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Whither environmentalism?

In the latest issue of Orion Magazine, environmental activists Derrick Jensen and Paul Kingsnorth both express their frustrations with the current environmental movement.

Jensen takes movement organizers to task for their drift towards actions that are "fun and sexy."  "The fact that so many people routinely call for environmentalism to be more fun and more sexy reveals not only the weakness of our movement but also the utter lack of seriousness with which even many activists approach the problems we face,” he says bitterly.  “When it comes to stopping the murder of the planet, too many environmentalists act more like they're planning a party than building a movement.”

But let’s face it, there are a lot of people on this planet who find the issues addressed by environmentalism just too scary and depressing to deal with. The environmentalist party-planners are trying to reach these folks, who have been suckled from birth on cheery feel-good media, by presenting environmental action as fun and upbeat, rather than as doom-driven and angst-ridden.  It's environmentalism on anti-depressants, and it fits a big swath of our population, who don't want to dwell on anything sad or upsetting, unless maybe it's a movie guaranteed to ultimately have a happy ending.

Paul Kingsnorth, whose long article in Orion, "Confessions of Recovering Environmentalist," will be the subject of an open conference phone call on January 18, is critical of the environmental movement not for being too party-oriented, but for being too "utilitarian."  

Kingsnorth deplores environmentalists who have happily jumped on the technological fix bandwagon--the solar farm, wind farm, sustainable energy crowd.  He sees these folks as engaged in finding new ways to continue our same old depredation of the environment--just more sustainably.

"Today’s environmentalism," he says,  "is...an adjunct to hypercapitalism: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge: a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions: a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections."

Kingsnorth declares he wants nothing of this "soulless" form of environmentalism.  "I can’t make my peace with people who cannibalize the land in the name of saving it. I can’t speak the language of science without a corresponding poetry. I can’t speak with a straight face about saving the planet when what I really mean is saving myself from what is coming."

Kingsnorth ends his article on a disturbing note, telling us he's turning his back on the environmental movement, and striking off on his own.  "I am leaving. I am going to go out walking."

I presume he means that he's going to go and quietly reconnect with the land, an important activity for all of us who care about the natural world. But I can't advocate "going out walking" as a strategy for the urgent task of changing human relations with our planet.

Fortunately, Kingsnorth also has a more positive suggestion for us: to recast the environmental movement as "ecocentric” as opposed to its current androcentric fixation. 

"The “environment”—that distancing word, that empty concept—does not exist,” Kingsnorth declares. “It is the air, the waters, the creatures we make homeless or lifeless in flocks and legions, and it is us too. We are it; we are in it and of it, we make it and live it, we are fruit and soil and tree, and the things done to the roots and the leaves come back to us."

This is a message that every environmentalist, whatever we call ourselves, needs to hear and reaffirm.  We are part of the web of life on this planet, and every tree that falls, every bird that is poisoned, every tree frog that goes extinct, is a leaf on the great tree of life that includes us humans too. Kill all the leaves, and the great tree will die.

We’re all looking for ways to promote a sustainable ecosystem on earth, not just for humans but for all the myriad life forms who share our planet today.  I believe there’s room in the movement for everyone who cares, whether their bent is for deadly serious de-industrialization, “fun and sexy” protests, technological innovation, or even, yes, going out walking. 

The most important thing is that we wake up, collectively, to the reality of what our species has been doing to the real 99%, the flora and fauna of this planet, and the fact that climate change is upon us, with potentially disastrous consequences for the 100% of us.

What shall we do about it?  Don't stand there asking what to do!  Look around, roll up your sleeves and get busy!  Offer your talents to the task.  If you can write, start writing and share your thoughts with ever wider circles of readers.  If you can farm, start an organic CSA.  If you are an engineer, you should be focusing on renewable energy.  If you are a chemical engineer, you should be calling out the Monsantos and the Dows, even if it costs you your job.

We all need to be working on overcoming our media addictions and our socially reinforced tendencies to pull the covers over our heads.  We need to be engaging, Occupy-style, with our political system, and sending a clear message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

There is so much to do, and so little time.  Let's get out there, each bearing our own gifts and energies, and turn this Earthship around.



Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez teaches comparative literature and gender studies with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, MA and blogs at Transition Times>.

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