Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Converting to the Gospel of Environmentalism

A few months ago, the National Geographic Magazine started including a feature called Voices, which includes articles by (or about) and interviews with various movers and shakers in the realms the National Geographic Society considers important. These articles are always well written and are relatively enjoyable to read. While they discuss scientific matters, they’re usually long on the warm and fuzzy and short on hard science.

To understand what to expect to read in these articles (as well as most NGM articles), you need to understand that the magazine’s former editor, Bill Allen, published an announcement a couple of years ago that the magazine was no longer content to be neutral on environmental issues, and that the society felt morally bound to promote environmental activism via the magazine. Many were surprised that Allen had considered the magazine to be neutral up to that time.

Anyhow, the magazine’s honesty now lets you know that almost everything in it is slanted to a certain viewpoint. Pursuit of raw knowledge is not good enough. Now the magazine publishes only stuff that supports (or can be twisted to support) the precepts of the religion of environmentalism. You can think of it kind of like a church magazine for that religion. Still, NGM has a reputation for good writing, although, some would argue that this has deteriorated somewhat over the past few years.

The August 2006 edition of the magazine includes an article by environmentalist Bill McKibben. McKibben is an accomplished author, commenting almost exclusively on environmental issues from a sometimes radical viewpoint. McKibben’s books are filled with dire prognostications of cataclysmic environmental disaster. Like other environmental doomsayers, McKibben is frequently given to prophesying the end of civilization as we know it within the next 10 years. Of course, he’s been doing this for over 20 years now.

True to form, McKibben cites a handful of cherry picked studies that seem to suggest that due to CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, “billions will die this century,” and that we have “less than ten years to reverse course.” (emphasis mine) I discussed this matter (including the problems with these types of forecasts) and referenced some information in this regard here and here.

McKibben cites a paper “showing that hurricanes had slowly but steadily been gaining in strength and duration for a generation.” He doesn’t tell you that this paper only covers the last 35 years, and that when you consider centuries, stronger hurricane patterns emerge every 60-70 years (see here). We are simply at the high end of a natural cycle. McKibben notes that NASA calculated 2005 to be the warmest year on record. But bona fide atmospheric scientists will tell you that this means nothing in the grand scheme of long-term global climate patterns (see here). McKibben lavishes praise on some of our more radical (and litigious) environmental groups and longs for coercive adherence to the Kyoto Protocol.

OK, so far it’s just the same spew we’ve come to expect from unobjective environmental whackos. But then McKibben says that all of the coercive environmental stuff isn’t working. He says that we need a major cultural shift to save the environment. He says, “We’d need to see ourselves differently—identity and desire would have to shift … [o]ut of a sense of pure pragmatism.” He takes a departure from standard environmental activism by saying, “It would require, I think, a movement that takes people’s aspirations for good and secure and durable lives seriously … even more seriously than the consumer economy has …”

McKibben suggests that we are no happier today with our consumer society than we were prior to its emergence, because life is about more than just acquiring stuff. He thinks that an environmentally conscious lifestyle could deliver more personal life satisfaction through community connection. He calls for a return to a simpler lifestyle, decentralized and localized food and energy production, smaller homes, etc., not because we’re forced to, but because we discover that we want to. He says, “[A] convivial environmentalism, one that asks us to figure out what we really want out of life, offers profound possibilities.”

McKibben, a practicing Methodist, calls for environmentalism to develop “a new link with communities of faith in this country.” He says, “We don’t need to erase individualism; it is one of the glories of the American character.” But he calls for a need to “celebrate community, too,” which is one of the areas of life where Americans note the least amount of satisfaction at present.

There’s some good stuff here. This all sounds very utopian. Hmmm … it even sounds rather Marxian. And that bodes ill, because if you don’t learn to want this new communal environmentalism, the Party will have ways to force you to want it. As for “links” with communities of faith, the last thing I want is ideological environmentalists telling us what we should preach in church.

McKibben’s model also goes against the grain of how our society functions today. We don’t generate our own power or produce our own food because those methods are highly inefficient. We neither have the time nor the inclination to do that and still keep up our day jobs. Nor, do I believe, is there any evidence that doing so would actually use less power or produce less CO2. McKibben touts farmer’s markets to sell local produce, but he doesn’t really consider how much energy and time go into small scale production, not to mention what it requires for people to travel to and from markets. McKibben seems to be calling for a return to 1850, but with solar and wind power.

Among his rambling diatribe, McKibben makes some very good points, and we can probably all find something in his suggestions that would be personally beneficial. Some of his suggestions parallel counsel from my church’s leaders. But as wonderful as McKibben makes it sound, there are serious problems with the model he suggests.

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