Environmentalism: 1. It's not about global warming

I am a venture cyclist because I am on the Board of Hazon, a Jewish environmental non-profit. Is this because I am an environmentalist? Does this make me an environmentalist? I am going to publish a long-ish article over a few posts, looking at environmentalism. Your thoughts and comments are welcome as I muse. One punchline, whether or not you believe global warming is a priority to act on now, is that environmentalism is not about global warming, just as being a Democrat is not about abortion rights. It is easy to confuse a political or philosophical ideal with a keynote issue, but I urge we move away from such confusion, such party-line-voting, and this is what I want to try to untangle.

If environmentalism is a party-line-vote kind of thing, then I want no part of it. Two of my partners are avid hunters. They spend more real dollars on protecting wildlife habitat every year than my entire philanthropic capacity. More healthy habitat means more healthy game for them to hunt. Does the fact they are hunters, not usually a party-line kind of environmental activity, strike from the record the clear benefits they endow on our environment? Others I know (me included) eat organic produce, but that includes produce flown in from around the world, with those planes spewing out many pounds (tons) of carbon and pollutants. Is that environmentally positive behavior?

Environmentalism has become inextricably bound up with "... The ... Fight ... Against ... Global ... Warming". It shouldn't be. (All those dot...dot...dots... mean imagine a drumroll in the background). Global Warming is a complex topic, in fact it is a "... Complex ... Topic". Check out this intriguing article about complexity from Michael Crichton. He discovers, amongst many things, that in 1978, a leading environmental concern was "... Global ... Cooling".

This is a digression. This article is not about global warming. Instead it is about what Environmentalism really should be about, and what it means to me, and (I think) to Hazon.

I think I start with the notion that environmentalism is about sustainability and unsustainability. In Michael Pollan’s wonderful book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he defines unsustainable as meaning “sooner or later it must collapse.”

So what is going to collapse? According to our current understanding, the oil resources on the planet are finite. We are still discovering new deposits, but there is currently consensus that we will exhaust those deposits at some time (ditto coal and natural gas). What else? There seem to be some water sources (aquifers generally) that are also understood to be finite, and which we are draining. Many modern agricultural processes deplete soil fertility or erode topsoil entirely. Current fishing practices may be driving some species of wild fish to extinction. Industrial processes that release toxins into the ocean are making other species unhealthy (or dangerous) to eat. Degradation and destruction and shrinkage of habitat are making land species locally or globally endangered or extinct.

In each of these examples, systems based on these resources will collapse if the trends play out as expected and absent changes in human behavior. None of these may pressage disaster, although some might. By the time we run out of oil we may have a functioning hydrogen energy infrastructure or even solar/hydro/wind/wave energy. By the time we drain our drinking water supplies, large scale desalination or other reclamation may be economically viable.

Furthermore, natural (non-human) processes may do as much or more "damage" to our environment as human activity. Volcanoes, new infectious agents, wild fires and tsunamis are examples that come to mind.

However, collapse is a miserable prospect. Just as any of these collapses may not bring disaster, they still might. Should we be courting such possibilities if we have other options? I think not. Do we have a responsibility to find sustainable alternatives? I think so.

Next time ... why are we responsible, and to whom?

While you can, and if you haven't, please go ahead and sponsor Hannah or me for the Hazon 2006 New York Bike ride.


Jason said...

If you are interested in environmentalism as more than just global warming, you might want to read Cradle to Cradle a book about environmental design

Jo said...

Check out this new site for the Jewish community to purchase carbon offsets: