End of an Era: Mat McDermott Shares His Favorite TreeHugger Moments
Dear TreeHugger readers, you've no doubt noticed some changes on the site in past weeks, like the removal of the "a Discovery company" text underneath our logo, for example. You'll notice other changes coming as well, one of which being that you won't be seeing any more pieces under my byline. That's right, I'm moving on from TreeHugger.
In the interest of leaving you all with one final message, I'd like to round up some of what I think are some of the most important issues I've covered in my time here. So, with no further ado, let's have at it.
Jon Knox/CC BY 2.0
Taking a page out of the playbook from the fight against apartheid in South Africa, 350.org is leading the effort to get colleges to pull their investments away from fossil fuel companies, hopefully sending the message that dirty old polluting ways are no longer acceptable.
This is one of the most important steps the green movement has taken in recent years. This fight, to move away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, to push fossil fuel companies to either change their polluting ways or eliminate them entirely if they won't, to curtail the deeply damaging influence these powerful corporations, beholden to nothing but their profits, is the fight of our times. Make no mistake about it.
Carbon NYC/CC BY 2.0
Back in 2011, prior to the COP17 climate talks, I posed this question to readers. With the poor outcome of COP18 just a couple of weeks past, and even further evidence that we've pretty much run out of time to avoid a good deal of dangerous effects from climate change, the question of what does environmentalism do now is even more important than ever.
The odds are very good that we won't prevent dangerous climate change. We won't keep atmospheric carbon levels below 450ppm, let alone the safer 350ppm.
We in the environmental movement really ought to consider this, consider it publicly that is (I know we all talk about this privately), as a very real eventuality and start talking about what comes next. What are we going to do? What are we going to recommend people do?
Sure, climate adaptation gets discussed all the time, and some money and resources does get allocated to it on the international level, but not enough. Not enough mental and emotional resources get devoted to adaptation either, or at least in anything other than a sky-is-falling, the-end-times-are-seriously-fucking-nigh sort of way.
And sure, there's plenty of virtual and physical ink expended on solutions to climate change, to adapting to a resource constrained world, et cetera, etc. But at least to me it seems like most of the time these things are presented in an abstract way, or an in the future sort of way.
Well, the future is now.
Part of communicating how to best deal with our environmental problems is understanding how people connect to the world around them. Far too often we throw more and more facts around, hoping that the weight of data, of rational explanation will win the day. It won't, at least not by itself. We're emotional beings first and foremost. It's something Steve Jobs understood, even if he applied this understanding in a different context.
At the time of Jobs' death, I wrote:
Our connection to the world is emotional first, intellectual down the road someplace, and then probably emotional last as well.
How best do we encourage people to have that sort of loving emotional relationship with the world around them?
Cultivate love; cultivate compassion; cultivate that all important emotional connection which Jobs applied so well in the field of technology. Apply that to environmentalism, be it on a global or local scale, and the outward trappings of a low-carbon, eco-friendly, ecologically and social sustainable society will fall into place naturally.
If I were writing this piece today I wouldn't of phrased it as a question. The movement to make ecocide a crime against peace under international law, led by UK-based lawyer Polly Higgins, as well as efforts to grant legal rights to Mother Earth, such as Bolivia has done, is exactly where we need to be going in terms of the highest level of environmental thinking: Recognizing that destroying whole swaths of the planet, with little to no concern for the effect on all the creatures that live upon it, is not just unethical, unacceptable behavior, but is also a crime, a crime against humanity, a crime against life itself.
Andy Roberts /CC BY 2.0
This was one of the first interviews I did for TreeHugger. It remains one of my favorites. If you're not already familiar with Speth's work, it's high time that you become so. At the time Speth was the dean of Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. I asked him about his then latest book "The Bridge at the Edge of the World."
One of the questions I asked gets at what I think is one of the most important questions we need to answer, what comes after capitalism:
You talk about the need to get beyond capitalism, but on TreeHugger when I bring up that idea, even in an offhand remark, I often get accused of advocating communism, socialism, or that we should all be grubbing around in the dirt for grubs wearing rags. You say specifically what comes next is not socialism. So what comes after capitalism? What would that economic system look like?
First we need a lot more work in that. We need a lot more envisioning. We need a new story that pulls us together. I think my book has made a contribution, but we have a long way to go. We need an alternative conceptualization of what the economy is really all about.
I'm attracted to the phrase "sustaining economy": The economy should really be our instrument for sustaining communities, for sustaining human welfare, and for sustaining our natural environment. The economy ought to be structured and organized and geared to be a sustaining economy. Right now the economy really exists for its own sake....for the sake of the powerful. It doesn't exist for our communities. It doesn't really exist for us. We have to struggle to get human values injected into this huge growth machine...
But has the economy ever been different than this? Existing for the powerful? Is this any different than at any time in history?
Well, you know, I'm no historical anthropologist... But I would say that right now the good people of France are a lot closer to thinking in these ways than we are. I don't know the situation intimately, but I do know that their protections in the labor force, their opting for leisure time, taking care of each other in health care systems, in things of this type, in education, is much deeper than ours is.
Capitalism and socialism are both concepts about the ownership of property. That struggle about who's going to own the property is less important now than the struggle over what's it all about. Who is the economy serving, really? That's less a matter of ownership as it is who is being provided for by the economy, and they're related...
Satish Kumar is one of my favorite environmental thinkers and writers, so I was thrilled to get a chance to interview him this past April.
I asked Satish about his assertion that speed is a curse of Western civilization, one that is being spread around the world, and how we can convince nations like India and China to go down a different path.
The pace of industrialized civilization, materialism, has been set by the Western countries.
When, after the Second World War, President Truman stood up and said the world is divided into two parts, the developed world and the under-developed world, the developed world is defined by industrialization, urbanization, high technology and the under-developed world is the world of agriculture, people living by crafts, handiwork, living in villages.
In this way we created propaganda, a brainwashing. All our education is brainwashing children in India, in China, in South Africa, in Brazil. They are brainwashing them to think that if you live by the land, if you live by the sun, if you live by water, if you live by nature, you are backwards, you are under-developed. If you live by fossil fuel, if you live by cars and airplanes and computers, then you are advanced and developed.
This brainwashing has come from the United States, from Europe, from Japan. This is now spreading, like a cancer, to China, to India, to Africa, to South America.
If you want to change this, to say that you don't want this industrial mindset, you want to respect nature, you want to have a dignity in growing food, then we have change that in the United States, in Europe.
You can't ask China not to do what we are doing. How do you change China's economy, and India's economy, unless you change the US economy? Our work is not in China or India; our work is Japan, in America, and in Europe. This is why I am from India, living here, producing Resurgence magazine, to change our consciousness and mindset.
We want to say you have to give dignity to work, to growing food. In England now you can have 2000 acres and not make a living. But if you work in a bank you get millions of pounds. If you work on the land you get a hundred pounds a day. If you work in a bank you get ten thousand pounds a day. Why is growing food, working on the land, so lowly paid, but working in a bank is so highly paid? Our values have to change. This has to change in America, in Europe, before we can expect this to change in India, in China, in Africa.
One final thought, related to all of the above: If we are to succeed in this movement to redefine humanity's relationship to the world around us, including to each other, then we really ought to take heed of research showing the transformative power of activating positive emotions. Unfortunately too much green media (myself included sometimes) can't seem to engage other than in negativity.
Commenting on some work by Barbara Fredrickson, back in June 2011, I wrote:
No doubt all of the issues that we are trying to make more people aware of, to cajole more people to take seriously, all of them are serious and grave and shocking and dire and at times downright face-palm smacking annoyingly depressing in that there are probably twelve or so civilizationally threatening areas of crisis that all have to be solved concurrently if humanity has a chance at surviving at current population levels and with something even resembling a shadow of the standard of living the average TreeHugger reader currently enjoys. Phew. The weight of just writing that induces sore shoulders.
And though it may be tempting to think it an overstatement, if anything it's an understatement, if we are to place any stock in the scientific method and scientific community.
By choosing to portray these issues as negative rather than presenting them as opportunities for truly radically evolutionary change, to cultivate compassion, patience, gratitude, by playing into people's fears, insecurities, worries and by too little emphasizing genuinely positive emotional responses the environmental community is just activating ways of thinking that stifle the very creativity and openness to new ideas that is needed in this hour of human need.
But we keep activating the negative, even the best among us--from trying to jar people with headlines of shocking new studies, talk about the dire state of ecosystem x or species y, the tragic state of political corruption, the outrageous way people over there are treating their animals, the horrible things climate change is going to force us to do.
Its not that many environmental issues aren't shocking, dire, tragic, outrageous and horrible. It's just that while these emotions have their place, in the long term they aren't as effective and lasting motivators for the personal and systemic change we need as encouraging the development of internal transformation, of compassion, gratitude, and contentment.
Compassion, gratitude, contentment.
Mat McDermott was a TreeHugger senior writer from 2008-2010 and editor of the business, politics and energy categories of the site from 2010-2012. Read the rest of his archive here: Mat McDermott: TreeHugger. You can continue following him on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr.