Ninety-seven: My Journey In Environmentalism and It’s Failure

In the late 80’s, I was a young aspiring business guy trying to establish myself professionally. I was clueless about environmental matters, although I’d always been drawn to nature. I was a full participant in the Reagan world of profits and wealth building.

Then one day while buying a bicycle, I noticed a copy of Outside Magazine near the counter of the bike shop. The cover was adorned with a pretty girl sitting outside a tent, camping in some fantastic looking locale. It struck me as the perfect scene, and I’d always thought camping would be fun. I bought the magazine. Pretty girls on covers work.

When I got home, I took the mag out to the patio with a cold Lowenbrau (they were in back then) and started flipping through the pages. One article caught my eye. It was about Edward Abbey, this curmudgeonly defender of wilderness. The article talked about environmental degradation and Abbey’s belief that capitalism was a key culprit. Overdevelopment, misuse of resources, etc. Our house sat adjacent to a golf course, and as I peered out over the fairway, I started to question things. I thought, “Am I one of the bad guys? What am I doing?”

It wasn’t hard to push me to new ideas, because I’d always been curious and was starting to see the flaws in the story I was told about the American dream. I was fertile ground for life changing ideas.

There was no Amazon in those days, so I had to go to the local library (what a wonderful idea…a library!) in order to find some books by this Abbey fellow, and I did. One was a collection of essays, The Journey Home, and the second was his well known novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. I read both in days during a practically non-stop reading binge that changed the trajectory of my life.

I read all of Abbey’s books, and in doing so, was introduced to other important writers and a new group of friends on a list-serve devoted to Abbey. I discovered Gary Snyder and Arne Naess. Robinson Jeffers. Richard White, Joel Kovel. And by reading their works, I discovered a bunch of new-and some really ancient- ideas. Bioregionalism, green economics and the return to the commons. I learned that the core problem with our environmental crisis was growth capitalism, a system where economic growth trumped all, a system that existed outside of any concept of biological or geophysical limits.

I dove headfirst into green economics, trying to find a way to make capitalism more sustainable. I was eager and thirsty for more knowledge. I fell in love with Northern California and its bioregion. It’s flora, fauna and culture, especially its poets. In a very short amount of time, I went from a typical Brooks Brothers corporate toadie to a desert loving anarchist.

My wife wasn’t so thrilled. She was mostly concerned with income for our family, and understandably so.

But it was an exciting time for me. In the early 90’s, there was accelerated interest in organic foods. More people were getting outside. There was a boom in cycling, hiking and backpacking, and I felt like more and more people were discovering the wonder of the natural world. We’d moved close to the Smoky Mountains, and I was hiking and backpacking on a regular basis. I became a bike commuter, diligently placing my belongings in my panniers and heading off to work each day. My entire outlook on life had changed, and the possibilities seemed promising.

One particular friend on the west coast taught me how to really think. He taught me how to question and look behind what I call the “hype.” For example, you say electric cars are a solution. But how are the batteries made? What materials must be mined in order them to work? Where are they mined? How? He taught me that there’s no “free lunch” when it comes to how our economic system operates within the natural world.

But all that thinking can lead you to some dark places. Thirty years later, my optimism has waned. I still believe those things, but I’ve lost hope for our planet and in the left’s ability to accomplish things. Our planet is basically a simmering crock pot and there are no acceptable solutions. Corporate America has of course seized the day and turned planetary gloom into an opportunity for profit. California’s governor and the President have bought into the false notion that everyone needs an electric car. That’s what will save us. There’s never any talk about better mass transit. Reduced use and consumption. Constructing local economies that exist within biological limits. But there’s plenty of talk about technology taking us to other planets we can fuck up. It’s an Orwellian nightmare where technology and the profit motive, not good thinking, will save us.

In order for the planet to thrive, its human inhabitants must change behaviors, but there’s no will to do so. Not on a large enough scale. Those in poverty or close to it are mostly concerned with keeping the lights turned on and being able to afford food and healthcare. Reading books on science and topics like bioregionalism are the last things on their mind. I get it. I know these things, because I’ve had a high income and enough leisure time to educate myself. A single, exhausted mother likely does not.

Unfortunately, an poorly educated population is easily duped, and are ripe ground for people peddling false promises, including technology.

Abbey wrote about the dangers of the misuse of science in his essay, “Science With a Human Face,” where he states

“…science in our time is the whore of industry and war and that scientific technology has become the instrument of a potential planetary slavery, the most powerful weapon ever placed in the hands of despots…it may even be the case that the situation has so far deteriorated that the only appropriate question now is whether or not technology will succeed in totally enslaving mankind before it succeeds in its corollary aim of destroying life.”

The reason we can’t solve the problem of climate change and general environmental degradation is there’s no will. The free market rules all and anything that threatens profits and growth is an anathema. A non-starter with our bought and paid for whores in Congress.

What’s left doing? They’re marching right along with the electric car idea, despite the fact most of them can’t come close to affording one. Today, the left is consumed with their causes du jour like pronouns and have lost their traditional power block of blue collar workers. That’s how in FDR’s time, Democrats won elections by wide margins. Today, when they do win, the margins are razor thin, and the reason is messaging.

Major environmental organizations (The Nature Conservancy is a notable exception) have failed. At some point, they became feckless marketing organizations more interested in driving membership sales than in fighting for legislation with teeth. They’re all on the electric car bandwagon because Bill McKibben said so. Then again, maybe McKibben is right. Perhaps he realizes that Americans are not going to change lifestyles and will only accept a solution that perpetuates the economic status quo. After all, we’re not a nation of thinkers. We’re a nation of buyers and travelers and zipping around in an Amazon world.

Meanwhile, our planet, the only one we’ll ever have, is dying. I’ll die before the final ugly dystopian scenario plays out, but my children and grandchildren will likely be here. A lot of folks will turn to god, whatever that is, and say it’s the end times. Perhaps it will be the end times, and on that point, I’ll leave you with the poet Jim Harrison’s final poem. He dropped dead while writing it.

A good death.

In unease the earth turned itself inside
out when its gravity fled. All of us
fell off the earth. I was in Africa
at the time and fell near an elephant.
I made my way to her and stretched
out on her stomach for protection
from the polar cold of the high atmosphere.
I caught a couple of passing
tomatoes to eat and a bottle of whiskey.
The earth used to be God’s body
but he took too many wounds and abandoned it.
He left us with the husk we made
of his body like a wasp’s nest.
Man shits his pants and trashed God’s body

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