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A Brighter Shade of Green

Rebooting Environmentalism for the 21st Century
by Ross Robertson

“Nature” is over. The twentieth century did it in. There’s not a liter of seawater anywhere without its share of PCB and DDT. An altered climate will reshuffle the ecological deck for every creature that breathes. You can’t escape industrialism and hide from the sky. It’s over. From now on, “Nature” is under surveillance and on life-support. A 21st century avant-garde has to deal with those consequences and thrive in that world.

Bruce Sterling
Founder of the Viridian Design Movement

I’ve always been a somewhat reluctant environmentalist. I was practically weaned on John Muir’s Yosemite, and as a kid growing up in the suburbs of California in the last decades of the twentieth century, I fell fast in love with the depth and space and beauty of the mountains. They were everything my world of clay lots and cement and computer technology was not—cool, silent, elemental, rich with unquestionable mystery. They were every bit as spiritual as church, minus the dogmatism and the bake sales. The forest wilderness of the Sierra high country made a green romantic out of me, and when I got to college in Atlanta, I became concerned enough about the fate of nature to do something about it. I organized river cleanups and letter-writing campaigns, studied the classics of American nature writing, and sat on the environmental committee of the university senate. I lobbied on Capitol Hill in Washington and protested chip mills and nuclear reactors in Tennessee. I even intercepted a Brazilian merchant ship on its way into Savannah harbor and blocked it from unloading its illegal cargo of Amazon mahogany, which was still wet with the blood of indigenous tribes.

I’ll always remember the incredible sense of purpose I felt that day as our small skiff shot over the waves at sunrise, the righteous, lawbreaking freedom of putting my future on the line for what I believed in. Even more than that, however, I’ll never forget the confusion and the strange unease that came over me when the action was done and we headed for home through the twilit forests of coastal Georgia. It had been the ultimate statement of “us versus them,” but somehow it left me feeling at odds with myself. Less than a week from my twenty-first birthday, I was frightened to realize how far I’d already come from love and idealism and the will to change things to anger, frustration, and a cynicism that increasingly bordered on desperation. I saw this in my friends, also. It cut us off from one another, and when the urgency of our common mission brought us together, it set us in opposition to the rest of the world.

Bright Green

I knew my days as an eco-extremist were done. What I didn’t know then was that I was com-ing up against a shadow so basic to the character of modern environmentalism, it would take me more than a decade to find my way out from under it. That everywhere my path would take me as a young activist in the coming years—from a lonely biodynamic cooperative in the farmlands of rural Missouri to the networked high-rises of the San Francisco nonprofit world—I was walking down a well-worn track toward a dead end. It was only one day last spring, in fact, that I finally figured out what was wrong and what to do about it. That was the day a book called Worldchanging came across my desk and made me proud to call myself an environmentalist again.

If you bleed green like I do, you may also be under the wings of a shadow so close to you, it’s difficult to see. This blind spot has less to do with the environment and more to do with how we perceive it—and how we perceive ourselves. To me, the most pivotal environmental issue we’re faced with is not climate change or hunger or biodiversity or deforestation or genetic engineering or any of those things. It is an issue that is going to determine what we do about it all: our deeply felt ambivalence toward the human race and our presence here on planet Earth.

“Within environmentalists and environmentalism reside both a love for and a hatred of humanity,” one of my generation’s more controversial environmental heroes said in a now-famous speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club in 2004. His name is Adam Werbach, and he was describing what my own experience tells me is the most difficult underside of the green mind—the “misanthropic nostalgia” for a time before modern society crashed nature’s party and ruined everything. “Because misanthropy at a political level is suicidal,” he went on, “it merits remaining private. But over the years, ordinary Americans have sensed it, the media have magnified it, and during the springtime of the environmental movement, the keenest conservatives saw an opportunity to exploit it. Ayn Rand, for one, saw environmentalists’ ‘ultimate motive [as a] hatred for achievement, for reason, for man, for life.’” I met Werbach once in Washington, DC, in 1995, not long before he was elected the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club at age twenty-three. And I can’t help but wonder if his assessment of the current state of things would make the Sierra Club’s founding father, the great Scottish naturalist John Muir, turn over in his grave.

Around a hundred years before I did, Muir fell in love with the glades and glaciers of Yosemite and began to articulate the wilderness ethic that helped shape the birth of the American conservation movement. “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world,” he wrote, “the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” As environmental historian Andrew Kirk explains it, Muir and other early conservationists constructed rigid dichotomies between nature and human civilization, between the utopian purity of the wilderness and the polluted blight of industrial society. From their perspective, the essential flaw of modern humanity was to set ourselves above and outside the natural world, harnessing its energies to our own ends through the machinery of technological enterprise. In so doing, we stepped outside the delicate ecologies of nature, risking the health and survival of species and ecosystems, including our own. What brought us down that road was the hubris of seeing ourselves as separate from nature, and the only way back was to become part of it again. Yet the irony of their position was that it defined nature in terms that made such a reunion impossible: The natural was all that was untouched by the human; the human, in turn, was nature’s erratic antithesis.

That sharp dichotomy between human nature and nature itself set the tone for American environmentalism’s thorny confrontation with modernity. Suspicious of industry, wary of progress, and often hostile toward innovation and enterprise, the environmentalists of the twentieth century found themselves caught in a peculiar double bind. On one hand was the desire to reach for a brighter future for the world and its children; on the other, the fear that the very tools and technologies that might get us there were themselves our future’s greatest enemy. Competing currents of thought pitted faith in the progressive solutions of science against the urge to conserve the purity of nature while we still had the chance. Yet as the century progressed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Rachel Carson’s terrifying Silent Spring, it became more and more difficult to ignore our power to destroy the world. “Within the conservation movement,” Kirk writes, “a growing ambivalence toward technology turned into full-fledged technophobia.” With fears of ecological meltdown and postindustrial apocalypse growing more plausible by the decade, the majority came to see the brightest future of all as a swift return to the way things were in the past.

This, more or less, is where things stand in much of the environmental world today. On the radical fringes, militant extremists still beat the drums of rebellion against the ravages of commerce and industry. Derrick Jensen’s double volume Endgame, for example, recently called for the voluntary destruction of civilization in order to save the world. Even mainstream thinkers who disagree strongly with extremist tactics are largely in agreement with their message. Take the popular nature writer Bill McKibben, whose 2003 bestseller Enough laments: “Meaning has been in decline for a very long time, almost since the start of civilization.” His latest book, Deep Economy, argues passionately against the very idea of progress, claiming that the only “durable future” for our imperiled planet is one based on the revitalization of small-scale local cultures and economies. No matter where you find yourself on the green spectrum, it seems, people are trying one way or another to step on the brakes, if not reverse the tides of history.

McKibben’s dream of a future marked by simple things—shopping at the farmer’s market, bird watching, baking your neighbor a pie—is shared by many, and I can certainly sympathize. In a world of strip malls and postmodern alienation and neighborhoods choked with carcinogens and asthma, the romantic tug of some idyllic agrarian yesterday can be a strong one. Yet every time I indulge in these reveries of years gone by, I end up feeling like I did that day in Savannah—stuck, hamstrung, oddly out of step with my own times. Is it not modernity itself we have to thank for the fact that most of us haven’t died of starvation or disease, or that liberty and equality are basic rights we enjoy, or even that we know enough about how the world works to think about things like global ecosystems? Besides, I wonder whether going backward is even an option anymore. Half the people on the planet are under the age of thirty, and a third are under fifteen. (That’s 2.2 billion kids, if you’re counting.) We’re adding just shy of a thousand coal plants to this warming globe over the next ten years, and a city the size of Seattle every four to seven days. In upcoming decades, billions of people will migrate to the squatter cities of the developing world in order to bring themselves up out of poverty. Ready or not, we’re all on a trajectory that is lifting us rapidly beyond a world that makes any sense whatsoever by even twentieth-century standards. And the future isn’t waiting for anybody.

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This article is from
Ecology, Politics, and Consciousness


October–December 2007