I speak with Gary Patton about environmental activism and how to make a difference. Gary is an environmentalist extraordinaire: he was elected to the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors when he was 29 years old and has fought for many important issues since then as a political representative, environmental attorney, and educator. He publishes a blog and radio podcast, and is unafraid to think Big Ideas. We talk about the importance of local politics and community activism, whether it’s best to create change from within or without, and how to engage more people in the political process. Have a listen.
Claire and I spoke with Nick Caleb of Our Children’s Trust about youth suing governments for not addressing climate change. The legal theory is called the Public Trust Doctrine, which holds that certain natural resources are public and must be protected. The doctrine is generally accepted in contexts such as rivers and navigable waters, and Nick and his colleagues want courts to apply it to the atmosphere. We talk about the strategy of using kids as plaintiffs, the difficulty for judges in deciding a “political issue,” and how cutting edge legal campaigns such as this one can create social change.
Claire and I interviewed ecologist Doug McCauley to talk about how to value ecosystems. Should we value them based on the ecological services they provide? If natural systems are economically useful and valuable in their natural state, we might have a better chance at preserving them. Can we conserve nature by putting a dollar value on it?
Have a listen.
Here are my takeaways from the conversation:
- If we as individuals find nature to be valuable for non-economic reasons, we should expect our political discourse to refer explicitly to such values too.
- We can avoid framing the discussion in terms of intrinsic vs. extrinsic values by focusing instead on nature’s non-economic value to us. Conservation can be valuable to us for non-economic reasons: it is aesthetically important, we enjoy being in it, it links us to the past, to other species, etc.
- Conserving the natural environment has historical value. We too often forget that the built environment is a very recent one. We’ve lived in it for only a sliver of our evolutionary history. By conserving natural areas, we preserve a link to the past. History can be empowering. By remembering that the way things are is not the way they’ve always been – and therefore not the way they must be in the future – we remember that we have the power to change the present. This environment that we find ourselves in isn’t necessarily “the best of all possible worlds.” It’s one possible world among many.
- The best way to ensure that our society values nature and wildspaces for their intrinsic, aesthetic, or joy-making possibilities is to imbue our youth through education and real experience in the outdoors. While this may seem like a simple idea, it is a necessary element that needs to find a place in our current academic community.
I recently spoke with Emily Brady of the University of Edinburgh about the aesthetic appreciation of nature. We talked about the sublime, which is that feeling you get when you are standing before something much bigger than yourself. That something could be a mountain or a skyscraper, making me wonder whether the sublime is really just a feeling of “wildness.”
We might not find as much beauty as we’d like in the man-made world, i.e. the very environment that supports our civilization and dwarfs our bodily and intellectual capacities. But perhaps we can find the sublime. Perhaps we can view it as a wilderness of sorts. An environment of awe-inspiring places and objects.
We recently spoke with Jon Christensen of UCLA who thinks that John Muir’s legacy is outdated. Cynics might think it’s because the future is bleak and it’s hopeless to keep chasing after the preservation of huge swathes of untouched wilderness.
But that would be missing the point.
More has changed since Muir’s time than the state of the environment. Our relationship with the environment has changed, too. Even the “We” has changed. California is not what it was when Muir first explored the Sierras. It’s a culturally diverse, technologically-advanced place. It’s a place whose inhabitants interact with the environment in a myriad of ways – including new, previously-unimagined ways.
The problem with Muir’s legacy is not that it’s old. Or that it’s no longer feasible. Or that it’s no longer good. It’s that it overshadows other forms of nature appreciation.
Beneath Muir’s legacy is a diverse understory of perspectives on nature.
I was surprised to discover a fourth “R” lurking in the phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle.
I don’t know if it was there all along, or if it was recently added. Perhaps someone can find out and tell me. Either way, it got me thinking about our culture’s obsession with refusal. Of the four R’s, it seems to be the most popular. Or the one we spend the most time thinking about. For those who refuse, it can take up a lot of their thinking, eventually becoming part of their very identity.
We see refusal most clearly in our relationship with the environment of food. This may be the most intimate of environments – our very bodies. Not the outward appearances of skin and hair, even, but the dark space inside us. Into it we drop things: baby carrots and graham crackers and slices of other animals.
Peter Haff is an earth scientist who thinks that technology has become an autonomous system: the technosphere. This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a real, physical thing. And he’s begun identifying rules that describes its behavior.
Read his article and listen to the conversation (coming soon) that Matt Luedtke and I had with him. There’s some big ideas here, but it’s head-scratching stuff. And it sometimes borders on the sci-fi. Are environmentalists really serving the technosphere’s interests by preventing its demise? Is the best solution to pollution an increase in energy use? Does the technosphere (and other systems) have a purpose?
I’m left with these takeaways:
- We need to better understand technology, and do so in a holistic, systems-based way. Prof. Haff says that our current, popular idea of technology is similar to the way people viewed biology before the concept of “the biosphere.”
- If we recognize the technosphere as a real thing, this would alter the way we view environmental problems and – as a result – the potential solutions.
- If humans are dependent on the technosphere, we need to re-think environmentalism to consider the needs of the technosphere, and do so in a way that is consistent with human happiness.
- Environmentalists need to formulate a vision for the future that is dynamic. The current idea seems to be a static picture of nature-human coexistence…a Garden of Eden before the fall. Prof. Haff reminds us that the Earth is a chaotic place, prone to disruptions and crises and flux. How can we imagine a future that is possible to pursue and worthwhile to do so, yet takes into account inevitable change and evolution?