Remember when nerds ran through the hallways of MIT chanting “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!”? OK, I don’t remember directly, as it was rather before I got there, but my realization today was equally shocking. Environmentalism isn’t sustainable, not the way it’s practiced currently. Let me tell you how I got there, and how we can work on getting around the problem.
This evening I read a fascinating post dissecting some environmental myths and affordances over at David Reevely’s “EcoLibertarian”. Reevely, like my spouse, is apparently a WW2 history buff, and found a very cogent (and relevant) analysis of the Allies’ bombing campaign in Richard Overy’s book “Why the Allies Won”. Overy makes the point that the West’s strong points were in engineering and management, rather than an ability to shove literally millions of men onto the battlefield. By leveraging those capacities, what looked like wasteful use of materials and energy actually turned out to save lives in the long run and transform the war from a brute-force context to one of capital and logistics.
Fast-forward to the birth of the environmental movement, which, as Reevely points out, arose on quasi-moral grounds, “on the idea that it was intrinsically sinful, in some sense, to consume more than you absolutely needed.” This was usually expressed as separatism, with individuals and families trying to drop out and provide for all of their own needs. As Reevely also observes, this meant lifestyle reductions, aka the infamous “do more with less”.
A lot of people still approach environmentalism as “what will I give up today?” Reevely’s point, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is that there is more to environmentalism than this fundamentally reductionist approach. Instead of trying to see how many eco-soldiers we can deploy to drop out and give up their goods and services, we should be asking ourselves how to use the momentum, in capital and engineering, that we built up with peak oil in order to create a better way going forward.
A very wise person recently told me that the key to happiness is moving toward pleasure, rather than away from pain. An endless cycle of giving up things in order to “save the planet” can only go so far. That’s moving away from pain, not toward something pleasant. It’s a philosophy that can create some satisfaction, a sense of duty, and a smug “moral high ground”, but it doesn’t inspire or truly lead. Ironically, a completely reductionist philosophy of environmentalism is ultimately not sustainable! Dropping out of modern society is of less value, in my opinion, than staying in and calling for moderation and sanity, as well as leading by example.
For my own contribution, here are some approaches to environmentalism that I’ve found valuable in the real world. I’m still giving up some things, but I’m doing it as part of a managed approach, not as an abnegation of the market system.
- Using our day-to-day buying power to influence local micro-markets. Enough of us must have filled out comment cards at Trader Joe’s, as they now have California-produced olive oil along with all the imported stuff. I still complain about the bottled waters from overseas at least monthly, maybe it will add up to a difference someday. Talking pleasantly to the folks stocking the produce department sometimes turns up a manager, and we express our appreciation for the local produce being carried, and wish out loud that more things had better area of origin labelling so we could make better choices. In at least 2 of the 4 stores where I frequently shop, origin info has increased to naming the state, as well as the country. I’m finding choices I didn’t know I had, e.g. between Tehachapi CA apples and Washington state apples and Australian apples, rather than just Jonathan vs Gala vs Fuji. BTW, just because it’s not local doesn’t mean it’s bad– for instance, NZ and AU lamb that’s pasture-raised and transported by ship is actually more eco-neutral than local veggies raised with petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation.
- Making a habit of letting our increasingly-ubiquitous connectivity enable frequent feedback to local, state, and national elected representatives fast and easy. I keep a letter template on my desktop and laptop computers, and have my senators and representatives, as well as some town and state contacts, in my eFax rolodex. If I read about something online or in a coffee shop, it’s the work of a few minutes to fire off a polite, focused faxed letter and let my opinion be heard. Sure, I could email. But again and again I read that it’s the physical pile of letters and faxes that are weighed more heavily than phone calls and emails, so I’ll spend the piece of paper. Who knows, they may not even be printing them out.
- Leveraging the economic and lifestyle surplus of peak-oil-now to invest and invent for future sustainability. A good example of this is all of us backyard gardeners enjoying a hobby while learning how to actually grow stuff. It’s a good thing my family doesn’t live or die on the basis of my garden, even though we do pretty well most of the time. I buy carbon credits for our vehicles, after researching the options, because I want to encourage that practice. New innovations in manufacturing are letting us build some high-end components like LEDs and solar cells more cleanly and cheaply than ever, but we couldn’t have gotten there without the fuss and waste in the middle. Increasing numbers of people are finding ways to telecommute part or full time. Etc.
The overall summary Don’t drop out and raise llamas in the woods unless you LOVE raising llamas in the woods. It will just make you bitter, and annoy the llamas. You want to be Eco, not Emo. What are you doing to be Eco smarter, not harder? Y’all are an extremely hoopy set of froods, and smart as new paint– leave a comment and share your approaches, too, please!