Has Environmentalism Lost Touch with the Wild?


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


The Millennial Experience Trap

experience trap 1

Quick note: It’s been a while since I last posted here. This month, I decided to post more regularly and on a wide range of topics. Anything I deem interesting. I hope my (currently sparse) readership will enjoy. If anything, it’s decent writing practice.

To start in again, I wanted to make a few observations about a self-replicating cycle (I wouldn’t call it vicious, but maybe I should) that bedevils the relationship we have with media, the environment, and life itself. Yes, it is quite serious! It might be called the experience trap.

I’m not referring to the modern epidemic of unpaid internships, a resume-industrial complex that glimmers with the false sheen of necessity for too many college grads. No, the issue at play here is far subtler, and characteristically postmodern in its implications.

On one level, the experience trap operates as an advertising scheme. Young people, as we have been encouraged to know, crave experience over possession. We live and consume in the moment, putting the beach sunset, the cafe buzz, the skydiving trip above the whole business of mortgages, ladder climbing, and delayed returns. Marketers incorporate this theme into their creations, further replicating it.

And so we’re left with the flighty Millennial stereotype, of Facebook-addicted twenty-somethings leading a legion of high schoolers to text and Instagram their way into the abyss. Youngsters’ heads buried in smartphones, their parents following suit. This is all very frightening. Of course it’s also simplistic, just a symptom of the real malaise.

The Millennial, commentators report, has begun to settle down. Some are having kids, moving to the suburbs, doing as their ancestors have done. But that doesn’t change the fact that media – especially advertising media – has embraced the mythic, ecstatic, in-the-moment experience as what we all should crave.

Along with the stream of articles on Millennial childbirth and the suburban Millennial come reports of Millennial frugality, of a willingness to rent, of young people returning to the Rust Belt for cheap housing and hipster grit. Postmodern counterculturalists reject the overt status symbols of American Dream 1.0 and embrace an updated version. In American Dream 2.0 (or is it 1.1?), apps, bikes, micro-apartments, and the sharing economy will liberate us from the crushing burden of owning things. We will save the planet by having easily-categorized experiences rather than actual possessions. We will rent services, and go without if need be.

The counterargument is obvious. If we don’t own anything in the sharing economy, we end up forever indentured to those who do. If we give up driving in cities with no bike lanes, we get crushed beneath the wheels of those who could care less about climate change. By ceding the desire to accumulate – a simple, small-minded fixation – in favor of a wish to “just live life,” we risk disenfranchising ourselves at a crucial moment.

After all, climate change is upon us. Income inequality is gruesome. People are stripped of opportunity and dignity because of their identities. Imperialism’s legacy remains fully entrenched in the global economy.

But this is also an exciting time because we’re finally acknowledging the underlying social psychoses beneath not just these issues, but all their permutations and offspring. A worldwide web of data, dumb and mute in of itself, has become available to millions of minds, making us, as a species, more mature, more aware, more critical.

Still, whatever progress civilization might be making, what about our own lives? Can the experiences we allow ourselves ever measure up to our world-class expectations? There is a protean fear at work beneath the glossy veneer of mainstream culture, a burrowing doubt that grafts itself into every counterculture, onto every attempt to tell a social story with legitimacy and self-respect.

It’s what makes people turn to possessions, to ownership, again and again and against all the evidence that money can’t buy happiness. It’s the nagging sense that the experiences we have – the kind we are allowed to have – aren’t enough to replace what consumerism offers. (Which is what, again?) Most of the time we can’t even untangle our activities from consumerism, let alone tease out something revolutionary.

If we intend to value experiences over possessions, to look back on a life worth living, we need to reexamine the context of those experiences. Are they truly memorable? Do they stick in the mind without electronic aid? Did they contribute to real growth, to an evolving mind and spirit? Are we alive to the difference between long-term and short-term memory, or do we let weeks and months slip by unremembered?

Above all, can we really say that we want a latte-sipping life, free from real danger and pain, free of the thought of death, hemmed in by the invisible bounds of virtuality, anesthetized by the knowledge that we all live in an age of distraction? Too disenchanted to fully embrace corporate capitalism, too civilized to actually challenge it? A life in which curation becomes creativity, and one experience cannot be meaningfully distinguished from the next?

The experience peddlers tell us to step up and do what makes us come alive. But that’s wrong, isn’t it? We’re alive already. We need to throw off what deadens us.

Photo credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr

“Culture of Liberty” or Cultural Liberty?

las vegas

In an article published in the conservative-leaning City Journal and the LA Times, Aaron M. Renn takes the urban left to task. City activists, he contends, “increasingly find their own goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they’re demanding that these restrictions be overturned or limited.”

For the sake of marijuana, food trucks, and even beekeeping, leftist city-dwellers oppose regulations their ideology says they should support. More sweeping issues than beekeeping aren’t immune. Pricey urban housing has leftists agitating for looser rules and greater density. Meanwhile, the same leftists rally against polluters, big-box retail, and land developers. Hence Renn’s title: libertarians of convenience.

As one of Renn’s “urban progressives,” I feel a need to refine what that phrase means, especially as it concerns the age-old libertarian debate over regulation. Confrontational it may be, but Renn’s critique is also valuable as we figure out what it means to be progressive today.

The distinction between progress and progressivism isn’t new. On one hand we have those who do – the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the rainmakers. And then there are those who prohibit, preserving human rights in the face of threats.

We trust leftist progressives to instinctually defend regulation, support unions, and look warily on the engines of material gain. The 20th-century libertarian parries in good form. To quote Renn, “absent a wider culture of liberty, calls for selective liberty will probably go unheeded.” Culture of liberty. That phrase stuck with me, and I recognized why as I read on.

Somewhat patronizingly, Renn suggests that “urban progressives—typically on the younger side—are just beginning to experience how excessive regulations can suffocate life in the city.” Hemmed in by our thou-shalt-not ideology, callow young leftists stumble into a world of plodding government and dynamic business and must choose the better side.

There may be truth to that narrative, at least for young people who enjoy political rhetoric. But not all urbanists are ideologues. Some of us just want cities to be good places to live and work, places where diverse people have a fair chance to build lives at liberty.

Renn writes, “Many of the bans and rules that progressives impose on cities not only make life difficult for muffler shops, hardware stores, plumbing firms, bodegas, and other unglamorous operations; they also harm the enterprises that they love.”

Beloved enterprises, of course, being the usual slew of hipster boutiques, indie bookstores, urban gardens, and coffee houses people my age supposedly rave about. In reality, “unglamorous operations” appeal to a modest Millennial price point. I might find an artisanal soap store interesting, but in the end I’m using Dove.

And sure, Target and Walmart are affordable, but they’ll do a good trade whether urban progressives support them or not. Any urbanist worth the name appreciates the role utilitarian stores play in the urban fabric. We’re skeptical about suburban multinational uniformity. We’re all for small business, especially if it’s affordable!

After a nod to the endearingly ignorant Millennial generation, Renn unveils this thesis:

“But it’s hard to avoid thinking, too, that some of the inconsistency reflects elite biases. The things that liberal-minded city residents like and want to do—eat from hip food trucks, smoke dope, and other ‘bourgeois bohemian’ pursuits—should be left as free as possible, consequences be damned (raw-milk advocates downplay the nearly 1,000 cases of illnesses caused by it from 2007 through 2012). Those that they consider déclassé—Big Gulps, Marlboro Lights, McDonalds—should be restricted or even shut down. It’s regulation for thee but not for me.”

Renn’s diatribe omits a crucial detail: the hipster projects leftists want to deregulate are predominantly local and small-scale. They’re start-ups. They’re small businesses. But most of them harbor no Silicon Valley dream of billion-dollar empire. They are culturally self-aware, often minority-owned, and give little thought to a left-right culture war.

Leftist urbanites, for their part, usually oppose large-scale uses and operations. This is not “elite bias.” It’s a classic American love of the underdog. And when it comes to regulatory targets, the public-private divide doesn’t matter as much as impact on local quality of life, especially for poorer city-dwellers.

A street-crushing retail supercenter and a neighborhood-gutting 12-lane highway are equally odious (and equally likely to bulldoze over a poor community of color). But a second-floor pot dispensary and the corner post office are benign, even beneficial. Urban progressives are less default regulators than instinctively suspicious of large-scale systems of control. This we share with libertarians. For us, government isn’t a cure-all, it’s a necessary counterweight.

Besides, can we not agree that the systemic health impacts of Big Gulp, Marlboro, and McDonalds (think nationwide obesity, diabetes, addiction, cancer) slightly outweigh the horrors of raw milk from an organic food store? It’s not a matter of which cultural niche a business occupies. What counts is relative scope of impact. And in a society managed by large-scale entities both public and private, only large can counter large.

For all its faults and follies, public government needs to check private capital, so the creators of wealth don’t devolve into its hoarders. But that regulation shouldn’t choke out local innovation. Urbanists understand that local enterprise needs room to grow, and that cities, like greenhouses, provide the necessary fertile ground.

But libertarians like to throw down the gauntlet, saying there are no half-measures when it comes to regulation. Either you have a culture of liberty or you don’t. This is a profoundly ahistorical and, shall I say, reactionary viewpoint. Its adherents mistake liberty for some abstract ideal floating above our heads, rather than a collection of human dramas and their outcomes.

In a city of freeways, are you at liberty if you can choose which car to buy, but cannot take the train? In a city of trains, does liberty mean choosing which line to take when you’d rather drive? Perhaps I’d appreciate the liberty to cheat my neighbor. Perhaps a bank would like to finance home-buyers beyond their capacity to pay. Is my neighbor at liberty? Is the home-buyer?

I’d rather not spout the standard arguments against libertarianism, since I’m actually a fan. But liberty means different things to different people, and that disagreement intensifies in diverse and multifaceted cities. Renn has the right to talk about liberty, but I’ll decide what that word means for me.

So far as progress truly is the goal, urban progressives (and conservatives) should explore, and not fear, the grey spaces between public and private, small and large-scale, liberty and control. I think that’s part of what Renn argues. Urban life and economics is in a continual state of flux, and the law should let people evolve along with it.

But that evolution is cultural as well as economic. Freedom and liberty cannot just be understood in economic and political terms. Culture – the stories we tell ourselves – is and always will be the most important factor influencing liberty on the individual level (for good or ill). To be influenced by the culture around you is not a sign of intellectual weakness. It’s a vital part of being human.

Image credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr