You probably aren‘t going to like this. I know I don‘t. Thinking this way is uncomfortable, frustrating and sad. It challenges something that has been part of my identity for a long time. Maybe yours, too. But staying silent make me feel worse than saying it…
Environmentalism, as we’ve known it, is obsolete. Sound crazy? Here’s why.
1. Environmentalism failed.
Sure, there have been some victories. Over the past 50 years, we’ve changed some regulations, punished some polluters, blocked some dams, and protected some species. But it isn’t enough. It’s the opposite of enough. It’s not even a drop in the bucket compared to what we should have (and could have) done. Environmentalism, as a movement of so-called concern and activism, has failed to change what matters: human attitudes toward the planet and our place on it. We thought way too small. We allowed ourselves to be sidetracked by “green” consumerism. We convinced ourselves that reuseable bags and energy efficient light bulbs would save the world. They can’t.
Even if every person in America started living a “sustainable lifestyle” tomorrow, it wouldn’t turn back the damage done by decades of fossil fuel consumption, chemical pollution and calloused resource depletion. We’ve already reached and blown past the climate tipping point. We’re in uncharted territory, and the only place to go from here is down. The Earth future generations inherit isn’t going to look or function like this one. Many of the most beautiful parts will be gone. Things we take for granted–water, energy, food–will become scarce, accessible only by those with money and power. And trust me, no one’s going to be talking about “going green” when the water is black and the Earth is brown.
2. Environmentalism is self-serving noise.
This is the truth that strikes close to home for me. For years, I’ve written lots of blog posts about how people can reduce their carbon footprint. Shared lots of tips for living a low-impact life. Celebrated many an Earth Day. There were moments when I thought: “Does this really matter? Even if people are listening, is it really going to change anything?” The answer, as we can plainly see, is no. Terrified of being seen as “radical,” environmentalists spent 50 years coaxing people to carpool and switch off lights. We reduced, reused and recycled our little hearts out. We patted ourselves on the back for doing so. “Small changes make a big difference!” we droned. We silently judged those who did nothing. Meanwhile, the big changes were ignored, left to be addressed someday. And someday never came.
3. Environmentalism distracts and divides.
My least favorite thing about the greenwashed, consumeristic frenzy of modern environmentalism is that it plays right into the social inequality that’s killing us. As I wrote in Sharing is Good, the green economy still operates under the assumption that we can buy ourselves out of this mess. It still excludes those who lack the time, money, skills and space to “save the planet.” While we were quibbling over non-toxic cleaners and singing the praises of organic produce, the powers-that-be were fracking, drilling, burning, hunting, bombing and poisoning the planet into oblivion. We won some battles, but we lost the war.
When I finally came to terms with these failures, I was despondent. I felt pointless. Like my passion was futile. Everything I’d been doing, and telling others to do, was nothing more than a giant ego stroke. Sure, I felt like I was doing something, stopping something, saving something, but I was really just making myself feel better while ignoring reality. Talk about an identity crisis. Who am I, and what am I to do, if we can’t actually save the world? Should I just give up and start chucking my cans in the trash?
This conflict raged until I read a really long article about two activists (real ones) who had a similar epiphany. They are Paul Kingsnorth and Dougland Hine, and they too think environmentalism is obsolete. In fact, they realized it a while ago. Something Hine said in the article jumped off the page. Like a tiny flashlight that gives just a glimpse of the path ahead.
“People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’”
I’ll tell you what I noticed: people. People who, though they may not look, talk or live like me, are JUST like me. People who aren’t prepared for what’s coming. People who, despite living in a world of lies, negativity and inequality, are full of love and optimism. The planet will be fine. It existed before us, and it will exist after us. It doesn’t need saving, we do.
So, instead of being an environmentalist, I’m just going to be a human. A human who’s doing the best I can. A human who embraces each and every opportunity to be a source of compassion and knowledge. A human who doesn’t know it all, who can’t change it all. To live a life that gives more than it takes. To be aware and ready, and help others do the same.
Isn’t that really what environmentalism has been working for all along?
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