Bill McKibben, the firebrand leader of the crusade to kill the Keystone XL oil pipeline, is losing the battle for hearts and minds. Perhaps that’s why he sounds so depressed. One of the most environmentally friendly presidents is in the White House, and he still might not kill it off. “Go past a certain point,” warned Mr. McKibben in The Guardian, “and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit.”
Mr. McKibben knows as well as anyone that Keystone is merely a symbol in a larger battle. Whether or not it’s built will make no difference to the climate. One way or another, the oil will flow. The volume of crude oil transported from Canada by rail has been exploding – a net loss for the environment, by the way, because rail transport is far less safe than pipelines.
The McKibbenists face defeat at every turn. The Democrats are deeply split on Keystone, as they are on the desirability of hydrofracking. The Environmental Protection Agency has postponed new laws on carbon dioxide emissions. Worst of all is the growing number of people in the environmental movement itself who flatly disagree on tactics, strategy and goals.
Call them the pragmatists – the greens willing to settle for progress, not utopia. In January, the scientific journal Nature endorsed the Keystone pipeline on the grounds that there were bigger environmental fish to fry. Some environmentalists have even come out in favour of fracking, on the grounds that clean natural gas is better than dirty oil. Some are pro-nuclear. Environmentalists are even divided on renewables: Some are fans of wind power, while others think it’s an expensive folly that devastates rural environments and transfers taxpayer money to international corporations.
As Jason Mark writes in his article It’s Not Easy Being Green in the Washington-based magazine The American Prospect, “The biggest divide may be between those who would do anything to cut carbon emissions and slow climate change – going so far as to support natural gas and nuclear fuel, or even supporting geo-engineering and other controversial ideas – and conservationists who don’t want to trade one earth-damaging practice for another.”
But the biggest divide is really between the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists – between the McKibbenists, who believe we’re on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are.
Peter Kareiva is one environmentalist who says the movement needs a big rethink. He’s the senior scientist for the Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental non-profit in the United States. He argues that the purists have been terrible for environmentalism because they’ve alienated the public with their misanthropic, anti-growth, anti-technology, dogmatic, zealous, romantic, backward-looking message. (As a young scientist, he testified in favour of restricting logging to save the spotted owl. Then he saw the loggers sitting at the back of the room, with their children on their shoulders. After that, he became convinced that environmentalism wouldn’t work so long as it was framed in terms of either/or.)
“Conservation’s binaries – growth or nature, prosperity or biodiversity – have marginalized it in a world that will soon add at least two billion more people,” he and two co-authors write in a provocative essay, Conservation in the Anthropocene, published on the website of the techno-optimistic Breakthrough Institute. “In the developing world, efforts to constrain growth and protect forests from agriculture are unfair, if not unethical, when directed at the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day and the one billion who are chronically hungry.” The fates of people and nature “are deeply intertwined,” and environmentalism must “offer new strategies for promoting the health and prosperity of both.”
“Anthropocene” is a term that describes the age we now live in – one shaped primarily not by geology but by humans. Purists think this is a catastrophe, and want to repeal it. Mr. Kareiva says it’s here to stay, and we can shape it for the better by embracing, not rejecting, new technologies. He also says in his essay that “ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever.” But the evidence proves just the opposite. “Nature is so resilient that it can recover rapidly from even the most powerful human disturbances.”
Peter Kareiva and his fellow enviro-optimists are the key to saving environmentalism from terminal irrelevance. Global warming is the biggest case in point. The challenge is far too great to solve with carbon treaties (which are, in any case, politically impossible) or restraint. Just look at projections for energy use in the developing world, or consult any expert on how long it would take to wean the world off oil even if we found the perfect fuel tomorrow. The fixes for global warming will require dramatically different new technologies, and will only be available in the long term.
Meantime, the planet may indeed be more resilient than we thought. So, on Earth Day, please do something to improve your corner of it. And cheer up – the Anthropocene Age might be better than you think.
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