Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shades of Green

"Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill."
- CEO Nwabudike Morgan, "The Ethics of Greed" (from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri)

Tonight is Earth Hour, and being that it's a well-publicized pro-environmental initiative, you don't need to look hard to find people opposed to it - not just indifferent to it, but actively inimical to it. I first heard about "Human Achievement Hour" via The Age of Melbourne, which reported on the Conservative Leadership Foundation's drive to bring it to Australia this year. To put it bluntly, "Human Achievement Hour" is a massive "fuck you" to Earth Hour that "salutes those who keep the lights on and produce the energy that makes human achievement possible." They go one further with one of the posters they offer for download, exhorting "Don't be stuck in the dark with the communists. Turn your lights on!"

It's illustrated with a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula, pointing out that "freedom hating communists in North Korea don't have lights." I suppose whoever designed this was too stupid to remember that China, right across the border from North Korea, is also a communist state and yet still has plenty of lights on. Besides, it's been twenty years since the Cold War ended - appealing to the communist boogeyman demonstrates, in my mind, that this campaign is meant to appeal to the older, more established sections of society, who have a great deal invested in the status quo.

This sort of thing is only going to become more and more common as the years go on, and as more people of my generation - many of whom actually recognize that climate change is not a bed of roses - start to gain prominence and power in society. We've only seen the warm-up yet; the "business as usual" crowd that currently dominates global politics has not yet had to reckon with actual resistance to their policies. I wrote about this earlier this month, and I've since been tossing around ideas since for how environmental politics might develop in the twenty-first century. If nothing else, I'll most likely find use for them my 2070s-era sf setting.

I still believe that at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, some event is going to take place which takes a lot of wind out of the sails of those who believe climate change isn't happening at all - I'm betting on an ice-free Arctic, pictures of which might launch a new environmental awareness in the same way that photos of Earth taken by Apollo astronauts helped launch the modern environmental movement. As far as environmental politics go in the twenty-first century, I see two concepts representing the opposite sides of a spectrum: enviroprotectionism and envirodominionism.

Enviroprotectionism is simple to understand, as the environmental movement has always lived on this side of the spectrum. At its core, all else being equal, enviroprotectionism prioritizes the protection of the environment over purely human interests - for example, the stability of the Niagara Peninsula's microclimate, or the funding needs of urban transit systems, being more important than the effect a Mid-Peninsula Highway would have on traffic congestion. Enviroprotectionists would not have built the endless tracts of suburbs that exist in North America today owing to the manner in which they disrupt local environments and foster dependence on polluting vehicles to get around.

Still, there's plenty of room for difference from today - in my mind, moderate and conservative enviroprotectionists would have no problem with nuclear power generation to combat the greater environmental threat of fossil fuel-based power production. Extremist enviroprotectionists would advocate a return to pre-industrial society, incapable of harming Earth further with its pollution, and living harmoniously with nature in small communes where people die of old age at 35 due to the lack of technology necessary to support the kind of lifespans we've become accustomed to - though they wouldn't talk about it in those words, naturally.

Envirodominionism, named from Genesis 1:28 ("And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"), is the other side of the coin, and is the natural place I imagine current climate change skeptics migrating to once they decide that "global warming is good for the soul." All else being equal, envirodominionism prioritizes purely human interests over environmental protection, and ours is a world in which envirodominionism is on parade. It's arguable that envirodominionism is the natual state of humanity, recalling a time when life was hand-to-mouth and there was no time to spare about worrying for tomorrow. You see it in places like Indonesia, which is one of the largest carbon dioxide emitters in the world thanks to the amount of forest cover that is burned down to clear land for agriculture.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of envirodominionism as legitimizing acts of callous environmental destruction; people are not four-color villains. While envirodominionism prioritizes human interests, liberal envirodominionists would (hopefully) recognize that a robust environment is in humanity's best interest - that it's better off for civilization to make sure that the environment can continue to deliver the services we've come to depend on, rather than damaging it to the point where civilization has to manage those services itself and pay for the privilege of doing so. Liberal envirodominionists probably wouldn't have built North America's suburbs as they are either - not out of any deep concern for the environment, but for the foolishness of burying prime agricultural land in concrete.

Still, there would be extremist envirodominionists too, which would be where you'd find the Captain Planet villains on the spectrum. Extremist envirodominionists wouldn't be actively trying to destroy the environment - they'd just be thinking of the achievement of humanity, and would go no farther - but a long enough period of consistent management by extremist envirodominionists would probably result in something like a Warhammer 40,000 forge world, a planet whose biosphere has been completely destroyed due to neglect and industrial development.

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Both sides would look at this in different ways. For enviroprotectionists, it means that a stable environment is, in the long term, of greater social value to more people than whatever might have been built. For envirodominionists, who might well downplay the potential consequences of severe climate change, the opportunities for development they embark upon would ultimately be of greater economic value. I think that the conflict between these value systems, or systems like them, may well become one of the defining characteristics of politics in this century.

Just as long as they don't stoop to calling each other "freedom-hating communists" or "capitalist swine."

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