Saturday, January 25, 2014

Musings: Is environmentalism for the environment... or for humans?

I recently came across a thought-provoking and impassioned article that has harsh words for those of us who consider ourselves to be environmentalists, and ultimately forces the reader to ask the question: “Who is environmentalism for?  Is it for the environment… or is it for people?”  Most of us without a second thought would easily reply “Of course, environmentalism is for the environment!”

However, the author of that particular article provides some uncomfortable insight that illustrates how modern environmentalism has been appropriated to further human exploitation of our planet.  Although the article is written from a much higher and more poetic intellectual level than I will ever be able to attain, I thought I’d attempt to comment on a few of the author’s ideas that kept the wheels turning in my head hours later.

The title of the article: “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” states right up front that author Paul Kingsnorth wants no association with the ideology of current environmentalism. Although once a self-described environmentalist, as the decades passed and the “environmentalist” discourse shifted from the preservation of natural, untouched wilderness to things like climate change and sustainability, Kingsnorth came to see environmentalism being focused more for the benefit of our wasteful, resource-intensive human culture than for the protection of nature.  Environmentalism made the switch from eco-centrism to anthropocentrism. 

Climate Change 

Kingsnorth comments that in order to diminish the carbon dioxide emissions that worsen climate change, humans have to turn landscapes such as untouched desert, wild hills and mountains, and our powerful oceans into sites for solar panel arrays, wind farms, and strings of tidal energy turbines, respectively.  Instead of protecting these natural places, “environmentalists” are defacing them with man-made machines to further exploit the natural environment and support our comfortable lifestyles under the guise of environmentalism. 

 I do not agree completely with this view, though.  I believe the details are taken to the extreme in Kingsnorth’s argument, because in fact solar panels are often placed on rooftops or other already-developed areas instead of untouched wilderness.  And although the issue of climate change is often framed in the context of the threat it poses to humans (I’ve found that this “scare tactic” is sometimes the best way to get people to care about the issue), there are plenty of organizations advocating for climate change action on behalf of our environment and wildlife, instead of for humans.

Although I have to disagree with Kingsnorth’s views on climate change, I definitely agree with his views on sustainability.  


Sustainability has a significant ideological problem.  In any discussion on this topic, the underlying idea is that sustainability is the means by which humans need to use resources so as not to deplete them faster than they can be replenished, so to ensure that they are available for future generations.  One small problem: sustainability usually does not leave room for any non-human entities. The environment? Wildife?  Not included.  Ironically, without the environment and without wildlife, humans themselves could not survive... so it would appear that the idea of sustainability itself is fundamentally flawed.

Consider for example, water rights for a major river.  The rights to withdraw water from the river are divided up between different states, to ensure that the water isn’t being overused and sucked dry faster than it can be replenished by rainfall or snowmelt.  Each state has enough water for its people to drink, its farmers to irrigate, and to use for other, non-essential things such as watering lawns (ugh).  However, at the end of the line, a once-raging river is reduced to a trickle, not leaving enough water for spawning salmon and other wildlife that depend upon it.  Add in a few hydroelectric dams to produce “sustainable” energy, and those poor salmon are really going to have a problem. They will have difficulty reaching their spawning grounds, which will affect the future of their population.  And keep in mind that forestlands upstream rely on dead and decomposing salmon to provide nutrients to the soil.  And that wildlife in those forests such as bears, birds of prey, and scavengers rely on the salmon for food.  So, the environment that depends on the river will suffer while humans in far-flung areas who don’t even know where their water comes from are sitting on their front porches, admiring their freshly-watered green lawns, and retreating into their homes air-conditioned by the cheap “sustainable” electricity produced by the hydroelectric dams.  Is this sustainable for people? Possibly. Is it sustainable for the environment and wildlife? Not at all.  This generic example is just one of many.

It seems that sustainability does not deserve a place under the umbrella of true environmentalism until it gets a serious overhaul.  It is important to take into consideration the needs of the environment itself, because humans are not the only living things on earth that rely on resources such as food, water, land, and air.  Are humans willing to do what is required in order to live sustainably for ourselves, the environment, and wildlife?  Or is our current, human-centered sustainability already pushing us to the fringes of our comfort zone?  At some point, that comfort zone is going to become irrelevant as the environment around us accelerates into devastation.

The overall tone of Kingsnorth’s article is steeped in frustration, and I’m sure that many people—many environmentalists even-- can sympathize.  It is hard not to feel this way as our natural world is further subjected to this human-centered greed that leads to the loss of our beloved, untouched natural areas—and to consider that much of this loss results from so-called environmentalism that purports to save the planet is altogether insulting and horrifying.

The question raised by Kingsnorth’s article is important to keep in mind when considering environmental issues:  is this for humans only, or is it for the environment? Anthropocentric or eco-centric?  Only one answer leads to true “environmentalism”.

Click here to read the “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” article by Paul Kingsnorth.  It is a dense and lengthy read that will leave you with more questions than answers, but the questions raised are important ones.

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