Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Trouble with Enivronmentalists

The other day I was having a conversation with an Economics major who was becoming interested in environmental careers. I encouraged him, noting all the important things someone with a background in economics could do to help people and the environment. He was happy to hear this and explained that he used to think of environmentalists simply as people with protest signs who chained themselves to trees and tried to preserve remote ideals. (My mind immediately went to the spotted-owl controversy.)
I have encountered this view of environmentalism on more than one occasion and I think that William Cronin, in 'The Trouble with Wilderness' really helps to explain why this is not the proper way to approach environmentalism. Personally, I believe human suffering should be addressed before anything. But it is in maintaining a healthy planet that we can best alleviate and prevent suffering. As Cronin points out - we are part of nature. Agriculture, pollution, and disease are all environmental issues that directly affect humans. However in my view, conservation is equally important. And while the latter issues tend to be politically popular to address, conservation seems to be met with more resistance. I argue that conservation is just as much a human-related issue as pollution, disease, etc. As Cronin notes, life will go on, with or without us. Conservation is about protecting the planet in a state where humans can flourish - a state most likely similar to that in which humans evolved, which includes lots of 'natural' land to recycle our wastes and provide us with food and clean air. Thus environmentalists, including conservationists, are not simply tree hugging protesters (not to say I don't hug trees from time to time); to me, environmentalists are people who are concerned about people and importantly, humanity's future


Laura Martin said...

I still get called a treehugger by my conservative family on occasion! :)

It's true, there is a definite stereotype of "what it is to be an environmentalist"-- a subject that Cronon has written extensively on (see new post).

I had a question on one point-- "Conservation is about protecting the planet in a state where humans can flourish - a state most likely similar to that in which humans evolved" Humans have evolved to be habitat generalists-- able to live in a wide range of climates and conditions. How would one decide to manage for a state which is closest to that in which we 'evolved' in, and would it really be best to return to a pre-industrial state?

Megan said...

All I really meant by that is that there IS no way to know exactly how much we can change the world and still expect it to support us. I am not advocating a return to a pre-industrial state but rather suggesting that we should 'proceed with caution'. In a lot of ways, we have already gone over our carrying capacity (perhaps). I mean, for example the World Health Organization reports that approximately 3.7 billion people are malnourished. In order to avert further catastrophe I feel like we need to be aware of the things 'nature' provides for us - climate regulation, waste recycling, food, etc. and do our best to conserve and protect the resources that provide us with these things.