“Who Cares?” Environmentalism on a Human Scale

Faces blasted with shrill air, ankles clad in snow and ice, many around the nation this winter witnessed a seeming reversal of climate scientists’ insistent, most dire warnings. Many a blogger and political cartoonist lampooned the predictions of climate science, pointing to the hoarfrost as evidence that global warming is, if not a hoax, then far less pressing a concern than we’ve imagined. In some ways, the climate debate has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that such quips can read as harmless jokes, the bone-shivering cold an irresistible target when we have come to expect record highs. Yet, at heart, these peanut-gallery protestations point to a deeper dynamic operating at the center of our society’s “climate debate.” The punchline of many a cartoon-strip from this January plays on the notion that direct, layman observation counters the absurd and abstract arguments of distant scientists. Beyond the polar vortexes, this notion has appeared time and again: in the debate over fossil fuel consumption, the operation of coal-fired plants, trash runoff into oceans, and beyond. Somehow, climate change remains of little to concern for almost half of Americans and invisible for 23% of the country’s population.[1]

This is, of course, an issue of scale, both spatial and temporal. While human lives and environmental degradation both proceed each day, the human scale is tied inevitably to what we can perceive directly. We sense changes either over short intervals or through distinct comparisons to past events (when we say, for example, that this winter is colder than last). Similarly, our senses only entitle us to a small window into the complex web of Earth’s natural systems. The instruments and methods that uncover these processes must abstract and quantify data in order to present them. As a result, there is a seeming fissure between how we live and how our planet operates on its largest scale.

At present, catastrophes seem the only way to bridge this gap on a large, public scale. Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City a sense of green urgency, and in its wake the Mayor’s Office has introduced a number of sweeping initiatives intended to reduce the city’s environmental impact. NYC Recycles appeared in April, 2013, and in December the city introduced a ban on the use of Styrofoam food packaging. These initiatives are laudable, but their arrival only after the hurricane points to a dangerous mindset that goes hand-in-hand with our general attitude towards climate change.  Rather than act to prevent disaster before it arrives, we only react viscerally to crises. Given a catastrophe on a larger scale, such a strategy is far from tenable.

Our crisis-minded approach and the immense scale of climate change are linked. How futile does recycling a cup seem when 1,000 new coal-fired plants spring up in China each year? The lack of large-scale impact of green efforts thus far can seem daunting and, yes, disheartening. Yet, seeing individual action as minute, incremental, and only effective in the aggregate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of environmentalism.

Certainly, the big picture remains important, and efforts in that arena shouldn’t cease. The end-goal of green activism and action, though, is to ensure the continued, self-sustaining health of our natural systems and environments. This goal has clear large-scale implications, but it also facilitates a reorientation of environmentalism as we imagine it. Ultimately, we are the beneficiaries of a cleaner, healthier planet. Conversely, environmentalism need not be only an abstract, global concern. Instead, we might imagine several scales, descending from global to personal, each characterized by their own sets of actors and actions.

What would personal, individual environmentalism look like? First, it would still be a lifestyle connected to larger-scale work. Recycling and turning off unneeded lights aren’t bad ideas. But, in order to be personally rewarding, more needs to happen on an immediate, observable level. One approach may lay in a combination of self-sustainability and the beautification of one’s own environment. In suburbs, gardens and ground cover can replace lawns. In cities, rooftop or window gardens are personal and communal endeavors. Both serve as examples of work that bring one into contact with the natural world. These allow one to view climate not as a variable on charts but as an element in life.

A lingering question is the value of this personal investment versus the returns of such activity. Global Green, where I intern, models a profitable, market-driven approach to environmentalism on a regional and national level. They show businesses that waste recovery and sustainable products are, indeed, valuable. Yet, what of the individuals at the end of each supply chain? Do such initiatives simply leave them disconnected to the greater issue at hand? Looking to a personal model, need monetary reward be the primary motivator? Though I applaud Global Green’s model, I’m left wondering how best to engender broad, personal investment in the environment.

Eric is a participant in our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship spending the year creating short films for Global Green USA and the Coalition for Resource Recovery. Read his previous post here.

[1] http://www.weather.com/news/science/environment/more-americans-dont-believe-global-warming-happening-survey-20140117