I am a recovering environmentalist. I suppose I am still an environmentalist in a sense, because I seem to be one of the few people who are aware of the scope and imminence of catastrophic climate change. Shawn and Aaron have asked me to blog on environmentalism. Blog posts will not stop the coming ecopocalypse but perhaps they can change how we act as individuals. The question that I would like to ask you is: if you knew that stopping catastrophic climate change now was impossible how would you act? Would you continue to sacrifice your own well being for a futile cause or would you join me in a lifestyle of partyboat nihilism like most of your peers have?
A recent facebook argument I had with an old political contact, regarding an article he wrote about personal responsibility in matters of environmental catastrophe, seems to have inspired me. He said “Friends don’t let friends destroy the environment.” – I say “Friends don’t let friends tear themselves apart piece-by-piece to try to create a better world.
I recently purchased a new cell phone. The touch screen and battery on my old model had become nearly non-functional after two years of use. Planned obsolescence in consumer technology ensured that I could not replace the battery and that the fee to refurbish the tactile sensors in the screen vastly outweighed the cost of a new phone. This is one of the innovations of the marketplace that we are all party to- manufactured obsolescence– products that are designed to die after a few years of use. It’s good for profits. It’s bad for the environment.
Within 20 minutes of entering the Telus store -a private Canadian telecommunications corporation that along with two others maintains an oligopoly on the marketplace while using publicly funded infastructure- I had a brand new Galaxy S5 and a 2 year contract that will cost about as much as a new water well for an African village by the time I have paid each monthly fee.
In economics, the wells I chose to not finance are called opportunity cost. I value my own phone ahead of clean water for others. As do you, incidentally, if you own a smartphone but do not fund a humanitarian well. You also consent to our technology addicted society. Dirty water for others so that I can continue to check Facebook while stuck in traffic. While touring the mall, high on consumerism, I decided I would also buy a $2000 badass practical katana. Because what self-respecting doomsday nihilist such as myself doesn’t want a 45 inch forged steel blade sharpened to the point that it can slice off a human arm as if it were made of warm butter?
Returning to my pickup truck I placed the katana in the rear window as a warning to other Armageddon enthusiasts and chucked my dying cell phone carelessly into the back seat. Me and my badass sword are ready for the ecopocalypse.
Two days later, while checking Facebook at a red light, I saw that a dam burst at the tailings pond of the Mount Polley Mine in BC, an open pit copper and gold mine, and had sent millions of cubic meters of toxic waste into the local watershed, contaminating drinking water, and causing inconceivable damage to the local ecosystem. Copper and gold are two critical ingredients in cell phones and katanas. The light turned green. I shrugged it off, and accelerated toward the highway, off to BC for a weekend of mountain biking in Revelstoke. My lot in life is no longer to freak out when the captains of industry permanently poison the global ecosystem I am a part of. My lot in life is to go biking, buy badass swords, and prepare for the inevitable.
It’s not as though I am for the destruction of the natural environment. Nor am I totally turned off to the notion that actions of the individual contribute to that ongoing destruction. Though I might have giggled, just a little, as I realized the economic link between my personal actions, and the dam burst at Mount Polley, even though their order was flipped from my point of view. In this case, the ecological tab on my purchases had been paid in advance of the economic one. The dam burst was a direct result of my agency in the market, along with millions of other Canadian consumers who drive up the value of metals by purchasing vehicles, any item of clothing with a zipper, pots and pans, that coveted canteen that saves you from buying disposable plastic bottles and, yes, your cell phone. To which you are undoubtedly addicted. Which you use without ever considering the causal ties to events like the one which occurred at Mount Polley.
Even my Katana, which I will use to defend my life after the social contract breaks down in 2020, bears a cost far greater than the one listed on the price tag. The cost is recorded in the ledger known as our ecosystem, which keeps track of the physical debts of our collective lifestyle choices.
So why did I chuckle at the thought? Am I so dark inside that the notion of a herd of deer gasping as they collapse from exposure to man-made toxins in the wilderness of BC brings me mirth? No. That wasn’t the punchline.
Here is what I was thinking that caused me to laugh at the dam burst: Everything you ever enjoyed doing had an environmental impact of some kind. Your cell phone is a dead ringer. Your first bicycle. Every sports ball you ever handled. The condom you used to have safe sex last week. Everything in your life has contributed to the net total environmental devastation that YOU have heaped on the environment. And each tick on the ecological ledger could have been avoided, if only you had decided to forgo every luxury you have ever known. This is the ideological purity underlying environmentalism. From an economic perspective, it is almost impossible to argue with.
In that case, it is up to each individual to decide – not how much good she wishes to do by giving up certain luxuries to avoid their ecological toll – but rather how much evil she is willing to do for the sake of her own enjoyment. Time has an opportunity cost also, and every moment that we spend on ourselves is a moment that we do not spend on fixing the inherited problems.That’s the punchline. Everything we do, from the point of view of an environmentalist, is evil. There is no minimum threshold at which it can be said that you are ‘doing enough’ to be considered good. After you have sacrificed all that you can for the sake of your carbon footprint, whatever remains; any vacation, hobby and each granola bar you choke down, is one more thing you could have given up, sparing the world in some part from the forgone conclusion of ecological collapse.
No matter how green you think you are, the truth is you’re still admitting a massive blind spot regarding the impacts of everything you enjoy, while pointing fingers at the harm caused by everyone around you, and the industries that provide you with your brick of tofu, or your rubber yoga matt, or the bus you rode to Shambhala.
If you disagree with my conclusion, don’t worry. Those of us left behind will have lots of time to discuss it once the world ends.