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Green and blue

I remarked to a friend that on Sunday mornings my wife and I listen to NPR's environmental program Living on Earth. "My, what a cheerful way to start a week" he quipped. Environmentalism has created a public perception of itself as a home for the chronically depressed. When one thinks of environmentalists, one thinks of the stock cartoon character standing on the street corner with a sign that reads "The End is Near!"

Most articles on the environment are like reports on the last days of a convict facing execution. At the end of your typical nature documentary you are told that everything you have enjoyed seeing is doomed. The essayist William Kittredge has critiqued eco-tourism because the assumption behind it is to see the wonders of nature now, because they won't be around much longer.

I consider myself a rock-ribbed, to-the-bone environmentalist. I avoid like the plague most environmental articles and other media reports. There are an infinite number of things out there to get depressed over. I can only take so much. If this is my reaction, how do we expect ordinary people to react?

We are bombarded with deadlines for enacting changes in civilization on the order of the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. If we do not cross the border into Ecotopia by June 5th, 2015 we can hang it up, go home and call the Hemlock Society for advice. We are told constantly that we are the playthings of the market, of megacorporations that dwarf nations in power, and irreversible processes of environmental destruction. Not since the Middle Ages have the weak seemed so weak, the strong so strong, or fate so cruel in its certainty.

At the center of the malaise is the fact that in order to miss the very big bullets that are headed our way, we are going to have to pull off some pretty significant feats of social change. We live in a time when the very idea of progressive social change has been repudiated. This is a time when even the mildest of reforms seem to be wildly utopian.

The task of redeeming the environment cannot succeed unless we redeem the idea of social change, and deliver the message that human beings can change themselves and the world for the better. Those advocating change have always fought the odds. Social change is never practical until it happens. Yet it has happened. We live in a world today that is probably more tolerant, humane, democratic and environmentally conscious than it has ever been. We can thank the activists of the world, past, present, and future for that.

An environmental movement that is apocalyptic will fail. Movements triumph on hope. Established regimes triumph on fatalism, resignation, and despair. Optimism, as anarchist writer David Graeber has said, is a moral necessity. It is also a political necessity. We are not going to make the needed changes by terrorizing people with visions of doom. We can make the needed changes if we speak to people with respect, inform them of the dangers we face and provide a compelling vision of a better life in an environmentally sane and socially just world. If we do our work, we will be amazed at the ingenuity people will apply to achieve that world. That world will be built with hope, not with despair. It is time to retire the sackcloth and ashes.


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