HOW ENVIRONMENTALISTS OUGHT TO TALK
Environmentalists are too gloomy. They invent catastrophes to attract
attention and money. Bugs and trees are what they care about, not people.
They want to lock up resources. They use long words, like "biodiversity" and
"endocrine disrupters." They're elitist city folk who care about nature only
as a place to go backpacking.
Accusations like these used to come from oil producers, logging companies and
developers. But lately I've been sitting through meetings and reading essays
in which they are voiced even by environmentalists themselves.
Historian Richard White, for instance, in his book The Organic Machine:
"Environmentalists, for all their love of nature, tend to distance humans from
it.... They call for human connections with nature while disparaging all those
who claim to have known nature through work and labor."
Or writer Michael Parfit in an article about fisheries: "Environmental groups
have thrived on catastrophism. It fills the coffers and defines successful
I listen hard to these criticisms. I even indulge in some of them myself. I'm
not a player in the big environmental groups, but, like them, I'm shaken by the
Congressional Republicans' attack on the environment, and I take
responsibility for it. If voters elect people like them, then people like me
must have done something wrong.
So I've tried to absorb the advice about how Greens should behave. Be more
upbeat. Never exaggerate. Don't use words of more than three syllables. Get
back in touch with the people. (Who is it, I wonder, that I've been in touch
with all these years -- Martians?)
Then about a week ago, something inside me snapped. Michael Parfit's
about fishing was what did it. The industry is in decline, he admits. He
finds it frightening when a boat skipper says, "The fish just get a little
smaller each year." And then he blames environmentalists! They have been
describing the problem wrong. It's not a sudden catastrophe; it's a steady
erosion. It's not caused by one bad industry, but by lots of little people.
The reason no one is doing anything about it is that the Greens have worn
everyone out by crying wolf.
"Ozone depletion was predicted long before the hole was found," he says, "but
because the public had become accustomed to excess, industry was able to tar
scientists who warned of it with a Greenpeace brush.... Environmental
catastrophism defeats its own purpose. It can be so inaccurately alarmist that
it gives Vicious Minerals the upper hand in appealing to people of balance."
At which point I exploded. Now wait a minute! Whose problem is this? The
Greenpeace types who have been delivering warnings that Parfit acknowledges as
accurate? Or the Vicious Minerals types who deflect those warnings by tarring
scientists? If a red light blinks on in a cockpit, should the pilot ignore it
until it gets a peer review and speaks in an unexcited tone? Exactly how
should one point out that there are too many of us consuming too much stuff,
trashing for short-term profit our own life-support systems? Is there any way
to say that sweetly? Patiently? If one did, would anyone pay attention?
Of course not. Vicious Minerals doesn't want to hear this message, but neither
do most of the rest of us. If its bearers come quietly and reasonably, we
won't listen. So they will learn to come stridently. Then we can create a
myth about what awful people they must be.
I'm ashamed that I was taken in by that myth. The caricature of
environmentalists has never fit the environmentalists I know -- and I know a
lot of them. But, bathed in constant repetitions of carefully crafted
accusations, even I began to think that there must be people-hating,
unscientific, extremist Greenies out there somewhere.
And probably there are. Which does not mean that the millions of responsible
people who care about the environment should accept that characterization.
So let me say it here, loud and clear. Environmental warnings have been more
grounded in science and more accurate more of the time than any other social
prophecies I know, and much more accurate than doom-mongering industrial
forecasts of how many jobs will be lost if the air and water are cleaned up, or
economic forecasts of how well off we will all be with just a little more
Environmentalists care about people -- why else would they work for sustainable
fisheries and neighborhoods free of toxic wastes? Lots of them, including me,
are farmers and foresters who share the struggles of people who live on the
land. We don't envision locked-up resources or nature without people. We just
want to be sure nature and resources will be around for our grandchildren.
The idea that environmentalists are in it for the money is a joke. (This
accusation is mainly hurled by people who earn way more than environmentalists
do.) They're not in it for attention either. The ecofreaks I know would
rather be in their gardens or in the woods or fishing. They only enter public
life because they're agonized by what they see out there in their gardens, in
the woods, in the waters.
I don't mean to let myself or any environmentalist off the hook. I'm eager to
be a more constructive and effective force in the public discourse. But I'm
not willing to be caricatured by people whose central interest is in
discrediting me, so they can go on defiling the environment.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at