George Monbiot, one of the world’s leading environmentalists and a writer for the left-leaning British Guardian has an assessment of the Rio+20 environmental summit that tracks pretty closely with my own. Writes the anguished Monbiot,
We know it’s rubbish, but we allow our hopes to be raised, only to witness 190 nations arguing through the night over the use of the subjunctive in paragraph 286. We know that at the end of this process the UN secretary general, whose job obliges him to talk nonsense in an impressive number of languages, will explain that the unresolved issues (namely all of them) will be settled at next year’s summit. Yet still we hope for something better.
What truly stupefies and appalls him, however, is what he sees as the uniquely obnoxious role of the United States as the Great Planetary Destroyer. Barack Obama, he has belatedly come to see, is not only no different from his predecessor; he is worse, much worse on the environment than George H. W. Bush, president 20 years ago at that first hopeful Rio environmental summit.
This is the government, remember, not of George W Bush but of Barack Obama. The paranoid, petty, unilateralist sabotage of international agreements continues uninterrupted. To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy.
At this point, Monbiot and Via Meadia go in different directions. Monbiot, deeply committed not only to Malthusian death scenarios for the planet, but overwhelmingly convinced that only a total, top down, universal re-engineering of every economic and social relationship on earth can save us from onrushing doom makes the familiar radical rush from unrealistic militancy to overwrought despair. Only total change will work; total change is impossible; we are therefore all doomed.
It’s not just the plutocrats Monbiot bemoans (and actually, the plutocrats around Obama are generally pressing him to do more on the environment); it’s the inexplicable lack of militancy and rage in the public. The entire planet hasn’t dropped all its other business to join his crusade.
So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.
One problem for Monbiot: if the millions ever do march, they will be marching in countries like India, China, Nigeria and Iran rather than the United States and Great Britain, and they will be demanding more out of life—more disposable income, more freedom to travel, more and better housing, more cars and better roads on which to drive them, more variety in their diet. The crowds in Greece aren’t demanding more austerity; people aren’t angry in the US that we still have so much net worth left after the ravages of the last recession.
This is not who people are or how they work. It will never be. People don’t work the way Monbiot wants them to, and nothing will change that.
Environmental problems are real. Humanity’s impact on the ecosphere is often destructive. Deforestation, over-fishing, destruction of aquifers, poisoning of waterways through fertilizer runoff, acidification of rain and sea water and, yes, climate change: these are serious problems and they demand a serious response.
But a serious response is just what Monbiot and his colleagues haven’t offered. Making impossible demands, alternating between unrealistic optimism and self-righteous despair is not a serious response. Expecting the global political system to deliver miraculous results is not a serious response. Alternately worshiping politicians when they pander to you on campaign and railing at them when you finally figure out that, once again, they didn’t mean all those beautiful and sensitive things they whispered into your ear before the election: this is not a serious response. Blaming the impotence, futility and defeat that is the inevitable result of your own bad assumptions and poor political strategies on other people is not a serious response. Monbiot’s worldview as expressed in this piece at least is more shtick than strategy and by his own admission, this approach has been failing, repeatedly and predictably, for twenty years.
The despairing pessimism on display in this piece is as overwrought and under-thought as the core Malthusian green belief that a political system can produce results so radically different from the habits and instincts of people worldwide. In fact, a great many good things are happening and have happened in the world of environmentalism. The energy intensity of the global economy is in steady decline. The cutting edge of economic production continues to move from energy and raw material intensive industries to the much more sustainable service sector. Birth rates around the world continue to fall, substantially weakening the Malthusian case for impending planetary disaster. As societies grow rich they continue to grow green, and from the United States and western Europe to East Asia there are more and more people who care about keeping the earth green and the air clean.
Like all Puritans, like Ben Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Tribulation Wholesome, the green puritans simplify the world and reduce life’s complexities to a simple morality play. But Monbiot at least in this essay is that saddest of figures: the Calvinist without God. We are locked up in the logic of inexorable, onrushing doom, but in Monbiot’s worldview there is no Savior, no grace. We are hopelessly trapped in the sewer of a political system shaped by irresistible human greed and sin and there is no way out.
Monbiot’s wild and repeated oscillations between unfounded hope and piteous despair are the natural responses of a Calvinist without God. He knows, or thinks he does, the iron laws that are driving us to imminent doom. He knows the weakness in human nature that prevents us from taking effective action to deal with it. But he is neither a man of faith, sustained by the hope that something greater than humanity can or will intervene to save us from ourselves, or a stoic, capable of maintaining a cool head and a calm heart in the presence of suffering that can only end in death.
In the end, there are only three choices. The person of faith can face the worst, hope for the best, and do his or her best to act wisely and prudently to, as it is sometimes said “work as hard as if everything depended on you, and pray as hard as if everything depended on prayer.” From this perspective one can face the worst, work towards the best, and leave the result to God.
The stoic, believing that nothing he or she does can prevent the approaching catastrophe, nevertheless labors calmly and rationally on, knowing that even if the fight is doomed, doing your best is part of living that good life which is our only recompense in this vale of tears. This may not save the world, but you will have lived wisely, disinterestedly and without shame, and since that is all there is in this life, you must embrace the hard truth without unseemly wailing and carrying on. A little dignity, please, as the ship goes inevitably down.
The fool, unstrung by the horrors he sees in the future, rails, screams, flaps his arms and dashes distractedly hither and yon, makes lots of noise but gets nothing done. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as if far too many greens are tempted by this third alternative.