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The Environment of American Environmentalism

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I wrote this three part essay originally in 2007 for a previous blog, then re-wrote it in the December 2008, at the height of the 2008 Presidential election.



The Environmental Movement, as it has taken shape these past few years, cannot offer answers to those who would not allow answers. It moves no conscience when one’s conscience cannot be moved. For example, a while back, a certain bow-tied conservative said on national television that ‘science is overrated.’ To this there can be no response. Much later, another pundit on the same network asked a gentleman on his national program about the scientific community’s view on Global Warming. The response was that the science was practically conclusive and that the threat of Global Warming has not been overestimated. Then, another gentleman on the program was allowed to respond. He replied that Global Warming is ‘socialist alarmism.’ This is the public debate, as it stands, in 2008.
I do not pretend to understand all the science that is involved in Climate Change, as I am sure those national pundits would also concede. But the world under discussion in this debate is not beyond me; nor is it beyond any other television host or writer. I can see it right here, or in Chicago, and after years of appreciating the planet I live on, and listening to people proclaim their overt desire to destroy it, I have come to realize that my conscience will no longer allow me to live in a way that destroys the earth. It’s not much for a revelation, maybe, but it’s difficult.
The same people who think science is overrated in the Climate Change debate also do not want America to change its ways. They will say something to the effect of ‘China and India are big, dirty, industrial countries, and getting bigger and dirtier, so why should we change if they won’t.’ I have heard from many people who maintain this opinion, who must be smart, logical women and men. But their logic is deeply flawed. The world is not just somewhere else, as this argument supposes; the world is here. Despite what some may wish to believe, the natural world still lives in the U.S., and if we as a nation wanted to keep it, we would try, even against the longest odds, to protect it. No matter India or China’s opinion.
In the same interview that suggested environmentalism was socialist alarmism, the host claimed that environmentalism is fundamentally anti-capitalist. What do they mean? That’s not a rhetorical question. I don’t know what they mean. If we make fuel efficient automobiles and start encouraging mass transit and bicycling instead of driving, or investigate and invest further into alternative energy sources, does this mean we don’t want the U.S. to thrive? The environment can produce jobs, and it will, as does any new and growing industry. If we know that surface mining for coal harms the little remaining bit of the natural world left in the U.S., why don’t we attempt to do something else? At least try to. The conscience of the country will support it.
Maybe that is too bold a statement. But do people really want the country to continue growing in a way that will permanently alter and disfigure the face of the planet if we know it is happening and are making no serious attempts to stop it? This Bush administration seems to believe Capitalism cannot be defeated. So how can the environmentalists harm capitalism by trying something new? Isn’t that what capitalism is supposed to be all about?
Yet here we are, somehow positioning environmental concern with anti-capitalism and socialist propaganda. ‘Think twice about buying an SUV’ has transformed from sensible advice to a credo that marks one as an anti-business, tree-hugging activist who hates America and wealth. Truth be told, I don’t really like wealth, and I am an activist. Most of the people I know don’t have any real wealth. Most of those who do don’t seem to care much about the trees they see me hugging, or any other part of the world surrounding us. That’s why we seem anti-capitalist, I guess, when we’re really just thinking: why don’t people with millions to spare, spare a little to help save some of this?
They don’t seem to want to. Most of them, anyway. So what can I do? As a young man who simply enjoys immersing himself whenever possible into the natural world, who doesn’t want to see that part of it that remains in the U.S. destroyed, who is trying in every part of his life to simply not harm life. This is who I am, and I’m trying to figure out what to do. But I guess I already know.
I’ll continue to ride my bike to work as long as it’s possible, and if it rains too hard, I’ll take the bus. I’ll do everything I can not to waste energy in my home, or water. I won’t throw trash on the ground; I’ll recycle everything I can. When my wife and I can own a house, we’ll outfit it in order to conserve as much as possible. Can it get more basic? Doesn’t it seem like nothing? Those nationally televised pundits, who sit behind their desks and claim the pitfalls of science and the alarmism of activism, they see these actions of mine, and they see a threat. To Capitalism, and Democracy, and other Idols. Even these simple tasks are not encouraged to our citizens because they are a change leading towards, as unlikely as it sounds, socialism. But at night, even though the science will be beyond me and the debate may never end, I will simply go to sleep next to my wife, with my conscience clear, knowing that today I did as little as I could to add to the destruction of the world that surrounds me.


If science is overrated, one assumes the alternative must be religion. In this country, Christianity and the Bible are what the tv talks about, when the tv talks about religion. But, you know, I’ve read the Bible; the Bible doesn’t particularly answer the environmental questions. Nor does it defeat them. It certainly does not tell us to destroy the earth, although that has been proclaimed with ‘subdue the earth;’ nor does it tell us to worship the earth. It pretty much says that everything from God is good, and love your neighbor and the Lord.
When I used to read the Bible, I enjoyed it. There is very little concern with science, as far as I can tell. Sadly, though, it has been held up as the opposition to science. When someone claims science is overrated, I can only assume the contrast is to something like faith, and I shake my head and think, how did this happen? How did the battle lines become so concrete?
Religion deals with conscience, and conscience is an important thing. When I am asleep, and my conscience from the previous day is clear, everything in the world seems fine. Peace brings rest and the world moves forward and I think that maybe nature won’t be destroyed by humanity. But most of the time I am awake, and I think the natural world could be doomed to suffer a slow, slow death. At those times, it’s easier for me to worry about my own actions, my own impact on the tiny ecological world that I inhabit, and do everything not bring harm upon it, because too many others aren’t looking out for theirs. That’s how I view membership in the physical world.
Mary Oliver said that she thinks like an ecologist but lives like a member of a great family that includes herself and elephants and teachers and industrialists and wheat. I think that’s a brilliant woman who has found a way to exist in the world. I’m not an ecologist by trade. But I can find no justification, in the Bible or elsewhere, to live in the world while simultaneously harming it. This position, of human as equal members of the earth, has become the enemy of politics, both republican and democrat. Politicians are frustrating in part  because they spend so much time not talking about something. By not talking about it, they believe they are free from the concern and will voice support for something else. If you do not talk about the destruction of forests in your state, and you do not oppose it, you support the loss of those forests, politician. You should know that. The Bible agrees with me on this. And you should want the forests anyway. Maybe, if things change, you will want the Lord to some day appear near your presence, or maybe you’ll want to bring an offering. That seems to happen an awful lot in the presence of trees.


So here’s the problem: How boring would this discussion be on national television? Maybe I’m anti-capitalist, that does not bother me; I’m certainly not anti-religion. But if you argue on television that you do not mind being anti-capitalist, you default into anti-democracy, and anti-religion. Possibly even anti-freedom. The United States lives in a time when one’s conscience can only be voiced with authority in the public world if the conversation focuses on very specific issues. There is no need to name them; we all know them. But the environment is not one of them.
That may sound like a surprise. Everyone on tv, every station and every news channel has their devoted programs and anchors and spokesfolks to discuss Climate Change and melting ice caps and the endangerment of Polar Bears. They just don’t want to talk about solving the problems they represent: conserving energy and polluting less in an effort to protect the ice caps, and thus the Polar Bears. Why would they? What would they report on?
The true result of bringing environmental activism into the public sphere has not been seen, because it has not occurred. Even Al Gore, Oscar winner and Nobel Laureate, can’t bring it about. I hope he keeps trying. Next year we’ll have a pro-environment President, they say, and he’ll put energy issues and conservation on the map. I’m hopeful that the results will be positive. But it’s just hope, now.
That’s the problem. No one, yet, has carried to the American people the face and fire of the environmental damage which has occurred, and will continue to occur. So how can someone who believes that the natural world deserves more attention than, say, prosperity, enter the debate? If we’re talking about the American people, and somehow in this country we always are, how can one tell the nation convincingly that the bog preserve they smell could be more important than their pocketbooks? It just won’t sound quite, well, polite enough to be accepted. It certainly doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say.
Maybe it’s not. But that’s where reading the Bible for years, and reading the land for years, has brought me. And I know, and thank whatever God there is, that it’s not just me with a clear conscience. The world will not be in more peril because of me; that is all I’ve figured out how to do. I hope we protect this world; I hope others will do their part to keep it around. But until those nationally televised pundits allow science into the conversation without the crippling banner of socialism and anti-capitalism, until they realize that most of us have got nothing against the Bible or their God, we just might not believe in them, what chance do we have?


Written by Christopher ZF

December 1, 2011 at 09:21

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