Tuesday, November 13, 2007
I have to review a book as part of a job interview process, and book reviews aren’t something that I normally do. How long are these things supposed to be anyway? I don’t have a word count to work with, and we all know that brevity is not my strong point.
I know we have some environmentalists around here – has anyone read this book? If so, what did you think? Am I capturing the essence of it at all?
Oh, and the dude wants it to be funny and engaging rather than “I am so fucking serious, man”.
Help! Review below.
It’s hard to know where to begin when describing a book about environmentalism that is guaranteed to infuriate most environmentalists who read it. Break Through really does represent such a fundamental break from the way that people are used to thinking about environmental issues that it may take some people a while to understand exactly what the authors are proposing.
For a start, it talks about money. Most environmentalists, and indeed leftists as a whole, are rather uncomfortable talking about money. There’s a pervasive sense that an interest in things like financial markets and international trade is somehow unseemly, and a fundamental belief that these things just don’t have much to do with the environment.
Break Through takes that belief and rips it up into tiny little pieces, then makes them into paper airplanes and fires them directly into the eyes of more traditional environmental groups. How does the book accomplish this? For starters, consider the following statement.
“Material prosperity is a pre-requisite for ecological concern”
To most traditional environmentalists this sounds like nonsense – environmentalism is supposed to arise from one’s deep emotional responses to the beauty and majesty of nature, right? If so, what does prosperity have to do with anything?
Rather a lot, as it turns out. A significant portion of this book is dedicated to demonstrating the fact that when people’s basic material needs are not being met, the environment is that last thing on their minds. They’re too busy putting food on the table, or trying to avoid being shot at, to worry about saving the environment.
Take Brazil, for example. This book does an excellent job of explaining exactly why saving the Amazon isn’t all that high a priority for most Brazilian people, and isn’t something that even those who do care can do much about. Here are the facts. Brazil spends the majority of its money servicing its foreign debt. The reason it does so is that the military dictatorship that ruled the country in the 1970s borrowed heavily from abroad. As it turns out, they borrowed more than they could repay. In 1982 the dictatorship defaulted on its foreign loans and rolled over its debts. By the time the rolling over was done Brazil found itself with massive interest payments to make. The country currently owes about $511 billion. The initial loans have already been repaid several times over, but because of the magic of punitive interest rates that doesn’t matter – Brazil still owes $511 billion to its foreign investors. What that means is that, even though Brazil has some of the most progressive environmental laws in the world, it can’t afford to enforce them. After making its loan payments it doesn’t have enough money left to guarantee the safety of its professional middle class. Mounting an effective resistance to deforestation is simply out of the question. Not only that, but the very industries that are destroying the Amazon actually help to generate the capital required to service the debt. In those circumstances, preserving the rainforest just isn’t going to happen.
Contrast this with statements such as that made by environmentalist John Terborgh, head of Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke – “Poverty alleviation if not what conservation is all about. It’s a different enterprise. It’s a separate issue.”
Is it really?
There is of course an alternative approach, one that doesn’t ignore the economic reality, one that might actually allow Brazil to do something about protecting its great national treasure – wipe out its foreign debts. Break Through throws out the following challenge.
“In calling for the elimination of the dictatorship debt, we are most definitively not calling for debt forgiveness, a concept that implies that the debtor countries committed some sin for which they should be forgiven. It is not the indebted people of Brazil who should be forgiven but those who blithely insist that the dictatorship’s debt is either moral or legal. Brazil doesn’t need our forgiveness. It needs justice to be served.”
And one has to ask oneself…why not? Do we really want the Amazon to be saved? And if we do, why aren’t we looking at impediments to its being saved right now and doing whatever is necessary to get rid of them?
The Brazil example, and the way the book addresses it, is a perfect illustration of the fundamentally different approach to ecology that the authors are suggesting. The old way of “doing” environmentalism, by viewing nature as something fundamentally separate from man that man is encroaching upon and by setting limits on that encroachment, just isn’t working. Consider this – the UN states that we would need an 80% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. So far none of the countries that signed the Kyoto treaty are meeting even the far more modest reduction goals that the treaty demands. What does that mean? At the rate things are going the UN targets are never going to be met. And then there are the developing nations, whose emissions are rising all the time.
Break Through has a lot to say about China and India and what their emergence as global superpowers means for the environmental movement, and many environmentalist aren’t going to like it. Activists who focus on anti-racism and global development, on the other hand, will probably find themselves nodding vigorously at statements such as the following.
“China, India, Brazil and the rest of the developing world will not agree to any international approach that constrains the economic aspirations of their people – nor should they. The average Chinese consumes 15 percent of the energy of the average American. It would be immoral to attempt to lock the developing world into energy penury.”
Herein lies the rub of the current approach to global warming on an international level – the message being sent to developing nations is essentially “stop”. It is constantly implied, or flat-out demanded, that China and India in particular keep their emissions in check, and if that means that they remain stuck at their currently underdeveloped level – oh well, sucks to be them! Western environmentalist simply do not seem to grasp the idea that this is simply not acceptable to the countries being told to make sacrifices that the already developed nations are not willing to make themselves.
This is the most important reason to read Break Through. It joins up the dots between what’s happening to the environment and the global anti-poverty movement. It doesn’t start from the assumption that some nations will have to make sacrifices in order to make things better for others – instead, it starts from the premise that people whose basic survival needs are being met have a lot more freedom to care about things like protecting the environment.
It also starts from a radical re-imagining of man’s relationship to nature. The traditional environmentalist viewpoint sees man as standing apart from nature – Break Through proposes a model in which man is a part of nature just like everything else is. This model is a major challenge to the view that most environmentalist have of nature as something “separate from, and victimized by, humans”. A lot of dedicated environmentalists aren’t going to like it, but this reevaluation of the relationship between man and nature is what’s needed in order for environmentalism to grow into something that’s actually relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today.
The old environmentalism is based on the idea that all you have to do is show people what’s wrong and they’ll fix it, otherwise known as the show people pictures of the cute dead baby seals and hope that they decided to drive their cars less approach. This approach has been notably unsuccessful so far. The new environmentalism being proposed in Break Through is about trying to find positive, creative ways of addressing problems. Reams of social research have shown that people respond better to positive approaches than to guilt – what this book is suggesting is that environmentalists harness that tendency and use it to get people excited about improving the world we all share.
Perfect example – Global warming preparedness, or as the book calls it”recasting global warming in terms of preparedness for natural disasters and extreme weather”. The authors created a proposal outlining their ideas for this in 2005-2006. The UN International Panel on Climate Change adopted a similar plan in 2007, with an “aggressive strategy” including building seawalls.
Many environmentalists resist ideas like this, on the principle that they represent accommodation. A perfect example of the leftist tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – and I say this as a person who was raised to be a leftist from the cradle. The problem with the accommodation argument is that it’s already too late to worry about whether or not we’re accommodating – climate change is already underway.
“Even if humans had stopped emitting greenhouse gases starting in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen announced to Congress that global warming had arrived, all of the changes today resulting from global warming – the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, the slowing of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, warmer ocean surfaces, and more intense hurricanes – would still be under way. There is so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that even if humans stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the planet would continue to heat up for several more decades and probably longer. As surely as the science of climatology tells us that the warming of the earth is caused by humans, it also tells us that a dramatically warmer and transformed climate is almost certainly inevitable.”
Given the choice between adapting and dying, isn’t adaptation the smart thing to do?
Traditional environmentalism has focused on the politics of limits – put caps on greenhouse gas emissions, only allow X number of people to visit area Y – and the pollution paradigm – one can approach the management of entire ecosystems the same way one approaches what goes into one small stretch of river. These approaches fail to engage the public, and they do not scale well to something as vast and complicated as climate change. Break Through offers a new way forward, an appeal to human potential rather than a scolding admonishment for corrupt mankind to leave nature alone, an idea which would be impossible to accomplish even if mankind were motivated to do so.
“The narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future. Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression and war. We can overcome ecological crises.”
People respond better to challenges than to guilt. This fact cannot be repeated enough, which is why the authors repeat is throughout the book. Simply withdrawing from nature is impossible – man does not stand outside nature. We have always shaped our environment in one way or another. The question isn’t whether or not we’re going to continue to shape our environment, its how. Like it or now we’re piloting the ship – the option to just step back is not available to us. Attempting to frighten or guilt-trip people into withdrawal from some imagined nature that does not involve mankind isn’t going to get the results that we need. The problem isn’t that people aren’t scared enough; it’s that environmentalists are so busy trying to convince them that things are hopeless that most of them are too depressed to even think about what they might do better.
“The problem is not that people don’t see the nightmare, but that they do not allow themselves to dream.”
If you have any interest at all in ecology, or in global development, read this book. It may not have all the answers, but it’s the first real attempt to start asking the right questions.
Friday, November 02, 2007
Via Something Awful…person wanders around Helsinki with a camera taking pictures of walking fashion disasters. I don’t mean just “that shirt does not go with those pants”, I mean DISASTERS.
The whole Hel-looks section is worth pointing and laughing at, but this one in particular caught my eye.
Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything at the time. I think the following quote sums up my feelings quite nicely.
Zack: Do you realize we're the last generation of people that didn't grow up with a manga aisle in our bookstores? There are people reading this born in like 1989 that see this picture and think, "I don't get what's wrong with that" as they stroke their ermine rabbit doll with monster hooters.
And the sad thing is that I LIKE anime and manga. I just don’t like what happens when socially maladjusted people base their entire lives around them.
I am mildly disturbed by the fact that I can actually visualize Bjork, who I adore, wearing something like this in a music video. Especially the fluffy hat/ears combo.
Nu rave and renaissance, the time of Christopher Columbus and baggy shapes inspire me - but always with a touch of Nazi Germany to avoid a too clowny and buffoon look!"
Um…this is his non-clowny look? Wow.
(PS Veronica, I know that you had the misfortune to work anime conventions once upon a time. This one’s for you, sweetie.)
Fair Warning - The links above lead to Something Awful, so I guarantee that there will be something crass and stupid and offensive in the comments somewhere (and my linkage does not imply that I endorse said comments). Just so you know.