do, some don’t. But this process will soon disarm the absolutism of liberal economics by overlaying aesthetic social disapproval. A deviation: environmentalists embracing style over substance. No longer natural and eternal, petroleum infrastructure becomes subject to popular whim. And we all know pop doesn’t last.

 

 

Photo Credits: MatteoArienti via Compfight ccrichardcarlpearson555 via Compfight cc; Patrick Lyons via hnhhrcbodden via Compfight cc

How I saw the stars in L.A.

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A few days ago I wrote about Ray Bradbury, about the architect who bought his house, the author’s carless life in LA, his long walks. We can’t be sure exactly how that ambulatory habit contributed to his work. To test the theory in true unscientific fashion, I took an urban hike of my own.

A disclaimer: nothing life-changing or adrenaline-pumping happened during my walk. It was quite ordinary as walks go. It wasn’t even very urban in the classical sense of a dense, mixed-use city center. But I’m writing about it anyway.

The adventure began around five or so, as the sun dipped under the Pacific horizon. I live close to the shore in Marina Del Rey, twenty minutes slow walk from the beach. I confess I fail to appreciate that fact most days.

The marina is an aesthetically-blessed community situated on top of what used to be coastal wetlands. Mid-century property developers carved its current shape from a landscape similar to the Ballona Wetlands to the south, which remain in an unlikely and precarious state of preservation.

Those developers’ heirs are now engaged in a bout of redevelopment. They’re knocking down the decrepit old apartments and putting in new units to target, shall we say, a more discerning potential tenant. On the way to the beach – which abuts the beach of Venice Boardwalk fame – I passed what is now the last bit of wilderness left in the marina.

Back last year, another spot might have qualified, really nothing more than a stagnant remnant between Washington Boulevard and Via Marina. But next to it stood half-century eucalyptus trees, home to migrating birds and monarch butterflies. Those trees are gone now, felled to make way for a “recreational area,” courtesy of the county.

Now the last wilderness in the marina is a large vacant space between Marquesas and Tahiti Way along Via Marina, east of the Silver Strand and west of the boats. Plans are probably in the works to convert it to a luxury development, along with the architecture-bereft little surfers’ apartments situated alongside.

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As I passed, I could hear crickets from various points in the field. It smelled fresh. The ground-cover of weeds and grasses seemed more lush than usual, and there was no one around. Someone played classic rock from a live-aboard boat far off.

Brushing my shoe against plants peeking out under the fence, I dwelt on a childhood fancy: fields like these as insect cities, a fierce and complex urban infrastructure. But like those eucalyptus trees, all of this might soon vanish.

Before I reached the seashore I needed to cross through a strip of land (under City of Los Angeles jurisdiction I believe) called the Silver Strand. There, wealthy homeowners purchase beach-side living in three- or four-story estates, packed together tight like most coastal property in California.

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A freshwater creek lies between the eastern and western halves of the strand, home to several local species of bird. I crossed a white footbridge to the opposite side and a minute later set foot on the beach.

The sun had surrendered the horizon, but it held out against the dark in a spectacular sliver of orange, red, and blue, blazing up towards Malibu and across the sea. Contrasting the twilight, there were clouds enough to satisfy a hundred easels. Like the song says, California sky’s got room to spare.

The Marina Del Rey beach shares the great breadth of its famous Venice cousin. It takes more than a little while to trudge across to the water, and it was low tide, lower than I’ve seen before. On a beach this wide, the surf is muted when you’re by the beachfront condos, but when you reach the water it’s the only thing you hear.

Beaches are one of those borderlands, places neither here nor there between the city and endless ocean. Ecotones, they are sometimes called. The sky told the same story: an urban aura over LA contrasted the deepening dark out west. By some miracle I could see the stars of Orion’s Belt clear overhead.

I wasn’t the only one out on the beach that night. Back toward the lights a young family frolicked, the girl in light-up sneakers. An older man ran beside his dog – he whistled whenever it got too far ahead. Lone shadowed figures stood like I was, a hundred yards to the right, a hundred to the left. The thought of murder on the beach.

Indulge me for a moment: in the borderland between city and the wild, strange things can happen. The waves might deposit a seal carcass, chanced upon by a boardwalk derelict and a banker jogging opposite ways. The planet’s faces and representations come together and you can pause and look at all of them, objectively.

By the time I got back home, life’s familiar patterns and problems were once again at the front of my mind. And so I ask myself: what good came of this? What did Bradbury and creative people like him get from all those walks? You’ll have to come to your own conclusions – it can’t really be summed up in some pithy one-liner. But the sense I get is, they’re worth it.

 

Top photo credit: Compfight.com cc, Other photos: Philip Rojc

Here’s to the climate hawks

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In the investment field, we’ve got bulls and bears. In military policy, peace paragons are doves and the warlike are hawks. And green activism has a long association with the ‘dove’ side of politics. In a piece from Grist (dated October 2010), David Roberts proposes just the opposite: that staunch environmentalists refer to themselves as ‘climate hawks’.

Though he explicitly abhors “rebranding” the environmental movement, that is exactly what David Roberts is doing. His gripe: common monikers for the solar-organic-composting crowd are weak and overused, prone to co-opting by those who want to parrot a green agenda without truly diverging from the status quo.

By contrast, the climate hawk is an assertive, even aggressive animal. Compromise may be part of the climate hawk’s DNA, but it’s a small part indeed. In true Stephen Colbertian fashion, the climate hawk is all about saving America and the world, no holds barred. That is a noble thing, and necessary.

Green isn’t a brand, but words do matter

As the heady 60s and 70s wane further into the past (case in point: I was born in 1990 and really shouldn’t be talking about the counterculture at all!), the progressive American left has lost its revolutionary fervor. That is significant. Whether it is good or bad in the long run, I’m not sure.

Those who advocated coming together, dropping out, and bringing forth the Age of Aquarius are now at the helm of a global information economy like nothing before seen. And young people, well, we just don’t find the idea of revolution alluring or viable, like the good hipsters we are. Maybe we know our history too well.

And the green movement does need reworking (I’ll stay away from “rebranding”), starting from within. It needs to speak the same language as the ongoing groundswell for economic and social justice. It needs to leave the ideological hang-ups of the 20th century behind, while keeping those lessons close to heart. I like “climate hawks,” but the term may not have real longevity.

For one thing, climate may be the focal point of the national/international green debate, but ever since the skies over Los Angeles cleared it has annoyingly become an niche issue. It might just go mainstream in China (whose skies remain murky), and I’m interested to see how their regulatory infrastructure develops. Wider thinking about the planet will prevail even if it has to be the hard way, and resources, land, cities, and justice are as crucial as climate.

The warlike connotations of “hawk” also call to mind this country’s deep political impasse. It’s hawk vs. hawk out there in Washington. Most of us see only squabbling special interests, and that turns voters away. We’d much rather be consumers, since buying stuff makes us happy in the short run and politicians don’t seem to be doing much in either run.

The bad ideology we’re afraid to call out

On the other hand, I see where Roberts is coming from. Words like “sustainability”, “environmentalism”, and even “green” have morphed into milquetoasts. They are usable, but they lack fire and zest. They can now imply compromise and selling out.

Real environmentalists question the ideology that says: “growth is best in all cases, never mind who benefits, and to be without growth is to be damned.” They are right to be concerned when even clean tech must embrace that angle to stand a chance.

An intense focus on climate change, even as a keystone issue (pun intended), doesn’t quite pinpoint systemic causes, a root structure that might persist even in a sustainable, clean economy. And no, I’m not talking about “capitalism” as such. An irrational attachment to the romance of economic growth above all other concerns – perhaps.

It is for this reason that climate hawks, and even (risking melodrama) “justice hawks” shouldn’t go away. They’re needed. But true success for the green movement will come when it is so mainstream people take it for granted.

There was a time not long ago in Christian Europe when townsfolk would find their weekend thrills watching accused heretics get hanged in the village green.  Now we are outraged when one man gets flogged in Saudi Arabia. I can only hope a similar trend toward dignity and respect will emerge in our relationship with the planet.

 

Photo Credit: Rodrigo_Soldon via Compfight cc

Is this Ray Bradbury’s storytelling secret?

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Just because Ray Bradbury lived in a house for 50 years, that doesn’t mean the house shouldn’t be demolished for new development. At least that’s what prominent architect Thom Mayne thought when he spent $1.76 million to tear down the Cheviot Hills residence.

The demolition is jarring to some, an affront to LA’s most beloved sci-fi writer. But it goes without saying: Bradbury’s stories are his living legacy. Sun-drenched So Cal suburbs make way for twilight in Illinois, the dazzle of Hollywood fades into technological dystopia, and cowboy astronauts vanish into an ageless Mars.

For all the reverie of Bradbury’s tales, I found it incredibly interesting that the man never owned a car, and never even sought fit to acquire a driver’s license. Only for an avid walker could the city – LA no less! – be living room and kitchen, backyard and front porch.

Walking and biking: Bradbury’s LA success formula

Fashionable urbanism condemns Bradbury’s LA of yesterday as an auto-happy wasteland of smog and false hopes. Only now, so the claim goes, is Los Angeles finally stepping up to the plate on mass transit, smart development, and walkable neighborhoods. And maybe not even.

When Bradbury drafted Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter beneath UCLA’s Powell Library, he’d hop over to Venice on his bike or just walk there, not an inconsiderable distance on foot. In The Pedestrian, published in 1951, Bradbury’s protagonist finds himself on the wrong side of the law for taking a midnight stroll.

His nightmare future has its sedate civilians planted in front of screens, and to venture out on foot is a crime against the ruling order. Now I’m not saying our reality maps onto this, but the underlying principle seems to be free movement, free thought, free expression.

Ray Bradbury, as far as I can tell, really loved him a good urban hike. Maybe ambling through the City of Angels made him a unique storyteller, or perhaps he eschewed the auto because he was a unique storyteller, and that’s what unique storytellers do. One thing is certain: countless Angelenos vie to be one-of-a-kind creatives today, but very few take strolls from Westwood to Venice on a whim.

Urban hikes might just make you a better person

For climate hawks nationwide, the occasional wilderness hike is a sacred ritual, a way to demagnetize connected life and get back in sync with the earth’s deeper rhythms. But what about urban hikes? What do our crowded, car-clogged, ecologically decrepit cities offer that the mountains and forests lack?

Well, people, of course. But more than that, walking around populated places awakens us from our online phantasmagoria of words, ads, and politics. In the Digital City, we can pick and choose our emotions. On the street, spontaneous anger and joy find us unbidden and we embrace them or shut ourselves away.

It’s a weird experience to explore a street on foot that you’ve traveled a thousand times by car. The poles are reversed, and you become one of those people out there, so exposed without your steel cocoon, a living breathing part of the scenery. Landmarks once close together now take half an hour to pass. And the little hidden places, the characters who spend their lives there, become known to you.

In short, urban hikes are frightening enlightening time-wasters that can make you a better citizen if you let them.

Take the red pill – take a walk

Nature-lovers often distrust politics, especially picky back-room politicking that shuts out voices unwilling to become part of the problem. But that’s not all politics can be. Ray Bradbury understood the political power of stories set in the human geography of everyday life, and not the kind of everyday embodied by the requisite single mother fidgeting at a State of the Union.

Urban hikes, more than anything, offer those willing a chance to absorb stories, even if the explorer only observes and talks to no one on the way. In Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist Montag fled into the woods to join a few legitimate storytellers still free from the controlling authority. Montag is a preserver, but like the house of his creator he can never return to the world, except in memory.

We’re lucky. We can come back from urban walks knowing more about how other people make their lives work. And that knowledge, that empathy, is key to a 21st century environmentalism that accounts for nature, social justice, and enterprise.

 

Photo Credit: La Citta Vita via Compfight cc