Different Approaches to Environmentalism

May 2019

I’ve been on a climate-change book-reading spree lately. Since March, I’ve read:

That’s not even counting books that are a bit about climate change. For example:

My goal has been to find a book I can recommend as a book-club book for Spaceship Earth, but I haven’t succeeded yet. Some books, like Uninhabitable Earth, are too gloomy and disempowering. Some, like Drawdown or The Weather Makers, are too dry. Some, like Inconvenient Sequel, are too rah-rah and sound like an infomercial (there are several section of Inconvenient Sequel that I would like to excerpt and redistribute, though). Falter starts out strong but manages to be both too unfocused, too gloomy, and too cheery at the same time.

A book that I really struggled with, and one that I’ve been cautiously recommending to a few select folks, is Climate: A New Story. For most people in my community, it’s a little too… umm… maybe woo? Or anyway I can imagine that it would create cognitive dissonance. It definitely did for me, which I enjoyed but I recognize that others might not enjoy.

Listening to Falter today, I came across a section that’s almost diametrically opposed to the Eisenstein book. In this section, Bill McKibben is gushing about solar panels, and how they are going to transform Africa. He follows a salesperson from a solar company as he goes to remote villages to try to sell the solar panels:

Fossouo was born in Cameroon and went to school in Paris, but his real education seems to have come in the seven summers he spent in the United States selling books for Southwestern Publishing, a Nashville-based titan of door-to-door marketing. (Rick Perry is another alum; ditto Ken Starr.) “I did Los Angeles for years,” he said. “‘Hi, my name is Max. I’m a crazy college student from France, and I’m helping families with their kids’ education. I’ve been talking to your neighbors A, B, and C, and I’d like to talk to you. Do you have a place where I can come in and sit down?’”

All selling, he insists, is the same: “It starts with a person understanding they have a problem. Someone might live in the dark but not understand it’s a problem. So, you have to show them. And then you have to create a sense of urgency to spend the money to solve the problem now.”

… This prospect is a farmer and a schoolteacher, and we settle down in his classroom, which has a few low desks with slates—literal shards of slate—resting on top. Max quickly figures out that the man has two wives, and he starts sprinkling their names liberally through the conversation. “There’s no pressure. It’s okay. I don’t want to sell you anything,” he says, as they move through the steps familiar to anyone who’s seen an infomercial.

… The customer is resistant, but Max tries angle after angle. “You have to think big here. When I talked to your chief, he said, ‘Don’t think small.’ If your kid could see the news on TV, he might say, ‘I, too, could be president.’” “This is great,” the man says. “I know you’re trying to help us. I just don’t have the money. Life is hard, things are expensive, sometimes we’re hungry.” Max nods, helpful. “What if I gave you a way to pay for it, so the dollar wouldn’t even come from your pocket. If you get a system, people will pay you to charge their phones. Or, if you had a TV, you could charge people to come watch the football games.” “I couldn’t charge a person for coming in to watch a game,” the man says. “We’re all one big family. If someone is wealthy enough to have a TV, everyone is welcome to it.”

It was super-interesting to read this section after the following section, from Climate: A New Story. I think comparing them will give you a sense for the different perspectives:

Economic growth means the growth in goods and services exchanged for money. Therefore, a remote village in India or a traditional tribal area in Brazil presents a big growth opportunity, because the people there barely pay for anything. They grow or forage their own food. They build their own houses. They use traditional healing methods to treat their sick. They make their own music and drama. Imagine the development expert goes there and says, “What a tremendous market opportunity! These backward people grow their own food—they could buy it instead. They cook their own food too—restaurants and supermarket delis could do it for them much more efficiently. The air is full of song—they could buy entertainment instead. The children play with each other for free—they could enroll in day care. They accompany adults learning traditional skills—this society could pay for schooling. When a house burns down, the community gets together to rebuild it—if we can unravel those ties of mutual aid, there’s a big market for insurance. Everyone has a strong sense of social identity, a strong sense of belonging—they could buy brand name products instead. Everyone is joyful and content—they could be buying a semblance of that through legal and illegal drugs and other forms of consumption.”

Okay, I’m getting a bit dizzy with visions of riches, but you get the idea. The question is: how are these people going to pay for all that? Easy. They earn money by converting local natural resources and their own labor into commodities. The rainforest becomes a palm oil plantation. The mountain becomes a strip mine. The river becomes a hydroelectric plant. The population abandons their traditional ways and goes to work in the money economy. A few become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The rest migrate to the slums.

In a nutshell, this is the process called “development.” It is what development loans have funded for more than half a century. It accompanies an ideology that says that money equates with well-being, that development along the model of the West is a good thing (or an inevitable thing), that a high-tech life is superior to a life close to nature. These assumptions are difficult to refute using logical arguments. Usually, shedding them requires spending time in less developed cultures, witnessing the joy and depth of aliveness there, and seeing their beauty erode as they modernize.

There’s definitely more to say about this, but I wanted to note this down while it’s in my mind.