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October 8, 2007

Environmental Optimism? Smiling Our Way to Suicide


A few years ago, a couple of guys named Shellenberger and Nordhaus made waves within the environmental movement by proclaiming the death of environmentalism. Better find a new name, they said, because the old one has worn out its welcome in the body politic.


Since then, they’ve become gadflies among environmentalists, and have again taken up a contrarian banner with an essay last month in The New Republic that kicked off their latest book about how the environmental movement must change to deal with climate change.


Rather than pursue cuts in emissions, which would diminish our lifestyle, they argued in their essay that environmentalists should instead offer a green energy platform that replaces fossil fuel sources like coal-fired plants. Government investment should get the ball rolling, the innovators take over and . . . voila! . . . crisis averted.

How should environmentalists push this new platform? Well, by being positive. They say being negative, highlighting the nasty consequences, has the side effect of making people feel fatalistic about their fates.

There is a slight problem. There’s still a significant chunk of the American populace who doesn’t actually think that global warming is a serious problem. In fact, there’s still a significant chunk of the American populace that doesn’t think it actually exists. Being optimistic about a solution to global warming means being optimistic about solving a problem that doesn’t actually exist in people’s minds. The optimistic solution in that case? Do nothing. It’s the fastest, easiest, most positive way to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.


Unfortunately, their solution also rests largely on the faith that eventually we’ll arrive at some new technology that solves the problem for us. In the meantime, keep on truckin’.


If global warming, the problem, existed largely in a bubble, they might be onto something. But, it doesn’t. Things that create environmental problems tend to spread along a number of different lines – electricity from coal fired plants contributes to the destruction of mountain tops in West Virginia and Kentucky, releases mercury that gets into fish and also contributes to global warming. In the past, sulfur emissions also were a chief cause of acid rain.


Global warming might be the most serious environmental problem we face today, but it’s not the only one. In fact, it’s not the only pressing one. There is also deforestation of Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests, loss of arable land due to poor agriculture practices, the collapse of fisheries worldwide and growing mountains of garbage. All of these will continue to get worse even if we solved global warming via deux ex machina.


There is one thing that will help alleviate them, and also global warming. Cutting back on consumption and sacrificing, which is precisely what Nordhaus and Shellenberger say no one will accept. That might be the case, but if everyone were to live an American lifestyle – our chief export these days – it would require about five planet Earths to support them all. That’s not just unsustainable, drawn out over time it’s also suicide.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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