When does heroism become folly? When does struggle become futile? When does surrender become liberation? When is enough, enough? Then what? These are just some of the questions that come streaming into focus from a poignant personal essay by Lynn Lau, a 37 year-old environmentalist who, after 21 years of conscientious effort, has finally decided to abandon her quest to “Save the Planet”. Her story is worth relating and pondering.
Lau’s essay recounts when, as a girl of 16, she stopped eating meat as her “personal contribution to reducing global carbon emissions” (Globe and Mail, “An Ecowarrior Retires”,
Nov. 6/12). Then her quest for a better environment escalated to writing letters, waving banners at protests, running for political office and donating money. She tried raising chickens, growing her own vegetables, cultivating worms in her compost, and adhering strictly to the principles of the 100-mile diet. She sampled communal living to reduce her ecological footprint.
When she married and had a baby, she used flannel diapers so they could be washed and recycled. And she even attempted to become a teacher, assuming her influence on schoolchildren would eventually elevate society’s environmental consciousness. Her conscientious efforts covered nearly half of the 50 years since Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring first sounded global ecological alarms.
And the result? Lau’s answer is a blunt assessment of the impact of her own efforts, together with the collective work of the army of environmental warriors who have been her companions on this quest to “Save the Planet”. Her conclusion is “abject failure”. Ecological deterioration continues largely unabated. The trajectory “over the cliff of our planet’s carrying capacity” has accelerated during the five decades of defining, measuring, documenting, predicting and talking, talking, talking.
Lau concedes that all this effort has “raised awareness” but admits to the “embarrassing” revelation that “solving the world’s environmental problem is going to involve something much more powerful than a magnanimous sentiment toward Mother Nature, no matter how widely felt.” In her opinion, “reverent feelings” and “useful tidbits about flora and fauna” are not going to meet the challenge.
Besides, she admits, “to be an environmentalist you need to be a misanthrope at heart”. You need to be “individualistic” and “distrustful of authority”, qualities that do not win the support of the general public. She hints that environmentalists have an impractical idealism that matches neither the profound complexity of the problem to be solved nor the fundamental change in attitude that an entire modern culture must undergo.
The other reason environmentalists are not going to be successful, she concludes, is that, “We live in a society that solves massive problems through the co-ordinated efforts of specialists.” Their expertise with satellites measures the general health of the biosphere while their detailed scientific study evaluates its specific health. Their vast digital networks are our communication systems. Politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, economists and others of many disciplines design, implement and operate the civic machinery that is the essential structure of societies. The business of humanity functions because of specialists. If “raised awareness” is not a part of this process, as she suggests, does this then mean that all the effort of environmentalists has been a waste of time and energy?
In the larger scheme of things, vision always precedes knowledge, just as information always precedes action. The “raised awareness” provided by all the effort of environmentalists is preparation for the work of the specialists. The “abject failure” described by Lau is merely the usual delay that occurs between understanding and behaviour.
This delay presents two questions. The first concerns the height to which “raised awareness” must rise before reaching a critical mass that is powerful enough to translate into action by the specialists. The second concerns people. Specialists are activated by political processes, when the collective will of the community directs the specialists to mobilize and correct an identified problem. We have not yet reached this critical mass of collective will. Confusion and ambivalence have not yet been replaced by conviction and resolution. We are still in at intermediate stage where environmentalists continue to raise awareness but their concerns have not yet translated into significant corrective action.
It’s helpful here to think of history rather than individuals. Lau’s sense of time moves faster than the slow march of civilizations. Her sense of frustration and futility is explainable and justified from her personal perspective. But the large change that she wants will require a paradigm shift, a wholesale adjustment in the way we collectively see ourselves and relate to the world. Not surprisingly, the momentum of humanity’s habitual behaviour doesn’t match her expectations. And she may be forgetting precedence. History suggests that humanity rarely acts with foresight.
Yet, despite Lau’s judgment of “abject failure”, she still offers hints of optimism. “I don’t know what specialists can save us from ourselves,” she confesses, “but I hope they’re out there, mixing intelligence and ingenuity with money, getting something accomplished on a really big scale.”
After 21 years of heroic effort she’s probably tired, disillusioned by the distance between where we are and where we need to be. Besides, she realizes she can’t get off the “sinking ship we’re on”. So, as she says, “I’m going to quit bailing for now and take a seat on the deck to enjoy the scenery.” She deserves the rest. And while she’s enjoying the scenery, increasing numbers of others will be bailing and raising awareness.