Finding My Way to Environmentalism

One of my earlier memories, about science or politics, was enthusiastically explaining to my dad that while we should stop using CFCs, we should also fix the ozone hole by sending up some high altitude planes and re-seed the ozone layer where it’s thin. I even drew pictures. Obviously, I was too young and ignorant to understand how hard that would have been. Thankfully, today it’s not nearly the problem it was due to a concerted international effort to restrict use of ozone-destroying chemicals. But I can honestly say I’ve thought of myself as some kind of an environmentalist for most of my life.

As I grew up, I became disillusioned with much of the modern environmental movement. Keith Kloor’s recent piece in Slate about the eco-pragmatists touches on a lot of why as an adult I found environmentalism so hard to swallow. Too often1 it seemed like environmentalism was rejecting the benefits of modern civilization. The answer to all environmental problems was for humans to leave nature alone, restrict our activities to use much less, and often even eschewing technology. But, I tended to argue frustratedly to my friends, human beings are nature. If a beaver dam is natural, then so is a human dam. There seemed to be no place for me.

For many years, my only real environmental act was occasionally supporting a politician or position that seemed to be reasonable (and I do mean occasional). Worse, if you search carefully you can find some very embarrassing things I’ve written. I can only plead youthful arrogance and a healthy dose of (self-maintained) ignorance2. I like to think I’m at least a little smarter now (and a bit less ignorant). I’ve realized I only have so much time to make some kind of difference in the world. The world is better than it’s ever been for human beings, but I should be helping make it better. A few years ago, I started donating money to organizations I think will make the world better. Recently I even took the Life You Can Save pledge. But one organization I started supporting was specifically environmental — I joined the Sierra Club because I thought they were effective politically.

But in September, I had a bit of frustration with them when I was surprisingly kicked off a mailing list. It showed the dogmatic side of some environmentalists. A fairly senior leader in the club tried to mediate the conflict (unsurprisingly my removal was against club policy). He was very good and positive about trying to find a solution, or at least help us all see other sides. But it was clear that no one was interested in re-considering the organization’s position on biotech. The senior leader (honestly going to bat for me as much as he could) clearly felt his energies were better spent elsewhere. That’s fine, of course. We must all chose our battles. But it was clear to me in private conversation with the biotech committee that there was little point in me trying to change policy there. He did ask me pointedly several times: what did I want to accomplish?

That’s a really good question. What do I want to accomplish? I don’t know everything I want. Obviously I want to help reduce our harmful impacts on the environment. I want us to actually do more about climate change. But those aren’t things any one can accomplish. But there is one thing I can (maybe, arrogantly) help with. I want the conversation to be better.

I want our conversations about environmental questions to be science- and evidence-based because I believe that will let us make the best decisions. Obviously our diverse values must be part of the conversation but real information is critical. Exaggerated or mis-reported facts cloud the discussion. They make partisans more partisan and de-value all evidence. The complexity of what we know (and don’t know) needs to be taken into account. We need to see why the other side sees the way they do. I want to see less scare-mongering3 and more respect for just how far we’ve come — cities are no longer as smoggy as they are, water quality is better, we’re getting better at reducing the impacts of our existence on other life. Most importantly, scaring people doesn’t make them act.

We need better conversations if we’re going to get anywhere. I try not to laugh when someone makes a particularly (to me) specious argument for some left-wing sacred cow. I need to ask myself why do they make that argument? What are they valuing? How can I help us talk about the real problems? Can we meet somewhere in the middle? I see Kloor’s eco-pragmatists as people who are generally trying to talk about diverse values and the complexity of evidence, rather than historical alignments. I like to think most of us want to be that way, even if day to day we easily align into tribal position-taking. That gentleman who tried to mediate between me and the biotech committee at the Sierra Club was really trying to get us to see that we can disagree and still get something done.

I think I will re-join the Sierra Club. We share some values and they do get some stuff done I want done. But I think the Nature Conservancy might get more of my money and time because they seem to be leading on putting more evidence into the conversation.


  1. Note this is partially the way the media portrays any conflict and not reflective of people’s actual beliefs.

  2. I will not link to them. Suffice to say if you find something and want to know my current position: please ask and don’t assume. Everyone is allowed mistakes no matter their age and everyone can think and do better.

  3. Scary stories are rarely as evidence-based as they should be.

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