07 December 2007

How did "Environmentalism" get a bad name?

I have often been flustered with the very common notion that humanity is somehow “separate” from the environment. Indeed, some environmentalists (sometimes, ironically by "conservatives," given pejorative monikers like “envirowackos,” …) are criticized for emphasizing the “oneness” or, in less vaguely spiritualistic terms, our crucial dependency—as living organisms, having undergone common descent with Darwinian modification over evolutionary time—on the environment. Therefore, the conclusion goes—in addition to the moral imperative to, as Schweitzer would say, embody a certain “reverence for life,” which manifests itself in conservationist behavior—we ought to reduce (and ultimately eliminate) polluting, over- and conspicuously-consuming (buying stuff that one does not need), and so on. Again, over and above the many moral reasons for environmental conservationism and preservationism, which say that we ought not tear down the rainforest, etc. because it is morally wrong (whether or not it’s good for business, capitalist economies, and so on), it is in the best interest of the human species to be environmentalists—to care about what we do to the environment.

Every once in a while, an event occurs (e.g., an epidemic) that reminds the modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) individual that s/he is not separate from nature. Recently, I think, the colony-collapse syndrome that bees experienced across North America (and other places) forced people aware of this phenomenon to recognize the tremendous ecosystemic interdependence of organisms, including ourselves: although few organisms rely upon us—and in fact we have single-handedly effectuated the extinction of an enormous number of species around the world (biologist call this human-made event the “Holocene extinction event”)—we rely on many millions of organisms, great and small. Even more compelling reason to see ourselves as intimately part of the environment is the physiological activity that everyone reading is right now engaged in, namely breathing.

We constantly taking in air (inspire), remove certain molecules from it that our body needs, release certain molecules that our body does not need, and then push the air out through the trachea and pharynx (expire). As Schrödinger famously wrote, living organisms are in a state far from equilibrium, one marked by the exportation of entropy (what he called “negentropy”), and indeed thermodynamic equilibrium can be considered the very definition of death (SEP). Similarly, about three times a day we ingest part of our environment, extract through digestion the nutrients contained therein, and then excrete the residue. We are constantly cycling the environment through us (like a flesh-donut), thereby increasing the entropy of our environment, while maintaining a state of internal order, constancy, or homeostasis within us. The ultimate point is that we are intimately connected to the environment, which means that we ought to follow the precautionary principle and be very prudent when dumping chemicals, such as car exhaust, into it.

I myself have “reactive airways disease” due to vehicle pollution (a once long commute into Washington D.C.). Taxi drivers in New York can’t give blood because their blood-CO levels are too high. Some 60% of residents in Bangkok (where leaded gasoline is often used) have some serious respiratory ailments. The examples are interminable. Thus, when one looks at the facts, when one takes a more reasonable, moral and objective view other than that through the money-centered prism of our highly unsustainable and greed-based, instant-gratification capitalist/consumerist system, environmentalism seems the obvious choice. It is horribly depressing to read the capitalist/consumerist propaganda (such as that from Fox New’s “Junkscience” section) that constantly belittle environmentalist and those who accept global warming as the only sensible conclusion given the available evidence—it is precisely this propaganda that exploits the gullibility and (absolutely excusable, since no one can know everything) ignorance of those who are both (a) non-experts on the matter, and (b) do not have access to experts on the matter.

Just as with the evolutionism-creationism debate, there is a huge disconnect between the public and the scientific community on the issue of environmentalism, global warming, and so on. I image that teaching people who to listen to, when, and why will, with the rise of increasingly accessible and tentacular forms of communication technology, become a more formidable problem. Someone needs to let the public know the objective facts, and the sound, scientific conclusions drawn from them, not the moral-less, business-centered conclusions propagated by venal politicians and money-hungry corporations that have led us into the present horrible predicament, e.g., the Holocene extinction event, the global warming crisis, and so on.

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