Monday, September 5, 2011

The Case Against "Green"

I've heard entirely too much about Green.

It's hard to say there's a Green movement.  There's a Green political party and after spending, admittedly, only a few minutes researching the Green Party, I find that it is an extremely progressive party.  It has some decidedly pro-environment (more on that in a bit) aspects in its cross section, but that is by no means the center of its platform.

I'd like to point out, since I'm talking about a socially progressive political party, that at one time (like around when Lincoln was running for office) the Republican party was that of the social progressives, the bleeding heart liberals.  How times change.

No, the Green I mean is that practice of changing one's behavior in an effort to minimize one's impact on the global environment.  This includes weighing the options of paper bags at the grocery checkout (kill a tree) versus the plastic bag (choke a sea turtle).  And one must also make allowances for the committed greenies, those who bring their reusable cloth bag.  Never mind that the cloth bag is made of synthetic fibers, nonbiodegradable, and manufactured in a Taiwanese sweatshop by underpaid minors.  But that's not my point.

I humbly submit we discard the term "green" to describe this school of thought and behavior.  In its place I suggest we adopt the term "environmental responsibilitism."  This describes a pattern of behavior and a philosophy, perhaps not too unlike Buddhism.  Where "green" behavior attempts to describe environmental responsibility, ER speaks more specifically to the unstated goal of which environment is being preserved.

What tree huggers and other "green" activists are trying to preserve is the global environment, but that's an awfully big concept, "the environment."  Which one?  Big planet you know, lots of different climates, regions and populations involved.  If you don't specify which one you mean, you're just talking into your hat.

The environment those people are talking about is the global human environment, the one in which we exist right now or, perhaps wistfully, the one of about twenty years ago.  People who are trying to preserve things want to try to rescue something that may already be dead.  Too little, too late.  But that's not my point.

I'm not speaking to the human environment in which we humans interact with each other, function and move around, but rather the human environment of things we dream about and wonder at.  To grow up watching National Geographic films about coral reefs and PBS Nature specials about the Serengeti is to form a romantic notion that there is a huge and beautiful world that has nothing to do with people.  You don't see people in those places.  There might be people in the films - scuba divers, khaki-clad rangers tearing across the landscape to tag a rhino for tracking.  But those aren't people in the environment any more than astronauts are native to the sky.  They can't stay there for long.  If the rhino wants the rangers gone, he slams his flanks hard against the Land Rover and wheels off in another direction.  Khaki shoulders shrug and the rangers call it a day.  The scuba diver has to surface eventually.  So while we can see our species in those strange and wondrous environments, we know that we aren't actually of that environment.  We know we can't belong there.  That environment has its own rhythm and flow, and places strong demands on the creatures that live there - demands humans can't meet for long.  Those environments are destructive to us.  We can't stay long.  We have to go back to where we can live.

Then we read in the news that human activity here is having destructive effects over there.  Water temperatures rise and the corals bleach, ejecting their symbiotic algae.  The coral reef dies.  The dreamlike palette of colors and textures goes away.  Where does it go?  We don't know yet.  It may just go...away.  As in, be gone and not come back.  The spring rains arrive weeks, then months late in the Serengeti, and go away again too soon.

My romantic side dreads that that might come to pass in an unescapable way, that there may be a future that has, for example, no coral reefs at all.  The images in old National Geographic magazines might be an abstraction to future generations, that they can only imagine that there was ever such a thing to see.  Under the ocean, all that might be left would be duller, drearier colors: grays, muted umbers, blues and greens.  Environmental Responsibilitism looks into that future, finds it wanting, and takes steps to stave off its arrival.  However mundane the steps taken, Environmental Responsibilitism is the motivation behind them.

So perhaps more than anything else, Environmental Responsibilitism isn't as much a philosophy as it is a practice of prophylaxis.  But that's not my point.

There's a lot of debate as to whether human activity is the root cause of global climate change - and even whether there is any global climate change.  I won't touch on that because I know entirely too many conservatives who rail loudly and with great conviction against it, and just as many liberals who take the opposite view.  (It's worth asking, why does it come down to opposing political views that also take these two opposing scientific views?)  But there can be no denying that human activity has environmental effects.  For instance, before white men settled North America and vigorously expanded westward, passenger pigeons were found in vast numbers, so vast that no amount of natural predation could reduce their numbers.  The passenger pigeon species had adapted a successful solution to the problem of natural predation: be fruitful, and multiply.  They bred in such huge numbers that all predators in the area were utterly sated and wouldn't take any more pigeons.  Lose a few thousand here or there, have a few thousand babies here and there, and it all works out okay.  The two populations were in stasis.

Human predation, however, wiped them out.  That's an entire population numbering in the billions, gone.  Human activity made it happen in about 120 years.  We've been doing other things since then, and we've tried to be rather less heavy handed with animal species, having sort of learned our lesson with a species we initially considered so prevalent that we could never use them all up.  Whaling, for instance, isn't the mighty industry it once was.  Of course drilling for oil on conveniently solid ground took a lot of wind out of the whaling industry's sails too, but the point stands.  Rather than use all the whales up, humans decided to stop using whales for anything (mostly).

Dang.  At this point Blogspot went all kerflooey and lost a bunch of stuff I wrote.  Let's see if I can reconstruct it.

Nope.  Fie on you Blogspot!  Okay, picking back up:

Where calling a product or activity "green" implies that it is somehow benign, it doesn't leave room for the fact that nothing is without ramifications.  Like my grocery bag example, the steps you take may be great one way, but not so great in others.  To instead use a label like Environmental Responsibilitism, we introduce the these products and practices in the arena of philosophy.  This puts us in a new place:

To say you're an environmental responsibilitist doesn't say you actually are environmentally responsible.  It's an aspiration, not an absolute.  I say I'm Christian, I don't dare claim that I might be Christ-like.  That's a goal to shoot for, but no one assumes I'll ever achieve it.

We can strive for environmental responsibility the way Buddhists strive for Nirvana, the way Olympic gymnasts strive for a 10.0 from the Chinese judge.  You might get close, but to actually achieve it simply cannot happen.  At some point, we have to accept - and this is where reality grinds its heel into the unequivocating label of "Green," - that we aren't going to become completely benign.  We do damage.  Eventually the global environment heals itself; that's what it does.  It may become something that we don't appreciate as much as the global environment we know now, or remember from the our own youth or the youth of human culture, but it does heal.

Environmental Responsibilitism, then, is the practice of trying to slow down the damage caused by human activity to a pace that doesn't exceed the rate at which the global environment can restore it.  And that's my point.  It isn't a movement, and not an absolute.  It's an ideal which may not be achievable, but that doesn't make it any less worth striving for.

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