I recently picked up a book called Break Through; Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists and, while I will do a full review some time later, I can't wait but to pass along something from the intro.
But before I do that I have to give a little bit of background. I consider myself an environmentalist, but I have repeatedly found myself at odds with those that proclaim themselves likewise. Being from a small town and also having grown up after the golden-age of the environmental movement, I have found that my thought processes just don't synch with modern environmentalists.
As an example, and at the risk of alienating a whole faction of this blog's readers, I'll use global warming. Now I believe that the climate is changing. I also believe that, at best, it makes little sense and, at worst, is ruinous for humans to be spewing pollution into the atmosphere. So this puts me in line with most environmentalists. Where I hesitate is when I am told that a given amount of carbon release is going to equate to a given amount of temperature fluctuation and that we have a specified number of years until Manhattan is underwater.
The climate is a complex system that we barely comprehend, let alone fully understand. Activists lose me, and lose credibility with me, when they gloss over the ambiguity and insist that we know exactly what is going on, everything is black and white and every weather fluctuation is attributable to a greenhouse gas. It is a little like a cult that predicts the end of the world and then, when it doesn't happen, merely updates their prediction to a more convenient and ominous date, with full outward assurance and confidence. It is just not that simple, and dammit, I'm intelligent and don't want to be talked to like it is.
I also struggle with the notion that humans are the problem - period. I struggle with this because of the same ambiguity I described with global warming (and the realization that self-extermination is not a viable strategy). We may be part of the problem, but we are the only ones that can be the solution.
This brings me to the book, which describes this paradox in the introduction:
Happily, many people read the essay [The Death of Environmentalism] and, whether they agreed or disagreed, considered our thesis that "modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live." Our intent was, in part, to question whether the category of "the environment" made sense any longer. If "the environment" includes humans, then everything is environmental and the concept has little use other than being a poor synonym for "everything." If it excludes humans, then it is scientifically specious, not to mention politically suicidal.
Are humans part of the environment or not? Are we the problem - end of sentence, or can we also be the solution?
I had struggled with this question for a long time until I had it explained to me in better terminology by Andres Duany. He posed the question in terms of habitat - human habitat versus flora/fauna habitat. When you look at it that way, I believe it all makes more sense.
The modern environmentalist places the greatest value on wilderness, which is The Environment as it is, lacking of humans. As humans intervene in the wilderness, they degrade it. The more the degree of intervention, the more the degradation and the less amount of value. Therefore, the less we can impact the environment and the more we can restore the environment where it has been impacted, the greater value the environmentalist would infer.
A simple graph of value versus level of development (impact) would look like this, with the value decreasing as the level of development increases from wilderness on the far left to a completely urbanized area on the far right:
For myself, following the lead of Duany, I look at this differently. With the concept of habitat as a guide, I place an equally high value on the most natural flora/fauna habitat (wilderness) as I do on the most well-developed human habitat (urbanized). But as you stray from these two conditions, I see the overall value decline. The wilderness loses value once it is encroached upon as well-developed urban areas lose value as they become more spread out (incorporating slices of nature) and less urban.
My value graph looks like this:
And this brings me to why I struggle with environmentalists. By not including humans as part of the environment and placing an equal value on their habitat, environmentalists are in a losing battle where the only possible outcome is both poor quality flora/fauna habitat and poor quality human habitat. By having a singular focus on resisting development, modern environmentalists are inducing the decentralized, spread-out development pattern that most destroys that which they value.
And while they may get some satisfaction by reducing a 50 unit housing development down to 40 units, what they should be advocating for instead is 100 units. The ten unit "victory" simply dislocates the total demand to some future environmental compromise, while the failure to build a full 100 units (in this example) on land that is being impacted means a larger footprint for the same level of development.
If modern environmentalists focused on building vibrant urban areas that are great human habitats, they could not only be for something (instead of simply against) but they would actually promote their own values more effectively than they are doing today.