Thursday, November 6, 2008

Three myths surrounding environmentalism

I have nearly always considered myself an environmentalist. It started with my grade five teacher at Knowlton Academy and has allowed me to follow a path that has brought me through two degrees and two stints working for non-governmental organizations in Latin America. Yet, after all this time, I feel that I have become more and more uncomfortable calling myself an environmentalist. Not because I disagree with the idea of it, but because I disagree with a general portrayal of it.

Environmentalism has grown beyond Greenpeace and vegetarianism. Throughout my studies and adventures I have encountered so many different kinds of environmentalists – ranging from the meat-is-murder vegetarian to relatively conservative economists with dreams of a green economy – that I’m beginning to find it strange that people think of them as one united group in the first place.

I often find myself falling into the environmentalist stereotype when people discover that I have a degree in environmental sciences. Sometimes it’s with good intentions, such as a dinner host who is severely apologetic for not having prepared a vegetarian dish and sometimes it’s with bad intentions like a grumpy uncle who takes out his anger for the Kyoto Protocol on me. I admire and respect vegetarians and Kyoto supporters but happen to not subscribe to either. The spectrum of environmentalists runs anywhere from so-called ‘dark greens’ – those who believe achieving sustainability will require radical political change and personal sacrifice – to ‘bright greens’ who believe that many of the tools required to be sustainable already exist. Continuing to use one name to describe such diverse beliefs is as ridiculous as calling a Montreal Canadiens fan and Toronto Maple Leafs fan the same because they are both hockey fans. We all know what kind of trouble that would get you into.

Another myth about environmentalists has to do with the name itself and what it might imply. I’ll use feminism as an example. Feminism is a word which, taken literally, could be a system of belief claiming women are superior to men, much like racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. Most of us understand that feminism is simply advocacy of women’s rights in a world with strong male-dominated traditions with the final goal of gender equality, not female world domination. But the potential for confusion and a desire to avoid any association with the first definition has caused many international groups promoting women’s rights to avoid the word feminism and use other words such as gender mainstreaming.

Environmentalism could be, and sometimes is, misconstrued as prioritizing the environment above all. While there are some extremist environmentalists who do believe the life of an ant is equivalent to that of a person, most environmentalists do not believe what they do and choose the lifestyle they do uniquely for the good of the environment. Most see the well-being of people at stake in environmental issues because of how it is intertwined with the well-being of the environment. This world is, pardon the pun, littered with examples where the quality of life of people has declined with the quality of their environment.

The worst example is the Aral Sea region in Central Asia where, starting in the 1940’s, the Soviet Union attempted to grow large amounts of cotton on arid land using water from the Aral Sea’s two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. So much water was diverted from the rivers that the sea shrank to 10% its former size, destroying the fishing industry and causing large-scale unemployment and health problems from the dust blowing off the dried sea bed. While this is, admittedly, an extreme example, it should serve as a reminder that the natural environment plays an important role in determining both the health of the economy and people of a region.

The last myth I’d like to address is that progress and environmentalism are contradictory. There are some environmentalists who claim that in order to fully address the impending ecological crisis we will have to revert back to simpler ways. This idea tends to get thrown around leaving a lot people thinking that returning to the past is the only way to avoid environmental catastrophe. This is contrary to the trends seen today. Modernity and progress are being defined by efficiency and thrift rather than by waste and excess. I see this in celebrities who drive hybrid or electric cars (e.g. Leonardo Dicaprio and George Clooney) just as much as I see it at the local grocery store when someone is embarrassed that they forgot their reusable grocery bags. Being wasteful used to be a sign of affluence because it demonstrated that someone had money to burn, but as the world gets warmer and species go extinct, it is quickly becoming viewed as irresponsible and socially unacceptable.

I’d like to emphasize this point because skepticism is often high when it comes to reason trumping fashion but human history bears it out. It used to be the height of fashion for women to be overweight because it was a sign of affluence – not everyone could afford to overeat. Pale, untanned skin was also used to judge social status because it signified someone who didn’t have to be out in the sun working in the fields all day. A suntan was seen as a sign of poverty! Gradually that mentality faded as people realized that getting sun and avoiding overeating were healthier alternatives. With the advent of ultra-thin models and tanning salons, the pendulum has no doubt swung too much in the opposite direction but the point remains that if someone told you today that being overweight and pale were ways to demonstrate how modern you were, you would no doubt question that person’s sanity. It is becoming clear that, in a similar way, the wastefulness and prestige associated with gas-guzzling SUVs or with perfectly manicured, herbicide induced lawns is falling out of favour with the general public. In a decade or so we will look back on today the way we now look back on the fluorescent colours of the 1980’s saying, “what were we thinking?” Of course, the real question is: how quickly will these trends catch on?

While I don’t think that sects as separate as those seen in different Protestant churches will ever grow out of environmentalism, I hope that the diversity of views represented by the word environmentalism will begin to be understood. This diversity will reveal that environmentalism isn’t only about the environment; it’s about human health and economy too.

As appeared in the October 29, 2008 issue of the Brome County New

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