With public interest in the gutter, the green movement needs a shot of futurism
| Essay originally published on Futures Exchange, via Medium, on October 22, 2013.
Bill McKibben was firing up a rally of climate activists in Cambridge, Mass., this past summer in preparation for a protest and mass arrest at one of the state’s coal-fired power plants:
“The message we need to keep sending all the time is, there is nothing radical about what we’re asking,” he said. “All we’re asking for is a world that works the way the one we were born into worked. That’s not radical. That’s actually kind of conservative.”
This is a shrewd point, and just one part of a pretty powerful overall talk, but as an environmentalist, I found the sentiment troubling. If the green movement’s rallying cry is to keep the world the way it was when we were born, isn’t it fairly doomed? Sounds like a stodgy, if not pointless cause. I would argue that, for environmentalism to stay vital in decades to come, it’s going to have to stop being so resistant to change, and dive into a far more imaginative conversation of what our future might hold.
As things stand, McKibben is right—much of the current movement, its popular image at least, is pretty conservative, in the sense that it’s defined by keeping things the same or moving them backwards. It asks people to slow down, don’t do this or that, restrain themselves, get things back to the way they were. With that kind of underlying message, it’s no wonder that in public opinion polling, global warming ranked at the absolute bottom of a list of issues Americans consider a high priority. Dead last. Number 21, just below “improving infrastructure.”
- In September, a group of scientists posed the idea in an opinion piece in Nature that genetic tweaking should be considered to curb mass extinction of animals that would otherwise be doomed.
- Projects like Revive & Restore are promoting de-extinction efforts to resurrect extinct species, as promoted by green icon Stewart Brand.
- A paper published last year in Ethics, Policy & Environment made intentionally shocking headlines by suggesting biological modifications to humans to better equip us to deal with climate change.
- Environmental philanthropy has been building adaptation to climate change into its portfolios, in addition to curbing the worst outcomes.
- And the stem cell burger had its culinary debut in August, prompting some to salivate (if not over the taste) over the idea of a less-resource-devouring beef industry.
All pretty exciting ideas. And yet, I suspect the average green would very likely recoil at many of them for straying from the natural way of things. Environment writer Jason Mark challenged the de-extinction movement in an opinion piece last month in Earth Island Journal and Salon:
The species revivalists overestimate de-extinction’s contribution to conservationism because they misunderstand what conservation is really about…Taking some parts of the nonhuman world and protecting them from our unruly desires is, above all, an exercise in restraint — not creation. Conservation is about forbearance. It’s a demonstration of the discipline to leave well enough alone.
It would be great if the two ideas—building a different, better world, and conserving its nonhuman aspects—weren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe the optimistic, science fictional ideas Annalee Newitz describes can marry McKibben’s coal plant protests.
I hope so, otherwise I fear the environmental cause will suffer the common fate of backward-looking movements—a slow, sad death of irrelevance.
Image courtesy of Flickr user X-Ray Delta One