I write a radio show. I write it once a week to be broadcast on Wednesday at three in the afternoon. Each week I write it on a different broad and unexciting environmental topic. Unexciting not because there’s nothing interesting to be said on, say, Earth Day or cloud forests or the Reserve in which I work. But because the vagueness of the topics and the format of the show mean that each script is a little history and a lot of basic explainer. We’re trying to make the show more about debates and contests and citizen participation, but in the meantime it is what it is. And Piedras Anchas being a government station means that I can’t spice it up in its current format.
I discovered our self-censorship during the Earth Day show. I was writing the first half, all the background, its popular roots and how the UN incorporated it into their year-round calendar of official unobserved holidays. I wrote something that even then I’d written a dozen times already: that the ’92 Rio Conference was an environmental watershed, one of the most important moments in who gives a shit. Looking at what I’d written, I decided to change tack. There are breaks in the show, and the script after half-time read something like this:
I said something before the corte: that Rio was fundamentally important. I’ve said it before and I will probably say it again. In the sense that it was a conference that garnered mass international participation and recognition, it was important. But in the sense of achieving significant advances, it wasn’t, and neither was any other UN environmental gathering.
We have known since the 1970s that manmade climate change represents an existential threat to communities worldwide. We have known that the myriad activities of our commerce and industry are destroying the environment not in an academic sense but immediately and with consequences that will affect us and cripple the generations that follow.
And what have we done? What have we really achieved now we’ve been armed with that knowledge? The answer is nothing or almost nothing—there have been small victories in other fields, like the discontinuation of CFCs, but only when those victories presented minute economic hurdles for our governments and corporations and only when they had other techniques and chemicals at hand.
I want this Earth Day not to be another day during which we congratulate ourselves for those hollow successes but one in which we think on every time we have known what was right and failed to follow through, every time we had the opportunity to improve our environment or protect it and stood by instead.
The script went on like that for a little longer and included some stuff about contacting your local, municipal, state, and federal representatives to let them know that your priority number one, if only for one day, is halting the processes that even now are prejudicing the environment against the human race. When Chava got to that part of the script at the station, he just ad-libbed for fifteen minutes instead of reading it on air. I tried to slip it in again during the World Environment Day show, since that remembrance is explicitly about political action, but Chava gave it a miss again. ‘It’s a government station, these are simple people, it’s just not what they want to hear.’ I guess that’s all fine. But writing that show, getting angrier while typing, forced me to acknowledge that I think exactly that way about environmentalism and the environmental movement.
It is so much a shell game, an exercise in distraction—start composting, build a dry toilet, drive more efficiently, as if any of it had any appreciable effect.
Fellow volunteer James Dykstra is fond of a borrowed metaphor: all this, all we’re doing is just arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Separating our trash, buying hybrid cars, going organic, living in communes. All of our individual contributions to climate change and every other way we’re making the world less habitable are all negligible, especially considering the miniscule cohort of the world’s population actually trying to go carbon neutral or food independent or zero waste.
The futility of the endeavor is even clearer in the Peace Corps’ mission here in Mexico, mitigation of climate change. If I got every señora in the Sierra to use a high-efficiency Patsari stove, I could drastically reduce the amount of trees they cut and the emissions they create. And that reduction would be a tiny fraction of the timber taken by the companies that crony bureaucrats grandfathered into the Reserve and which I will never be able to restrain. Our other program down here is Tech Transfer, and many of our volunteers are busily engaged in helping Pemex move towards exploitation of deepwater Gulf oil, ten barrels of which would probably offset the efforts of a decade of environmental volunteers.
Everywhere I am disappointed. Republicans in Congress have hamstrung our best efforts at fusion while spending orders of magnitude more cash on the military that will soon enough be murdering the more equatorial peoples whose land and way of life will have been wrecked by the carbon coming from our coal plants. We’ve got a President who hasn’t even the wherewithal to push light rail, let alone the Pigouvian gas taxes and massive energy overhaul we’d need to make any kind of impact. In my last year at Georgetown, professors who take care to pay lip service to global warming’s role in International Relations were beside themselves with joy at the prospect of a United States that could become an energy exporter on the back of natural gas fracked at the expense of environmental devastation, groundwater pollution, congenital defects, and motherfucking manmade earthquakes.
It baffles me that we can’t grasp that it’s not just about huggable trees. It’s about the spread of tropical disease, about resource shortages, about famine and die-offs like we haven’t seen since the Agricultural Revolution. It’s about populations all along the belt of the world being twenty years out from a set of wars and civil violence that we know is coming and that we have the factual if not plausible power to prevent. It’s more than cliche to observe that the human race’s chief obsession is to focus inexorably on the present, but it pains me to be an official representative of the most shortsighted superpower in the history of the planet. Even the Soviets had five year plans.
The science we need to research and the technologies we need to develop are so crucial, so beneficial, and so cheap compared with our foreign wars that it defies belief we aren’t pursuing them with all our vigor. It we’re liberal then we should be concerned with the lives saved, and if we’re conservative, then with the cash.
As a private individual, only two choices present themselves to me as reasonable. The first is to live knowing that the planet and our world society are about to take a steep downward turn and to become purely hedonist, enjoying the destructive pastimes we have while we have them. The other is to side with and begin to organize the peoples who will shortly be extracting in blood and gold from us the value that we have robbed from them with our relentless consumerism, with the wastage of our golden unipolar moment in the pursuit not of any noble goal but the generation of ever more wealth and ever more creature comfort, damn the world at large. If there is to be no Environmental Revolution, then there will shortly be very many environmental revolutions—the only choice now is which side of history to stand on.