Active and Passive Approaches to Environmentalism

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that humanity is consuming its environment. The planet that was once overwhelmingly green is now visible from outer space as clotted with grey - the human civilization, expanding so randomly that some have likened it to a cancer for its visual similarity to the growth of tumors. Furthermore, you can no longer find a river where it is safe to simply drink; it is rare to find fields where you feel safe picking and eating the fruit; there are no longer herds of wild animals which cross the land in such abundance that you can prey upon them without killing a rare and irreplaceable animal.

People love to explain this away as "progress," so I'll go further: cancer rates have risen steadily every year since the introduction of industrial machinery. It takes going to someplace isolated because it is inhospitable to avoid the sound of cars. Our groundwater now has traces of reproductive health chemicals, anti-depressants, and sedatives used on a daily basis by neurotic people. You cannot find a patch of ocean floor which does not have at least some human trash, and the same is true of any open field you encounter: Coke cans, Marlboro packs, Trojan condoms, Altoids breath mints. And did I mention that we eliminate new and unique species every year in the order of thousands, not handfuls?

Those who are still clinging to the hope that humanity has not lost its way, and that we have not made a fundamental error, will use any rhetorical device they can imagine to deny this situation. They will wittily point out that most land is still undeveloped, and that many species are being "saved" by inbreeding in captivity. To them I point out: the open land that isn't developed is either national parkland, where so many humans visit that animals are not isolated at all, and in fact are dependent on human visitors for food handouts, and that most of our undeveloped land is of desert or minimally fertile nature. We have consumed almost all of the most vital ecosystems as, not surprisingly, they offer the best land and richest soil. Further, I would point out that even undeveloped land is cut through with roads, and polluted with agricultural runoff, human trash, discarded vehicles and abandoned buildings.

There will be no way to prove the environmental holocaust (more than six million dead, for sure) to someone who is comitted to deny it, because the root of their denial is in their psychological need and not logical faculty; further, most of these people are products of industrial society itself, bred to do nothing more than go to a job and slide a credit card for food, medicine, "entertainment" and reproduction. They may have basic intelligence, but they lack the crowning attribute of intelligence, which is the leadership ability to undertake long-term planning and visualize distant consequences and thus to pick those that even if inconvenient are the smarter path. For this reason, even if you show them the last dead plant and animal, they will bleat about how it is not a problem. This shows us the problem with a utilitarian definition of "proof": most people cannot recognize the truth, much less reality, and therefore will retreat to partisan positions, e.g. I like my new SUV and therefore, there is no environmental problem.

However, to those who think, and who do have long-term intelligence, the collapse of our environment is as real as our running out of oil supplies, our loss of ethnocultures, our overpopulation, and our having reached a state of schizoid denial of reality that makes the average person quite insane at a sublime, barely visible level. It is only a matter of time. This was what the wisest cautioned about years ago: if we keep growing, and the means of our support is a fixed amount of space and resources, there will eventually be a collision. Most people group that eventuality with the eventuality of death as something that they deny, and thus put both into a space reserved for other things one doesn't consider in daily life, like unicorns and goddesses on white horses.

There are some who do think about environmentalism, and by the choices that they make, we can see the limitations of our current culture of thought. If society is in the kind of error that has gotten us to this stage, we should not replicate its thought process in our future thinking. Yet this is what happens with most revolutions and "new" ideas, in that they are new only in appearance, and is why most fail at achieving their ends, even if they come to power; something like this is happening in the environmental movement. It has two basic prongs of attack, the first being those who think that a passive means will correct the problem, and the second being those who seek a more active solution. We will refer to these as the "Sierra Club" and "Unabomber" outlooks, respectively, since those are their most visible proponents.

The Sierra Club outlook is simple: we need to funnel more funding into preserving natural lands, use democracy to fight encroachment by corporations, and each of us should want to recycle more and use less; everything else in society is just peachy. In this view, environmental consciousness is a natural preference for an individual to have, and if we just educate people enough, they'll all - being equally rational beings - see this and begin acting upon it. Not only is environmentalism a preference many will adopt, assuming the education part works out alright, goes the thinking, but at that point, it will become profitable, since consumers will only purchase goods made by green-friendly companies. If you hear the "positive" rock of the early 1970s in the background, you're probably not fully hallucinating, as that movement was the origin of these ideas.

Further, say the Sierra Club-type people, what is most needed is that we stop living such outrageous lifestyles. You can wear a sweater instead of just turning up the heat, and you don't need to buy so many plastic goods, or produce so much trash. There are more efficient cars - even hybrid cars, now - and more efficient water heaters, and dishwashers. Speaking of which, you can do your dishes by hand, and then you'll use less water there. You can be cremated instead of interred. If you're really ambitious, when you cut down trees to make your next house, you can use an environmentally-effective Swedish design that minimizes power consumption and toxic residue of building materials. At the workplace, it's even possible that you can convince your bosses to send memos via email instead of on paper, saving several gross of reams every year. Follow these simple rules, and nothing else needs to change - environmentalism will follow naturally, so goes the theory.

In contrast, the Unabomber perspective is more assertive. The problem, it argues, is a system of greed in which a neurotic population is encouraged to compete economically, and thus the individual will never stop consuming as much as possible as that is the means by which one gets ahead. Large corporations are formed by this competitive impulse, as near-monopoly is where the profit is, and because people are half-crazed with the requirements of industrial society, they will be unable to see that the standards which mark something "green-friendly" apply when the company ships its toxic waste to an approved dump site instead of simply throwing it into a nearby river. Further, this view bravely argues, because democracy is the means of power, people will vote for what benefits them personally and thus never approve any sweeping environmental legislation.

If the Unabomber view sounds like the disenchanted anarchist terrorists of Europe who followed the hippie era, that's not just hallucination, either: it was in part a direct reaction to the feeble liberalism sweeping through college campuses in the 1960s, which in the eyes of the Unabomber (FC) and allies, is an effete approach to a more widespread problem. Witness, for example, how many people still smoke cigarettes; did "education" work there, they ask? Even more viciously and accurately, they point out that a system which constructs itself so that getting ahead requires sacrificing environmental concerns will thus always make that sacrifice, because individuals - and not groups - are what define its structure. The Unabomber view is more revolutionary, more like the Bader-Meinhof gang or the Posse Comitatus, and less like the espresso-sipping coffeehouse chatter of the Sierra Club that can be barely be heard over the free jazz/techno fusion playing softly in the background.

Obviously, since the paragraph structure of this article explores two ideas in sequence after declaring that neither is working, there is a hybrid view being proposed here, which can be called the Unaclub view: that the analysis of the current system by the Unabomber is correct, but that it can only be fixed by something like a more extreme version of the Sierra Club view. Where the Sierra Club view espouses the current direction of society with some changes, the Unabomber view posits a new direction to society with some retention of its most enduring values. Where the Sierra Club view is broken is in its conception of the philosophy of its movement, which does not differ from the thought system which brought about the problems it bemoans; the Unabomber view fixes this, but because of its estrangement from the current system of thought, tends toward extreme methods which will not directly accomplish its goal (to the Unabomber's credit, perhaps, is his statement that his actions were designed to achieve the beginnings of an extreme of the Sierra Club's method - "education").

The Sierra Club view does not admit that society has lost its way; like the hippies after whom it is styled, it hopes to re-affirm essential ideas of the civilization surrounding it and in doing so, to secure a place for environmentalism among them. However, its basic premise is passive and not active: it believes that through "education," people can be induced to adopt a preservative outlook toward the environment. Experience in its grandest form, namely history, suggests this is not so. The Unabomber is correct in noting that most people will act for their immediate benefit, setting aside long-term concerns to the same place where death is filed, in the folder labelled "unpleasant eventuality," and thus ignoring these concerns in their everyday lives. Further, as the Unabomber correctly notes, the Sierra Club view assumes that a democratic society will choose to take a difficult path to a better long-term result, where history suggests that voters will approve subterfuge, bread, circuses and pleasant illusion long before they will act on anything enduring.

The fact of history is that masses tend toward passive systems, such as democracy, from fear of their own inadequacies, while strong leaders tend toward active systems, such as fixing long-term problems even if they are unpopular. The only refuge of environmentalism is in the latter perspective, as the passive perspective, as a product of the type of thinking that got us into this mess, is unable to control it. When one thinks in passive terms, the situation is irresolvable, which translates into "wait for it to kill us and take no action." We need modern methods of farming to feed all the people on earth; however, these methods are destructive and produce runoff that destroys local ecosystems. We are also dependent on naturally-occurring resources such as fish, clean rainwater, timber and minerals in order to keep our population clothed and housed. For this reason, doing what is necessary - reversing our overconsumption and waste - will never be accepted by the popular majority. The masses will oppose an active system with their passivity, as they recognize that it will deny most of them the lifestyles they want.

Another way to look at this is to compare the numbers. Even if every first-world lifestyle household reduced its consumption and waste to one-third of its current amount, that gain will be erased by the sheer numbers of previous third-world households suddenly taking on first-world lifestyles - even if at the reduced waste and resources level. If even in the first world, we begin limiting access to the resource-consumption levels afforded by wealth, there will be mass dissent, and few will agree with the plan because they personally desire a more comfortable lifestyle and cannot predict the long-term consequences, thus are unaware of them. To take the best possible scenario of the Sierra Club view, if we managed to "educate" all of the first world into living a more efficient lifestyle, we will then have to "educate" the third world to do the same, assuming that a mass of starving people would rather stay starving to protect our environment than move up to the comfortable lifestyles they covet (but cannot on their own achieve). Awareness of this truth invalidates the Sierra Club view, and promotes that of the Unabomber to prominence, but then the question arises: since "education" fails for the Sierra Club view, wouldn't it also fail for the Unabomber view?

It is correct to assume that it will. Since the onset of populist democracy - the pleasant illusion that all of us working as committee will make the best possible decisions, because we are all equal in wisdom - those who can see the long-term situation in many areas (environment, psychology, genetics/race, resource depletion) have been hostage to the will of the mass. If something is not recognized by the broadest group of society, to a democracy, it does not exist as an issue, and thus the thinkers and leaders are marginalized in favor of the flighty tastes of the masses. Further, the masses in believing that democracy is a workable system, place their trust in it, and are thus deluded by a shadow group of commercial bandits and power mongers who manipulate from behind the scenes, most notably through media. "Education" is a failure, as are all passive methods, including those of the Sierra Club; so we're back to the Unabomber view.

There is a possibility of a third response; it seems appropriate to use the methods of the Sierra Club to achieve what the Unabomber realized as system of thought: democracy must be used to undo democracy, so that leaders who can affirm the unpleasant but necessary long-term truth of avoiding environmental holocaust can come to power. This approach does not rely on "educating" the citizenry to behave a certain way, but in showing them that our way has failed, and thus something new must result. "Education" would be wonderful if we were all clones, but the fact of the matter is that only the privileged few will recycle enough, and use hybrid cars, and wash their dishes by hand, while the surging masses will do their best to gain the wealth they see as their due, and in the process, completely reverse all possible positive advances made by the Sierra Clubbers. What must replace education is a transfer of power, so that this mass impulse can be restrained by those who know better.

The concept of this transfer of power will necessarily be unpopular, as who, thinking only in the short-term, wants to be poorer and have less power, in exchange for a long-term goal that may not be realized in their lifetimes? Luckily, however, the comedy of democracy will save us: democracies collapse into authoritarian systems because, after the democracy has failed to address basic problems for the umpteenth time, the people are receptive to someone who will - usually a strong leader, even if a criminal. Societies move from a leadership position to a passive one, into democracy, and finally with the collective ignorance only a crowd can create, they vote themselves into oblivion. Since authoritarianism is coming anyway, isn't it time the environmental movement got ready to seize the day and direct it in an appropriate direction?

Craig Smith (02/17/05)