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How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About it.
Once, environmentalism was about saving wild beings and wild places. “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind,” Rachel Carson wrote to a friend. “That, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.” Silent Spring, which inspired the formation of the modern environmental movement, was more than a critique of pesticides—it was a clarion call against industrialized society’s destruction of the natural world.
That destruction has put us in peril. Like all animals, we need a home: a blanket of air, a cradle of soil, and a vast assemblage of creatures who make both. We can’t create oxygen, but others—from tiny plankton to towering redwoods—can. We can’t build soil, but the slow circling of bacteria, bison, and sweetgrass do.
All of them are bleeding out, species by species, like Noah in reverse, while the carbon swells and the heat burns on. Five decades of environmental activism haven’t stopped the destruction. We haven’t even slowed it. Instead, the beings and biomes who were once the center of our concern have disappeared from the conversation and the goal of environmentalism has been transformed to a singular question: “How can we save industrial civilization?”
Those who concern themselves with this question are known as bright green environmentalists and they are very much on the ascent. They believe that technology and design can render industrial civilization sustainable, and that so-called “green technologies” are good for the planet. Some bright green environmentalists are well-known and beloved politicians and writers like Al Gore, Naomi Klein, and Bill McKibben. The group also includes big, established organizations who are dedicated to fighting climate change like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace International, Audubon, and the Rockefeller Foundation
These committed activists have helped to bring the emergency of climate change into broad consciousness, and that’s a huge win as the glaciers melt and the tundra burns. But we believe the bright greens are solving for the wrong variable. All of the solutions to global warming they present take our current way of living as a given, and the health of the planet as the dependent variable. That is backwards: the health of the planet must be more important than our way of life because without a healthy planet you don’t have any way of life whatsoever.
The only way to build the bright green narrative is to erase every awareness of the creatures and communities being consumed. They simply don’t exist, and if they do exist, they don’t matter. Take, for example, the Florida yew whose home is one single 15-mile stretch, now under threat from biomass production. Or the Scottish wildcat who number a grim 35, all at risk from a proposed wind installation.
“Progress,” Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan reminds us, “is a sort of madness that is a god to people. Decent people commit horrible crimes that are acceptable because of progress.” And so our culture hurtles towards are new industrial paradigm, and the wildcats are consigned to history.
The true facts about supposedly renewable energy are hard, and worse than inconvenient. The first truth is that industrial civilization requires industrial levels of energy. The second is that fossil fuel—especially oil— is functionally irreplaceable. Scaling the current renewable energy technology, like solar, wind, hydro, and biomass, would be tantamount to ecocide. Consider that 12 percent of the continental United States would have to be covered in windfarms to meet current electricity demands. But electricity is only one-sixth of the nation’s energy consumption. To provide for the U.S.A.’s total energy consumption, fully 72 percent of the continent would have to be devoted to wind farms. In reality, solar and wind development threaten to destroy as much land globally as expansion of urban sprawl, oil and gas, coal, and mining combined by 2050.
Third, solar, wind, and battery technology are, in their own right, assaults against the living world. From beginning to end, they require industrial-scale devastation: open-pit mining, deforestation, soil toxification that’s permanent on anything but a geologic timescale, extirpation and extinction of vulnerable species, and use of fossil fuels. In reality, so-called “green” technologies are some of the most destructive industrial processes every invented. They will not save the earth. They will only hasten its demise.
There are solutions once we confront the actual problem. Simply put, we have to stop destroying the planet and let the world come back. A recent study published in Nature found that we could cut the amount of carbon emissions built up in atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution by half by reverting some 30% of the world’s farmland to its natural state. This would have the added benefit of preserving some 70% of endangered animals and plants. This is the lowest of low hanging fruit when it comes to combating climate change and healing our planet. Everywhere we can see examples of when the wounded are healed, the missing appear, and the exiled return. Forests repair, grasses take root, and soil sequesters carbon. It’s not too late.
If environmentalism is going to help save the planet—and if it is going to respond to global warming in any way commensurate with the threat—it needs to return to its roots, remember the love that founders like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold had for the land. We need to pledge our loyalty to this planet, the planet that is home to the only life we know of in the universe. Jack D. Forbes wrote that “the universe is our holy book, the earth our genesis, the sky our sacred scroll.” This world is our only home, and to desecrate it is a deep evil. To repair and protect is our calling.
There’s no time for despair. We have to take back our movement and defend our beloved. How can we do less? The yew and the wildcats need us now.
Copyright 2021. This passage is an excerpt from Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, & Max Wilbert (Monkfish Book Publishing, 2021). Published in Vox Populi with permission.
Derrick Jensen is the acclaimed author of more than twenty-five books, including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, and Endgame. Lierre Keith is a writer, small farmer, and radical feminist activist. Max Wilbert is a writer, organizer, and wilderness guide.
September 8, 2020. Embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. Photo credit: AP Photo/Noah Berger
I’ve been heeding Derrick Jensen’s warnings and pleas for real action since 2011, when I read his book, ‘Endgame’. I believe him, and Kevin Anderson (whose idea of the only legitimate global goal is ‘real zero [emissions] by 2035-40’). And I’ve been maintaining, and even reducing, my personal emissions every day in every way – without any difficulty or hardship at all, eg my annual carbon footprint (calculated just now) =1.32 metric tonnes.
NB It’s somewhat easier in Tasmania because our electricity is hydro-powered + wind-powered, and as an almost vegan at 80 years of age I have no need to buy home appliances, furniture or new clothes (op-shops + underwear only).
Am I proud of myself? You betcha! And I’m also glad that my two children are in their 50s, also leading low-emission lifestyles, and I have no grandchildren whose dire future I need to be worried about. I mourn the wildlife most of all, hoping against hope that tigers are still around when I die . . .
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Thanks, Lizzie. Like you, I’m a vegan struggling to shrink my footprint, but it’s more difficult in the US where everything we do is, on some level, carbon intensive. — Michael Simms
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The straightforward message of this article, brought home by the statistics cited and hard-headed look at renewable energy, is one that, as the authors say, is largely avoided in most discussions of Climate Change, Green New Deals, and environmental issues in general: technical fixes ain’t gonna cut it. The changes required are drastic changes in our way of life, in our patterns of consumption, in our industrial civilization, in our economic models, in our population growth, in our biological and psychological habits, in our notions of spirituality and sacredness. In our basic comprehension of what life is all about.
For half a century and more, most of my adult life, ecologists, forward-thinking environmentalists and native peoples have been trying to get decision-makers and the shorted-sighted to wake up, to realize what terms like sustainability, preservation, homeostasis and steady-state mean, to recognize the urgency, the bigger picture. We have failed. We have been called doomsayers, commies, hippies, nihilists, perverts, and a lot if even less savory terms. Jensen, Keith and Wilbert say it again, in clear language; more voices in the neoliberal wilderness.
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I completely agree, Michael. Years ago, I worked professionally for a large environmental organization, and after six months or so, it became clear that the agenda was not to save nature from our destruction, but to position the organization financially and politically to have power and influence. As long as we assume the answer lies with government and corporations changing their policies, rather than consumers (that is, you and me) changing our attitudes and habits, then we will continue spiraling into Armageddon.
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