How Thoreau screwed over environmentalism

Originally published in the Collegian on January 28, 2009

I have a dirty secret that I’m now announcing to the world: I want to live in the country. Preferably in a small house with a garden, a field enormous enough to keep a horse and a big dog, and an orchard.

I say it’s a dirty secret because it is, literally, dirty — a half-ton of carbon emissions annually (not to mention sulfur, ozone, and particulates), to be precise. The sad fact is that living the simple rural life extolled by so many tree huggers is one of the worst things I could possibly inflict on the environment. And this is the root of the problem with environmentalism today. There’s a war between hippies and science.

Let’s get a few facts straight: nuclear power is probably a net plus for the environment, not some force destined to turn us into Hulks and fish creatures. Moving to the city is not only healthier for the earth, it’s healthier for you (city dwellers live longer on average), and, with the advent of social networking and urban renewal, unlikely to damage your psyche. Farms are a big part of the problem of global warming. Forests are healthiest when managed by undergrowth removal. And, quite frankly, wilderness does a lot better when people leave it alone than when they commune with it in the form of Walden-esque cabins.

Climate change, deforestation, pollution and everything else we inflict on the environment are not, as Al Gore likes to claim, spiritual crises. They are fundamentally economic and scientific crises. It is not that a willingness to destroy the environment has replaced an ancestral tie to the earth (a tie I suspect never existed as imagined by today’s environmental romantics); it is that our capacity to destroy has outpaced our capacity to restore. We are no longer stewards of ancient forests like the Iroquois were. Not because we lack their nobility, but because they lacked our backhoes and chainsaws.

Who is to blame for this? Some would blame the environmental romantics like Thoreau and Grey Owl or those who would derive a moral responsibility to protect the earth from scripture. They deserve blame, yes, for giving birth to such ridiculous notions. But I am more prone to look at my community, the community of scientists, when assigning responsibility. Otherwise sober tracts on deforestation by respectable botanists talk of spiritual connections to forests. Accounts of the urgent need to protect biodiversity speak of a moral duty to protect a species of bird or beetle.

Forgive me, but I see no need to appeal to spirituality or moral duty to call for an end to environmental destruction. (Moreover, how can there be a moral duty to protect a particular species when extinction is a normal ecological event?) It doesn’t seem to work, for one thing: despite pleas from the likes of Alice Walker to return to an ancestral earth worship, we still pollute at record levels and destroy more acres of rainforest every year than ever before. Only when everyday life has been affected do we see change, as in the case of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The truth is that only a rational argument seems to convince anyone that society must change. Try this one on: despite all our efforts to the contrary, life will survive. It’s survived eruptions, ice ages, and meteors. On the other hand, we never have. There are animals and plants who will thrive in a world we’ve destroyed, who will give rise to new species to replace those we’ve killed. But we won’t. We’re a fragile species, not well suited to drought after drought. Forget about saving the whales. Worry about saving the humans.


One response to “How Thoreau screwed over environmentalism

  • Jake Fraser

    I read a neat little piece by a philosopher named Slajov Zizek about this, in an interview he did with a woman named Astra Taylor for a movie called “Examined Life.” His basic argument is that the (mis)conception that we have of humans being tied to the Earth as some sort of age-old cycle is flawed; he cites the oilfields and the ice age(s) as examples of geological catastrophe that would imply that we have not somehow magically thrown the Earth out of balance, but rather that while the conditions of the Earth are always changing, the conditions with which we can live upon it are not – thus, the emphasis is not on figuring out how to “go back to the way we were” but instead to embrace the potential of technology to preserve what would otherwise be the (if not natural, probabalistic) extinction of humanity.

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