WE ARE A SOCIETY — AND A WORLD — transformed by concern about the environment. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm saw the attendance of two heads of state or government, not the over 100 that came to the Earth Summit in 1992. Not long ago the desire to “save the planet” would have been dismissed as the hysterical ravings of a crank. Today, it has become a motto by which children are educated, grants are distributed, and business attempts to capture market share. Environmentalism has its own affinity groups, credit cards, mutual funds, travel services, catalogs, and email networks.
How did the green transformation of our thinking come about? We all know part of the answer: “environmentalists” did it. But what does it mean to be an environmentalist? After all, who does not want clean air and water, or a variety of wildlife and beautiful places? But being an environmentalist means more than that. It means being part of a political or moral crusade for a better world. In important respects, environmentalism is heir to the antislavery and temperance movements and thus part of the ongoing saga of evangelical reform that has characterized American history.
The Role of the Popularizer
Environmentalism requires those who can rouse people to join the fight, since the necessary ideas about how the world should be rarely, if ever, fall ready-made from the sky. It is usually given to only a few human beings to set the agenda, tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to right it, tear the veil from our eyes, and move us to act. Such are the popular environmentalist writers whose skill at presenting the environmental message in a powerful and accessible way makes them the key to the success of their movement.
These are the figures who educate and activate the small army of lawyers, scientists, program officers, and sundry other professionals who staff and make up the membership rolls of the hundreds of environmental organizations that exist in the United States. It is the popularizers who provide the basis for the studies, films, and news releases, lawsuits and lobbying, testimony and policy recommendations. Even “grassroots” social movements do not magically spring up of their own accord one fine day. Somebody has to activate the public so that they will help buy property; arrange marches, demonstrations, and various other media events; and solicit funds for all of the above.
Environmental popularizers fill so many functions it is difficult to find one word that adequately characterizes them. They act as scientific researchers, radical politicians, moral prophets, aesthetic judges, social critics, historical analysts, technical experts, and prognosticators about anything and everything. For each great environmentalist author there may be hundreds of experts who know more about a given subject, or have thought and written more profoundly about it. But they do not bring to that subject the same accessibility and sense of urgency as does the popularizer.
What makes a popularizer? The impression the public would get from, say, a book review or a talk-show interview is something like the following. In the course of research or in observing the work of colleagues, the author becomes increasingly aware of the importance of some neglected problem. But this problem typically requires him to transcend “narrow, disciplinary boundaries” and cover ground well outside of his particular expertise. Public-spiritedness combined with the scientific conscience leads him to take this risk and bring the matter to the attention of fellow citizens. This outline can be followed in a book or an article, in testimony before a congressional committee — just about anywhere but in the various forums in which scientists speak to each other using the strict canons of method, evidence, and inference that are the backbone of scientific research and self-scrutiny.
The general form of such a popularizing effort is pretty well established. Too long we have been able to ignore . . . problem X, but in an increasingly complicated and interdependent world, that is no longer possible. The bad effects of our ignorance or complacency are evident anytime we see . . . this or that situation. But now that science has finally begun to reach an understanding of problem X, we no longer need to tolerate these potentially dire consequences. Whereas in the past problem X was mistakenly thought to be caused by . . . something or other — or indeed, not even appreciated for the evil that it is — recent discoveries in . . . this branch of science strongly suggest that it really is caused by . . . whatever it turns out to be. Thus we have an unprecedented opportunity to do something about problem X. While as a scientist I don’t claim to be an expert in law (or government, or economics, or social science), it seems to me that we could solve this problem if only the government and people would work together to do . . . something. If we don’t act now, we will certainly face a more difficult situation in the future.
Passions and Politics
There is nothing wrong with attempting to make the often difficult and complex findings of science available to a wider audience; much about our form of government requires it. Nevertheless, the environmental popularizers have often not lived up to the important role they are required to play.
Their deficiencies are more often remarked upon to forgive than condemn, as witness the oh-so-polite reception generally accorded to the book Our Stolen Future. In that case, as in so many others, the popularizer presents a one-sided picture and hides important scientific disagreements on issues relevant to environmental quality. The zeal to draw firm conclusions from the results of scientific research frequently prompts speculative matters to be left out or presented with greater authority than they deserve. The partisanship implicit in these failures is most often excused by the originality of the author’s perspective on the subject or a passionate commitment to do good. How could one regret the “minor” obfuscations that might arise from such noble impulses?
But using one-sided and incomplete accounts of the state of scientific knowledge has led not just to wasted public and private resources, but to projections, predictions, warnings, and sundry essays into the future that, not surprisingly, have been falsified by events. No one knows what the future will hold. But reports that Lake Erie and the oceans would be dead by now were surely exaggerated. The United States is wracked neither by food riots nor a great epidemic of pesticide-induced cancers. Birds continue to sing in the morning, and they do not have to face the rigors of either a man-made ice age or global warming caused by the heat of an increased energy production and consumption. With what confidence should we look upon the projected horrors of global warming, rain forest destruction, or toxic waste, given the record of the past?
Yet prophecy endures because it provides the popularizers a profound rhetorical strength: it releases the power of both fear and hope. The central role these sentiments can be made to play in political rhetoric has long been understood. Arousing fear, though, is not always easy. Even as far back as Aristotle it was observed that we fear things less the more distant they are. Hence when Churchill sought to rouse the British, he brought the Germans to the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, and hills of “our island.” So, too, to arouse fears the popularizers have to present pictures of imminent calamities that could befall their relatively comfortable and well-off readers. Environmental disasters like endemic water-borne disease due to inadequate sewage treatment in the Third World do not fit into this category. The prospect of my getting skin cancer due to ozone depletion does. Climate change that produces warmer winter nights in Siberia and northern North America is a yawn; it has to be made to bring dread tropical diseases to our shores to provoke action.
Fear’s counterpart is hope, the “comforter in danger.” The popularizers arouse hope when they supply vague and rosy pictures of future happiness, if we do whatever is called for to avoid disaster. If we limit population, says one, we can have “Cadillacs, symphony orchestras, wooded wilderness.” If we have the right values, says another, we can feed and shelter all humanity on a healthy earth. Having been threatened with pictures of the multitude of disorders that would result from environmental collapse, we are soothed with glimpses of harmony, peace, and plenty that make even the present — hardly the worst state of affairs — look hellish.
Thus hopes and fears, the ecological désatre du jour, and the promise of environmental perfection are crucial components of the success of environmentalism and the rhetoric of its popularizers. The risk that some few members of the public may become cynical in the face of such rhetoric and start muttering about Chicken Little appears to be worth running, if only because in comparison with the widespread, visceral power of hope and fear, cynicism is a weak and effete sentiment. While it is a useful corrective to know just how often such fears prove unfounded, to expect therefore that such prognosticating will not have an impact the next time around is to think we can overcome our propensities to fear and hope.
The scientific particulars of global warming, for example, and the policies that might be implemented to address it are controversial, obscure, technical, and dry to all but the scientist or “policy wonk.” But the fear that we are going to destroy the earth, and the hopes for a new order of things that we would need to prevent this destruction, incites interest and passion. Interest and passion are powerful motives for action. Long after people have forgotten the scientific details of what produces smog, they will remember that it exists because of exploitation of the environment by capitalism, or because of the inability of liberal political institutions to make coherent policy, or because we have chosen to develop the wrong kind of technology.
Such explanations bring us to the second characteristic defect of the popularizers. Even were we to assume a meticulous presentation of the state of scientific knowledge about an environmental issue, it is a rare popularizer indeed who knows how to move from there to a prescription for public policy or private efforts. The popularizer, to turn a fact into a problem, must have some vision of how the world should be that the fact does not fit. But even while many of them confidently call for new values and social systems, the particulars are rarely well thought through. As a result, the central place of politics and morals in the popularizers’ thought has not been adequately appreciated. The picture of their thinking that results from missing this point and focusing only on science or common sense is rather like the understanding of human life that can be gained by an autopsy. You can achieve a certain knowledge of the parts and their relationships, but the animating character is lost.
Are we asking too much of popularizers to expect them to be both scientifically accurate and fully cognizant of the moral and political implications and underpinnings of their enterprise? The request might be unreasonable were it not for the fact that they themselves introduce the subject and call for changes in ethical belief or political institutions with abandon. The problem is not that they attempt criticism in this realm. The problem is the pronounced tendency for the ideals described to be at best utopian and at worst totalitarian in character.
This is not to suggest that environmentalism is a leftist conspiracy, or that environmentalists are deliberately bent on the destruction of freedom. But totalitarianism obviously has great attraction in our time, with its promise to explain, organize, and unify lives that often appear to be meaningless and out of control. The messy realities of human liberty can always be made to look bad and dangerous in comparison with paper perfection.
In retrospect, this totalitarian tendency is a frequent failing among the popularizers who were defining environmentalism in the 60s and 70s. While nearly all profess some concern for freedom, the thoroughgoing reforms they propose are most likely to involve powerful, centralized, and intrusive institutions of governance either at the global level or within individual societies. That global climate change should have become the touchstone of environmental concern is the perfect expression of this tendency. Advocates such as The Pew Charitable Trusts now apparently see their main challenge as creating an ad campaign that will bring people to get behind the global systems of governance that are supposed to solve the problem.
Americans consider themselves a moderate people, not given to ideological excess. To the many decent citizens whose environmentalism consists of cleaning up waste along a riverbank, taking the bus instead of driving, faithfully recycling whatever they can, or caring about the fate of the parks they hike and camp in, this portrait of crusading utopian (or totalitarian) moralism will probably not be immediately familiar, and may even be offensive. But look again; the radical social, political, and economic agenda that animates contemporary environmentalism is hardly hidden under a bushel basket.
Charles T. Rubin is an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University. This article is adapted from The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism, which is being published this summer by Rowman & Littlefield.