Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Chained to a Tree: the Powerless Environmentalist

Environmentalists have been sounding alarms in global terms since at least the 1960s. One might wonder how such an apocalyptic outcry can be sustained over nearly half a century. Is it only noise? If the dire predictions are true, where are the terrible effects? On the other hand, if this is all false scare-mongering, what keeps the environmentalists going at it?

If you take a more sympathetic view of environmentalism, this half century of alarms still presents a glaring question. If these are truly serious problems, and we know so much about them, why aren't they fixed yet?

I am at heart an environmentalist, having spent my formative years (in the 1970s) immersed in my parents' conservation and outdoor education activities. There was a "Conservation Confab" at Fort San, and I still remember the hilarity - and the sadness - in Bill Mason's "Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes," a film shown to us young folks while the adults did their boring sessions. Mom gave a presentation there about foods gathered from the wild (or something like that), and Dad was probably involved somehow as well. Then there was our family trip down through the western U.S., where Dad visited a series of wind power installations as part of his alternate-energy research for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Regina. But more important than these occasional exciting ventures was my involvement in the day-to-day activities as my parents helped establish an outdoor education centre (Saskairie), learned to raise cattle, grew large gardens, gathered berries, hunted, canned and dried food, and designed and built a solar-heated and wind-powered home.

I grew up with a deep love of wild places, a simmering resentment against the imposed abstractions of straight roads and square fields, and at the same time, a humble awareness of the sources of my food and shelter. I was never drawn to environmental activism, seeing the problems not so much in industry or government as in individual choices. I preferred to believe that if all were aware, all would do much better.

I sought training in journalism, then changed course to solidify my scientific background in ecology before tackling the enlightenment of the masses. With growing doubts about the power of education to solve environmental problems, I drifted sideways into a geographical study of the way conservation practices spread among farmers. Degree in hand, and bitterly disappointed with my graduate school experience, I settled down to the meagre goal of getting a job that might do a bit of good.

I found work as an environmental consultant, did the best job I could, and waited for the day when my work might make a difference. There was more disappointment ahead.

In recent years, I have given up my idealistic career goals and worked in the environmental field only for the money, or for the sheer joy of being outdoors. Meanwhile, I have turned my quest inward. Reading, debating, and sifting through my own experiences, I have tried to understand what I see as the failure of environmentalism.

In the series of essays to follow, as I examine this failure, I hope to offer some explanation of how it happened, and even some glimpses of why. Ah, hope. There it springs again. I don't know where this writing might lead, what might come out of it, or who might respond with a new vision of a brighter future. I do know that a vision of my own is growing, but before I write about that, I first need to spell out my understanding of the darkness behind.

Table of Essays
These are proposed titles, to pique your interest perhaps, but mostly to jog my memory as I write. They may change. (For example, I may look at a title and fail to remember what it was about). As each essay is completed and posted, I will change its title to a link, so that you can read through the full series in sequence if you wish. Where they appear in this blog, essay titles in this series will be prefaced with the acronym "CTAT," a reference to the series title, "Chained to a Tree."

I'm Not Dead Yet
Walking the Walk
We Can't All Live That Way
Don't Be So Depressing
Every Little Bit . . . Helps?
The Corporate Line
The Government Line
"Sustainable Growth" and Other Mad Buzz
Environmentalism as Religion

Aside: if you're thinking I went straight from global drought to the failure of environmentalism without a pause to give thanks, be assured that I did spend some time this weekend in awe of the glorious gold of autumn aspens. As I said to my family, what kind of universe do we live in, that instead of a relentless slide from warmth and lush green to cold and bleak grey-and-white, we get a riot of red and gold backed by incredible blue? I don't care whether there's anyone to thank. I'll sing my thanks anyway, and whoever wants to hear, let them hear!


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to your series.

Regarding your last paragraph, me too. I'm feeling very, very thankful these days, and wondering who(?) to address with that. I wish it was all as simple as it was 20 years ago in my personal Department of Religion. The Department got a little scattered, maybe I should rename it the "Department of the Diaspora".

Saskboy said...

I too am looking for an insightful series. It is fair to say that environmentalism as a movement has failed in key areas such as transportation reform, community planning, and agriculture reform.

arcolaura said...

Madcap - Does it matter who? These days I haul bits of scripture out of memory and use them upside-down and inside-out, like the one telling the vessel not to complain about the potter making it for destruction. Used to terrify me, that one. Now I just figure, if I was supposed to know who the potter is exactly, well, I guess the potter would have given me the eyes for that. Mold me as you will, Potter, and could you rub a little harder over here - gettin' a bit stiff, there - Mmm, thanks...

Saskboy - I hope I don't disappoint! Or try to hard to be "insightful," and forget what I was going to say... (grin)

Anonymous said...

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





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arcolaura said...

Sushil - interesting thoughts. Who is your audience? I agree with much of your message, yet I hear it as strident and I become impatient reading it. How would it sound to one whose hope is in technology? I doubt they would read it at all. But if you were to lead them softly and gently through your message, perhaps book length, perhaps in novel format, some might stay with you.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this appears twice - it doesn't seem to have taken the first time:

Laura, to echo the comments I'm very much looking forward to your writing on this subject. I've paralleled your path in some ways, I imagine, and have become disgruntled with the concept.

(However see Phila's post at Bouphonia, which appeared today. It makes some good points, which may or may not relate to your future ones.)

In an encapsulated moment of relevance, I just got (as junk mail) from The National Wildlife Federation (that would be US) a desperate plea "Adopt an Orca Today!".

If there's anything that has soured me on environmentalism it's been that sort of thing. I'm not saying it's not noble, it certainly is, but it's so transparently manipulative to me, and it's been going on for decades.

Here's a diffence, using that example. Drawing people into the fold with such come-ons, which are fine but have the effect of an immediate and temporary fix are great but are clearly cries for money. I've watched environmental organizations for years and have yet to see a concerted approach toward making people aware of the little things, which, after all, add up to the big things. The latter all seems to be done at the grassroots level, with little direction or support from the big moneymaking environmentalists.

I could be wrong, of course.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I did a blogg hoping for my thirteen thursday and came across your blogg.

to me I wonder if the relgious right is trying to make an apocalyptic world happen?

Have a good day and stop by some time.

Paul said...

Laura, you have certainly earned my respect. You have been an inspiration and a mystery to me. I've been mystified by how you can keep going -- reading, researching, writing, trying, hoping -- without becoming cynical. I've struggled with this for years. I've looked to your example for help in this struggle. I'm finally getting to a place of peace and acceptance.

I no longer ponder religious issues. I feel my life is a gift. I'm thankful for it -- for the good and the bad. Living with gratitude and thanks fills my life with peace, contentment and a form of joy. I can't imagine living with any attitude other thankfulness.

I'm looking forward to your series.

Also, I have a photo and some information about infrared thermometers that I intend to post in response to your request.

arcolaura said...

Wayne - I guess I probably agree with you, although I would put it differently. I actually think there is too much emphasis on "little things you can do," and not enough facing up to the fact that real lifestyle changes are needed. Lifestyle choices are big things - big in terms of the sum total of their effects, and big in terms of the individual commitment needed to make new choices and carry them out.

Thanks for the link. Not sure when I'll get to it though...

arcolaura said...

peppylady - Hi and welcome! What is "thirteen Thursday"? As for "the religious right," I don't think it exists as an organized single-minded body, working to bring about some kind of end time. There might be some groups within the religious right that are working that way, but there are also right-leaning religious people who just want the government to stop DOING so much (harm as well as good) and let people take more responsibility for the well-being of their own world.

arcolaura said...

i wonder - I suppose I have become cynical about some particular approaches or attitudes, but there is always some other new angle suggested, some other shoot rising from the old root. I think I've also found some peace by actually contemplating the worst that could happen - a dead planet - and letting that possibility be. "Save the planet" is a frightening, guilt-loading phrase. Instead of beating myself into activity with that, I just let the worst possibility be, and then - as you say - give thanks for what is. It's a much more spacious, grounded starting point for thinking about and working towards what could be.