What If Every Environmentalist is Actually Wrong?


Image credit: TheGiantVermin, used under Creative Commons license.

When I asked whether organic eggs taste the same as regular eggs, commenter Grouch kindly noted how important it is to be constantly "examining and testing one's assumptions and beliefs". Others, however, seem to disagree. My recent posts on meat eating—most notably my piece on why vegans are welcome to call me a murderer—drew some people to argue that I was just using TreeHugger to "air my dirty laundry" and ease my repressed guilt. Nevertheless, I side with Grouch on this one. Unless we all constantly test our beliefs and assumptions, the green movement runs the risk of becoming the niche, fringe phenomenon that many detractors claim it to be already. All Environmentalists Pick Sides
All too often, even within the environmental movement, I find people taking "sides" over whether this or that approach is the strategy that will help wean us off fossil fuels, halt global warming or reverse the ecological destruction we see around the Globe. Whether it's green traditionalism versus eco-modernity, veganism versus a reduced meat diet, or no growth economics versus clean development.

The list is endless—and there are many good, important and worthwhile debates to be had about the merits of each. And it is good to have opinions and to make decisions based on those debates—we're just more likely to make the right decisions if we approach them with an open mind.

Any One of Us Could Be Wrong
What I object to is the idea that any one of us has the answer, or that we at least can't for a minute entertain the notion that we might be wrong. We know for a fact that the future will look absolutely nothing like the past, and if we're going to figure out a way to meet the environmental and social challenges we face, we're going to need to cultivate new thinking to meet these new times. I'll revert again to a quote I used in my post on the green movement and Saul Alinsky:

"...I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated."

We Believe Those Most Like Us
To make matters worse, as commenter Ruben pointed out in my post on why environmentalism cannot be a lifestyle choice, divides are only exacerbated by the fact that we all choose to believe those sources who are "most like us" whether ideologically, culturally or politically—and we often actively disbelieve facts if they are presented by people we don't identify with.

Self Reflection is Not A Lack of Conviction
The only danger comes when self-reflection becomes a refusal to decide. Many climate skeptics, for example, will point to Al Gore's statement that "the debate is over" on climate change as an example of a lack of self-reflection or the dogmatic nature of the environmental movement.

The fact is that climate change has been constantly, carefully and thoroughly picked over by the most self-reflective institution there is—peer reviewed science. (And claims that the peer review process is irreparably flawed have been unconvincing to say the least. From my opinion, that is...)

A declaration that "the debate is over" is not a refusal to consider compelling new evidence, were it to be presented, but rather a pragmatic position that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence points to one particular and alarming reality. Until such a day as new evidence tells us otherwise (and I for one would love that to happen), we would be fools to keep rehashing the same arguments as an excuse to avoid action. Might we be wrong? Yes, it is possible. Do I think we are? Heck no.

By all means let's be decisive, forward-looking and ambitious. But let's never stop asking ourselves whether we are headed in the right direction. The future is too important for us to be stubborn.

More on Environmentalism, Sustainability, Communication and Strategy
To Be Effective, Environmentalism Cannot Be a Lifestyle Choice
Environmentalism: Movement, Ethic, Philosophy or What?
Disasterbation Turns You Blind

Tags: Activism | Ethical | Global Climate Change