Despite pleas from many readers, and not a few other eco-bloggers, How to Save the World remains impatient, angry, and occasionally confrontational with many moderates who do value a clean environment, but think we have to be satisfied with small victories, and even, sometimes, only small setbacks. The three biggest environmental blogs, TreeHugger, WorldChanging and Grist all take an upbeat, patient, technophile view of the future of our planet, while How to Save the World publishes grim assessments like that in John Gray’s Straw Dogs, and even supports radical acts, provided no creature, human or other, is physically hurt by them. My signature essay The Truth About Nature, and most of my environmental essays are strident, restless, idealistic, and dissatisfied with small changes.
When I was in university, I was a moderate. I joined the Young Liberals, but was actively recruited by the Young Socialists. For awhile, I debated them. When they said to me “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”, I replied that there was no point staking out a position that would always be a minority one, and that by their uncompromising tone they were alienating moderates and actually undermining opportunities to achieve small legislative victories. They were unrepentant. Nothing short of a “people’s revolution” would make a significant difference, they argued. As a liberal I was actually doing more harm to the class struggle than the conservatives. I was encouraging the illusion that some kind of compromise was possible. I was perpetuating the slavery of the masses.
Now, thirty-five years later, I’ve become the radical. I shook my head when I heard moderates cheer the pathetic, paltry, inadequate agreements of the G8 leaders this week. I am furious that the news is full of celebrity scandals, and in-depth coverage of the release from prison of child killers, while news about global warming, Bush’s and other corporatists’ criminal misdeeds, and weekly social and environmental setbacks are ignored. I am appalled that the lazy media played right into the hands of the homegrown British Arab nationalists by providing them with millions of dollars worth of free, undeserved and unwarranted publicity for this week’s cowardly, unimaginative attacks on innocent citizens, to the total exclusion of far more important, and actionable, news events.
Most people are concerned, but feel helpless to do much about important issues. They are generally uninformed about these issues, and often deliberately misinformed by wealthy and powerful people and organizations whose interest is served by spreading misinformation and suppressing the truth. And what’s the point of being informed if you’re helpless to do anything about it? So who can blame people for turning the channel when bad news that might make them feel guilty comes on, when the other channel carries either false comforts and assurances or diversions — information they know needs no action on their part, and events for which they can genuinely feel no responsibility.
The reality is that we are all complicit, through ignorance, inaction and willful disregard for the horrific state of our world — a world in which there is more suffering by more creatures than almost any other time in the history of life on Earth, in which poverty and misery and destitution are all-pervasive and never-ending in many, many places in every nation, and in which species extinction, loss of biodiversity and climate change are occurring at a rate not seen on this planet in 65 million years, and accelerating. And the truth is we want to believe there’s nothing much we can do about it, beyond the little things that are totally inadequate, and which ultimately change nothing. Because otherwise we would have to turn our comfortable lives upside down, change everything, make huge sacrifices, and put ourselves out there, giving everything, and giving up everything, to fight what may well be an impossible fight against overwhelming odds and daunting, ruthless opposition. Few of us are ready for that.
The truth is that sustainable living isn’t sustainable. It’s like patting ourselves on the back for cutting back from two packs of cigarettes a day to one, and expecting some remarkable improvement in our health. It’s like an alcoholic excusing ‘social drinking’ as not really drinking, as an acceptable lapse. For every one of us that stops eating meat, or insulates our house better, or takes a bicycle to work instead of a car, there are a thousand Chinese who are consuming vastly more than they did yesterday. For every one of us who chooses to have one child, or none at all, there are one or two planning to have three or more children right in our own communities, and a thousand in the third world planning to have more than that, especially if they can make their way to our affluent countries and have them here, where they can live the dream of unsustainable excess that was our dream just a generation or two ago. Nothing less than a revolution in human thinking and human behaviour will be enough to save the world, and it may already be too late.
One of my readers told me recently that what makes my environmental writing both accessible and sometimes agonizing is that:
On the first two scores she is probably right. But on the third score, I no longer have illusions that my writing alone, and any changes I can help bring about through AHA! (our fledgling learning and discovery enterprise), will be enough to prevent me from the need and desire to make radical changes to the way in which I live my own life. Revolution is not for the weak of heart, and you can only lead radical change from the front lines, not from an armchair. Like many of you, dear patient readers, I am not yet ready for that, and I entirely appreciate your annoyance with my more strident articles when I seem so reluctant to practice what I preach.
But I’m getting ever closer. As surely as the Earth is warming, and precipitating massive changes we can only begin to guess at, so too am I slowly warming to the realization that I have a very different destiny than the one I have lived out this far. To those who have already reached that tipping point ahead of me, who are already out there fighting that good fight — I salute you: fare forward, fellow voyagers. I will see you on the other side.