The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: No Point in Arguing

BLOG The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: No Point in Arguing

what you can do 2009

The last two days in Ithaca at the (extraordinarily well organized — thanks Sarah & Emily!) Net Impact seminar were an eye-opener for me. On the one hand, I really got the sense that the largely-young crowd of 2400 attendees was pretty naive about how much of an impact their actions will and can have on the social and environmental behaviours and actions of the corporations they work for (or hope to work for — most are still students and few of them have entrepreneurial aspirations). The sponsors of the event, after all, included ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, GE, WalMart, Coca-Cola, P&G — a rogues gallery of corporate malfeasance and greenwashing if there ever was one. The best hope, I think, is that they will flood into the government and public sector jobs that the stimulus programs have (we hope) opened up, and that those jobs will last long enough and be effective enough to produce some real change — not in regulations as much as in government-funded NPO programs — social service, health, information and education programs. Making life a little better in their communities for a few people, for now.

On the other hand, I felt embarrassed that I was so jaundiced about what they were doing, yet at the same time I could not really be bothered to debate with them, to explain why this “try to change these organizations from within” effort was at best futile and at worst a dangerous distraction from the work we need to do to prepare now for economic, energy, environmental and, finally, civilizational collapse. Everything I know and have learned suggests we’re long past the point of solving these problems or even significantly mitigating them, and that it’s time to focus on transition and adaptation. But these young idealists, with few exceptions, are technophiles (believers that technology, ingenuity and innovation can address the coming crises), unwavering believers in the political and economic system (they mostly think that Obama has a plan for all this, and he just needs more time), and most seem unaware of even what the Long Emergency, peak oil, the growing debt crisis, the transition movement and permaculture are all about.

So to some extent it was like spending two days speaking a foreign language. These energetic believers’ whole worldview is so different from mine that what I say to them, without the benefit of the context that, for example, my Save the World Reading List provides, makes absolutely no sense to them. It sounds crazy to them. And I’ve been so immersed in conversations with people who really have come to understand what is happening to our world, and what needs to be done, now, that when I encounter this sea of incredulity I am startled, exasperated, and dismayed.

Daniel Quinn has said (in Beyond Civilization):

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

Well, these young people are open to something new, but not to the message I have for them. They do want to argue with me, and they are willing to listen. The problem is me. I have neither the patience nor the energy to provide them with an ocean of information, reading and rhetoric to get them to understand what, at this point, they find unfathomable, and would probably find unbearable even if they did appreciate it.

So what’s the point? Invest hundreds of hours in order to show a few people how they’ve been misinformed and propagandized and deceived and unexposed to the terrible truth of our civilization’s cost, its unsustainability and inevitable and ghastly demise? So they can be depressed and paralyzed, as I was when I first began to come to grip with this knowledge? What will that gain us?

I don’t think it’s possble to provide a seminar or short conference that would allow the audience to learn everything they would need to overcome their acceptance of the prevailing orthodoxy of thought. I’m not sure even a whole course or university program would suffice. In addition to being exposed to a lot of new and challenging information, people need time to digest it, and, more importantly, to discuss it with others.

Joanna Macy runs a program that focuses instead on reconnecting with Gaia, with one’s emotions and instincts, and letting one’s heart be broken and opening oneself up, with others, to an awareness of the grief for all-life-on-Earth that we all feel, must feel, if we do begin to reconnect. This is the basis for the 9-step “What You Can Do” program that I have been writing about, which is illustrated above.

Likewise, Derrick Jensen suggests (in A Language Older Than Words) that we listen to the land, and in time it will tell us just what we need to do.

I am trying to believe this, but I’m not sure I do. As Quinn says, you need to be ready to listen, to reconnect. Although I don’t much like the analogy, it’s a lot like being ready for a religious conversion. I understand that most people are indoctrinated into their religious beliefs from a very early age, but many still need some event to trigger a true realization of that belief. And others who come to religion later in their lives do so because they’re ready — some combination of events and support from other believers is sufficient to take them past a tipping point, and bring about a major worldview change. A heavy dose of propaganda needs to be applied at just the right time, by more than one person, in the context of the convert’s own community and situation. This is not easy stuff.

Organized religions do this very effectively. They provide the tools for evangelism, and the infrastructure to keep the flock in the fold. Whereas some of them are con-men and criminals, others are generous and sincere. Gladwell has described the “cellular” organization that enables many evangelical churches to convert and retain members, using a bottom-up outreach and support process coordinated by a top-down hierarchy that supplies the tools of conversion and retention.

Perhaps the Transition movement and the Permaculture movement, both community-based networks, are the analogue of the local cells of religious groups. Perhaps these are the networks that we can use, instead of debates, conferences and books, to do the same thing to organize those who are, as Quinn and Jensen say, ready to listen, to reconnect, and to start to do the much more radical work that will be needed to:

  • learn a better way to live and make a living, 
  • disrupt and bring down our industrial growth economy and the civilization that depends on it, and
  • create new models to replace them that are healthy and sustainable.

Yet I’m troubled by this. If we create cellular networks to organize the work of reconnection, learning, action and creation needed to enable a better world, could these not easily become, as so many religious networks are, vehicles for indoctrination and exploitation? Will we end up with sects who think that better world can and should be built now, in the shadow of our teetering civilization, and others who think we should focus on undermining existing civilization and that nothing very useful can be accomplished until that work is done? I can see myself agreeing with both viewpoints.

I am at heart not a political person. I don’t like to debate (so Quinn’s words naturally appeal to me). When I speak with climate scientists they tell me that they don’t dare say what they really think is happening to our world, and that they don’t dare share their extreme pessimism about whether it can be “fixed”, for fear that politicians and others will just stop listening to them (“we don’t want to know, then”). So we’ve reached the stage where the people who really know are now afraid to say what they know. And so many of us who see evidence all around us that something is very wrong keep quiet, keep doing what they’re doing, and conclude, uncomfortably, it must be “just them” that feels this way.

I kind of expect that, faced with evidence, most people will come around (eventually, and almost assuredly too late) to believe what I believe, and that they will then be ready to listen and to “get with the program” that my graphic above illustrates, or some program like it. In that I am, I think, an optimist — I believe that in our hearts we all want to do the right thing, for everyone.

But I don’t know. We are who we are and, learning and programs and propaganda notwithstanding, we will do what we will do. As Pollard’s Law states, we do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. We will “get with the program” only reluctantly, because we don’t like change, and this program will never be easy, or fun. Most of us will only begin when there is absolutely no doubt left that our existing civilization is doomed.

No wonder most people don’t want to know, and are so willing to believe that the system doesn’t need to change, that we can continue to grow forever, that we can change the system from within, or that technology or ingenuity or the Rapture will save us, in time.

I’m not one to argue with them.

Although I know they are mistaken.

Category: Our Culture

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17 Responses to The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: No Point in Arguing

  1. raffi says:

    dave, i understand that people in the World Cafe Community are starting to emphasize the importance of intergenerational focus to all public conversations. without bringing the different generations together, we lack the capacity to really reach in to our current context and even understand where *we* are.i think the conversation would have been very different if there were opportunities for deep connection across the generations at the conference (of course a more diverse convening team is another essential piece).

  2. Jeff Patton says:

    Great post, Dave– i’m going through a similar crisis: I’m surrounded by intelligent, artistic folks (I’m a part of the Chicago improv community) who simply lack an interest in these ideas. Like you said, even if I could hold their attention long enough to show them the failings of civilization, they’d just shoot the same techno-themed solutions at me and say “we sent a man to the moon, i’m sure we can handle this”- And there’s absolutely no way they’ll ever understand that the symbolic/technological world that they immerse themselves is pulling their minds away from their senses & physical reality. So I’m at the end of my rope, I’ve given up on trying to get them to understand, and I’ve also given up on being patient & tolerant with their symbolic conversations. So I’m feeling very alone, and your post made me feel less so.

  3. Steve Bean says:

    Jeff, can you show them what you love and how you act on it? Can you just be genuine in that way? Having beliefs and trying to convince don’t lead to anyone’s happiness. Love shines brighter stripped of our stories.

  4. Chaitanya says:

    Hi Jeff,I agree that a symbolic/technological mindset pulls one’s experience away from a purely sensory interaction with physical reality. But symbolic thought is something that evolution has thrown up, and it seems to me it is as much a valid way of perceiving the universe, as the sensory approach. Its something humans have to deal with. Questioning the value of symbolic thought is questioning evolution itself, and amounts to saying that Nature made a giant mistake.Yes, “living in the symbolic mind” has probably gone a bit too far, and the symbolic mind has embraced reductionist world-view perhaps a bit too much. The results of which are manifesting as problems such as environmental destruction, religious fundamentalism etc. Recent interest in environment is indication that symbolic mind is finally questioning its ways,and considering its limitations, even if slightly.It appears to me that recent interest in meditation, is an evolutionary response to quieten the incessant chatter of the symbolic mind and transcend its limitations. The senses, as well as the symbolic mind present us with *incorrect* and *incomplete* view of reality. The ultimate purpose of meditation (as the Buddha said) is to correct these distorted views of reality — to understand the true nature of reality AS IT IS.My question for you: If both senses and symbolic mind are limited, Why pick on symbolic mind only ? What is your practical proposal here ? To somehow do away with symbolic mind and live only in the senses ? Iam not asking these rhetorically. Genuine questions. (btw, like your blog. lots of interesting quotes).

  5. Chaitanya says:

    Steve, in just a couple of sentences you have packed so much wisdom. Thank you.

  6. Janene says:

    Hey –I totally understand, Dave. I ran out of energy for that kind of thing a few years back now… in fact, you inspired me to write about that topic today… and I find myself being very comfortable with leaving that to others at this point in my life. You don’t HAVE to do it all, and part of me questions whether trying to do that (outside the venue of writing books etc) is really even terribly useful. After all, missionaries always had guns germs and steel on their side — and we intentionally want none of those things, so is it even possible for us to do that kind of work?Just to butt in a little… Abrams does not suggest that we need to do away with the symbolic tendencies in our mind… but in our culture, the symbolic has replaced the sensual. And that is perhaps a very bad thing. In a sensual world symbolism takes on the characteristic of metaphor as opposed to our modern tendency to deny the sensual when it conflicts with the symbolic. And that is a really big, significant difference.Janene

  7. Paris says:

    That may be intergenerational problem:My dad also turned 58 recently, and so I’m wondering what has your generation left us with?pollution, nuclear bombs, islamic terrorism, endagered rainforests, almost exhausted fishstocks and awfull global warming by 2050, skyrocketing joblessness, massive debts and housing bubble, high divorce rates, and old age houses…. Do you really feel that we want to dream about that as a gift world to pass on to our newborn children?Even though I know that those dark stuff are facts instead of nightmares, this is not the song I want to sing to my tiny little baby nephew.We the young breeding generation thrives on hopes, otherwise we would all suicide, give us hope, don’t try to “convince us”, tell us a nice vision of another possible futureif you can’t believe it’s not too late, you’ll never be heard by young folk who have something than self destructiun in their inner thanks for your blog, cause there’s some home hope somewhere.

  8. Jeff Patton says:

    @Steve – Yep, agreed, that’s all i can do- unfortunately for me, it’s not decreasing the # of conversations I have to grind through about things which are of little value to me.@Chaitanya – I agree w/ Janene’s ‘butt in’ =) – symbolic activity now trumps physical reality; for me that’s a bad thing because i prefer dealing with physical reality and because I think we must reconnect our senses to the animate earth in order to save it.

  9. John Banfill says:

    Hi Dave. I don’t want to put you down, but you are complaining about yourself and 2399 others driving or flying to a conference in Ithaca which uses petroleum, part of which comes from the Athabasca Tar Sands. You all probably ate and drank freely of the products from factory farms. How can you ever expect people to change their opinions of the status quo?Why not use your energy and your gift for writing and connecting with people to show how to live without consuming excess resources. Perhaps show or work people to support farmers that are producing in an ethical manner, and means of living without using excess petroleum or coal. Could you sponsor a conference that not only talks about being “green” but actually is “green”?

  10. vera says:

    Hey, as I been thinking about this article, I remembered running into a young person recently who was interested in what I thought was happening to the world. I was so unprepared that I mostly just blurted “well the country is bankrupt”! :-) I am thinking I could use an elevator speech. Dave, got one?

  11. Melisa Christensen says:

    Maybe (I know it!) would be a great topic for a new book! “They do want to argue with me, and they are willing to listen” sounds like you have a captive audience. I also think it would be interesting if you designed a college course (like a free version that a person could do online.) within the perimeters of 15 weeks. We could get people to sign up for it etc and it would all be online and free! i’m getting carried away I think…I really responded when you mentioned that students would be left feeling depressed (like we did) once they learn about things you mentioned. I remember feeling so down about the world that I wouldnt have wished all that knowledge on anyone but now i feel differently. I think it the long run it really has helped. Compelling post!

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Hey, another great comment thread — thanks everyone. Jeff, thank you for making *me* feel less alone.Chaitanya, the distinction I make between the symbolic and sensuous is that to me the sensuous is ‘real’, connected, embodied (and yes I know that what our senses perceive are only representations of reality — Cohen & Stewart’s books deal with this at length) whereas the symbolic is abstract, disconnected and disconnecting. The book “drawing on the right side of the brain” teaches you to draw better by having you turn what you’re drawing upside down so your left brain’s tendency to pattern-recognize symbols and icons (“an eye looks like this — two half-moon shapes with a circle inside them”) is disabled and your senses can draw what is “really” there.Janene, the intersection between the sensuous and the symbolic is perhaps metaphor. Biomimicry is the very important technique of paying attention to what nature does to solve problems, and then through metaphor applying that learning to solving other problems. I’ve seen wild animals do this, and some of our greatest innovations come from doing this. The danger, perhaps, is when we take the metaphors too dogmatically, when they *become* reality to us. Scientists are particularly prone to this disease.John, you’re absolutely correct, though they did use local and biodegradable products at the conference. I recognize the hypocrisy of the event, but I did my best to point it out to everyone including event organizers, and I think they were listening.Vera, I’m working on something like this myself, though in its first iteration it is likely to be a ‘map’ rather than an elevator speech. Stay tuned :-)

  13. I recently participated in the “Climate 2009” event – an online conference hosted by a Hamburg/Germany based university and the World Meteorological Organization – one of the pre-curser events to the Copenhagen conference next month. Having been involved in climate change science and policy in the one or the other way over the last two decades I have gotten somewhat tired. The discussion strikes me as if a ship is sinking from overload, and the passengers and crews are discussing whether one form of weight pulls the ship down more than another. They stay within the system, that is. I raised a question: Is it possible to ever achieve a net reduction of energy related emissions within a framework of forced continuous exponential economic growth? Is it principally possible to find a way of de-coupling economic growth and energy/resource consumption with related emissions? As far as I can tell fundamental physical laws stand in the way of constant exponential economic growth. Unfortunately raising this question means to question one of the leading global dogmas: that growth is the savior. Economic – or rather fiscal – growth is practically divine. That question is not asked. One quickly is viewed as a nutty doomsday prophet or conspiracy theorist. On the other hand – when talking to economists, businessmen and scientists individually on a one by one base they usually quickly admit: it is impossible. Simply impossible. This means our entire beautiful globalized economic system is based upon either a big lie or a big mistake. And – everyone who thinks about it quickly realizes it. And: the proportion of the issue is so enormous that nobody has even the remotest clue what to do about it. “Recycle Aluminum” is not really an answer. As a result everyone just closes their eyes and moves on as before.When younger I argued against children, against population growth, and now I, myself, have three daughters and cannot even plausibly argue along these lines. I also drive a relatively big car because my job (in solar energy R&D) requires me to travel, our family of 5 plus dog won’t fit in a GEO Metro AND we live in the country. So it goes. And we try to recommend not using excess resources on an individual level, yet the economy as it is is entirely based upon just that: ever more consumption of everything!Be that as it may: arguing against forced economic growth as the fundamental cause of our future demise nowadays is like standing as an attorney in front of the grand inquisitor of medieval times saying “Sir – I herewith plead not guilty for these women accused of witchery, because God as well as the Devil and their ilk are cultural inventions and do not really exist, hence, they cannot serve as arguments in court.”

  14. Karen says:

    (a bit of emotional ranting ahead, please accept my advance apology)It was interesting to find you describing more-or-less me in a nutshell with your description of those young whippersnapping technophilic conference-goers. I’ve been reading long enough to be acquainted with your thoughts on zero/negative growth, and I’m in an interesting spot right now where I’m meeting other young people, in my Master’s program, who share your feelings on mitigation and adaptation being the only viable next step. At the same time, another fellow student recently admitted that she doesn’t like to mention climate change much because of the zeal with which it is held as truth in the program, when she herself is not completely convinced it is caused by humans.I share Paris’ sentiment somewhat. Being told that life is a shitshow just as we’re starting to feel like we have any semblence of control over our lives, kind of sucks. For me, the specific hurdle was properly detaching and navigating away from the mass media system and coming to terms with calling bullshit on the mainstream. I know, tough titties, every generation has their yoke. I guess I can’t imagine that I could ever have the energy to tackle any of the challenges that lie ahead if I my knowledge, opinion or views on the true state of the world *kept me from connecting with my peers.* One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned

  15. Thomas Key says:

    This is a great blog with a timely message. I am also frustrated by those around me who are not willing (or able) to open their minds to at least consider the “ocean of information, reading and rhetoric” that is all around them that clearly shows how the status quo perpetuates a system that is manipulative, self-serving, and destructive to the earth and all living things that inhabit it. Consequently, to prevent my life energy from being sucked away and not replenished, I have adopted a new life strategy…change what I can, raise awareness about the things I can’t, and try to influence others through my actions. In my opinion, if enough people become informed, change their lives, influence who they can, and act to exert pressure on the status quo, positive change is inevitable. Of course, the questions remains, is there enough time to avert catastrophe?

  16. Jon Husband says:

    I am also frustrated by those around me who are not willing (or able) to open their minds to at least consider the “ocean of information, reading and rhetoric” that is all around them that clearly shows how the status quo perpetuates a system that is manipulative, self-serving, and destructive to the earth and all living things that inhabit it. Consequently, to prevent my life energy from being sucked away and not replenished, I have adopted a new life strategy…change what I can, raise awareness about the things I can’t, and try to influence others through my actions.I resonate with this too …

  17. Hi Dave, et al–I know this is not an original thought, but comparisons to the Holocaust arise as I read this post. The only way that that atrocity or any large scale atrocity can heppen is because we shut up. The hard part is feeling like a broken record, nothing is being done, how much prophesizing can we do without becoming a type of belly-button gazers?Thanks, as ever, for your willingness to keep pushing yourself and thus, us, Dave.

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