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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