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October 8, 2007
Environmental Optimism? Smiling Our Way to Suicide
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.
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’.
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
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