Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Suffering of the Species

David Suzuki is Canada's foremost environmentalist. Suzuki, the former professor, creator of The Nature of Things, and 2009 winner of the Right Livelihood Award is profiled in Canada's leading newspaper, the Globe and Mail, by Margaret Wente. In that article, Suzuki says the environmental movement is "dead" and "has been going backwards for 20 years" because they failed to deliver the message. Wente sees it slightly differently. With respect to messaging, she says that the fault of the environmental movement isn't that it failed to spread its message, it's that the people have heard the message and rejected it.  She compares the environmental movement, as it is currently formulated, to a doomsday cult.

Largely, I have to agree.  Not all of the environmental movement is a doomsday cult, but a disturbing proportion of it is, including much of what we see in this County. Fortunately, I believe regular people are increasingly rejecting the doomsday cult messages. The environmental movement is not to be confused with the environment itself. We can despise one and love the other, and more and more us are. The tactics and strategy of the environmental movement, which often amount to manipulation and control of the public will, are offensive. As a result, environmentalism is becoming anti-grassroots, and that is its death knell. Two linchpin environmental tactics prevent its further progress and create growing public animosity: (1) a reliance on central planning, and (2) an increasing reliance on "the Word."

One of the core weaknesses of current environmental tactics is that it has chosen to rely on central planning to achieve many of its most important objectives.  In fact, "central" may be a bit of a misnomer since these days the average citizen is bombarded with rules and regulations from innumerable authorities. While hardly "central" in that sense, all are armed with the planning ideology that we the people must get permission to conduct our normal affairs. Planners seem bent on proscribing everything, then granting permission for a subset of activities subject to their evaluation. This benefits the job prospects for government planners, but it ruins our free society.

We saw this philosophy on display during our Planning Commission's discussions about buffers for the wetlands CAO. The draft ordinance contained a list of activities allowed in buffers, with everything else prohibited. One Commissioner noted that the proposed approach was backwards and suggested the ordinance only list a few prohibited activities instead. Nevertheless, the motion was voted down because the majority felt that it would be impossible to list all the prohibited activities.

And so that puts most of what we do at the mercy of local central planners, and to work, it requires that planners know what they are doing, which is probably not generally true, as Lopezian Gary Alexander points out:
Part of Hayek's theory of the "fatal conceit" of central control is that real-life regulators lack the wisdom of Solomon. - Gary Alexander on Ed Dolan's blog
Hayek frequently made the point that civilization evolved naturally, without central planning, so why should we need it now? In fact, Hayek-inspired public choice theory admonishes us that public policy is not necessarily benign or precautionary, despite what CDPD or Ecology might want us to believe. Government intervention to "correct" an imperfect public policy situation can create even more failure than existed originally.

Our County's central planning is an ill-conceived mess, compounded by the know-it-all attitude (and know-nothing substance) of the participants and their supporters. That brings us to the second problem facing environmentalism today: increasing reliance on "the Word", which is the term I use to refer to the eco version of papal infallibility.

Eco infallibility says that, by virtue of their connection to the ecological spirit, we have to suffer that the eco-annointed are preserved from even the possibility of error and that they are all good.  The eco-Word message is relentlessly gloomy, with humans playing no beneficial role in this world and needing to be evermore restricted from interacting with nature. The Word is more important than facts that might contradict it. It is an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. Its sacredness is evident in the prohibition against questioning basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself.

The Word makes claims of airtight logic, of absolute "scientific" precision. It blends morality and science, and anyone who dares to criticize the Word, or even to harbor unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also "unscientific." The moral Word is reinforced by sharing in the rich and respected heritage of science.

If you think associating the environmental movement with the Word is over the top, you should read about some of the most successful environmentalists of our times, such as Kieran Suckling, one of the founders of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. He is often compared to a saint, such as St. Kieran or St. Francis of Assisi. His version of the Word impels him to alleviate the "suffering of the species", which he, apparently, is more in tune with than anyone else. Even his ex-wife refers to him using a religious simile:
“Kieran is like a monk,” says Suckling’s ex-wife, Stephanie Buffum. “He is not tethered on a daily basis to the same things that you and I are tethered to.” At once selfless and self-absorbed, he’ll give the sweater off his back to a homeless man, but let his renters live with a hole in the ceiling of their apartment. For Buffum, who directs a small environmental group in the Pacific Northwest, the end of their 9-year relationship came when Suckling kept forgetting to pay their insurance and electric bills. “I should have known when he was on the cell phone 15 minutes before we said ‘I do’ that it wouldn’t be easy,” she laments.
Stephanie may not think her ex-husband is "tethered on a daily basis to the same things that you and I are tethered to", but I have to wonder what she's tethered to? It's probably her own incarnation of the Word, and I reckon many of us don't want to be married to her version of it either, or to any of the imperfect central-planning acolytes with their conflicted intentions of selflessness and self-absorption.

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