Monday, 4 December 2006


James Lovelock, one of my favorite eccentrics, is at it again:
Lovelock's most compelling point is his critique of environmentalism as a new urban religion, composed of elitism and a misplaced longing for a simpler life mixed in with a neo-Luddite fear of technology. The greens, and he still claims to be one, proffer the "illusion that if the whole earth was farmed organically all would be well." --from Scientific American
I agree with the sentiment. Not that I’m not an adherent to this “urban religion,” minus the neo-Luddite portion. It’s just that much of my present unease with the environmental movement stems from the conflict between the overwhelming number of green choices I can make every day and the limited time and resources I have to make them. There are some sacrifices I would be quite unwilling to make to green the planet—giving up my computer, for example. It is conceivable that I will put off replacing my current model for an additional year. My five-year-old titanium PowerBook still runs great, it has more power than I need (adventures with Mathematica notwithstanding), and besides, it's quite distinctive now than no one else has one (and since I scraped all the white paint off). Unfortunately, restarting is becoming a bit nerve-wracking--it often takes several tries and several minutes. I’m starting to eye other computers these days, and even Windows laptops--particularly tablets--are looking mighty tasty. Once Leopard is out... I'm not sure I'll be able to help myself.

My point, back before visions of MacBooks began dancing in my head, was that there are some elements of my lifestyle that are likely here to stay. One of them is my addiction to rare-earth-element-containing electronics. Stipulating this, and also allowing for my tiny financial resources, I still face a large number of green tradeoffs every day. It’s great that I am made aware of a lot of them without much effort on my part, but it’s still hard to choose which ones I should focus on.

A jingle from my childhood goes, “brown eggs are local eggs, and local eggs are fresh!” I’m not sure what color has to do with locality, or whether the same holds true for a major urban area like Toronto, but I am certainly aware of the “eat local” movement. The argument is that the environmental cost of bringing apples from New Zealand is high enough that we should just give up on apples in the off-season and stick to local orchards and farmer’s markets for our apples. How can we possibly evaluate the environmental cost of an apple? It’s a massive systemic issue leaking into nearly any imaginable area. Large-scale efficiencies of agribusiness are eliminated when we rely on farmer’s markets. Local blights are magnified rather than absorbed. I might use more fossil fuels driving my car (if I had one) to the farmer’s market for my four apples and three tomatoes than is expended on all the ships and trains and trucks that bring bushels into supermarkets (I’m missing a citation, here—I know I read this somewhere, I just don’t know where). Certainly transportation is just one cost to consider. There are similar tradeoffs associated with globalized markets, monocultures, fertilizers, pesticides, recycling, public transit, and anything else you might think of. Which are really better: paper bags, plastic ones, or those fabric types that greens reuse every trip? Paper bags are biodegradable, possibly recyclable, and certainly renewable. Plastic bags stick around for thousands of years except where recyclable, and they are decidedly not renewable. Fabric bags are reusable, biodegradable, and renewable. Seems like we have a winner... but we haven’t yet considered manufacturing costs. All three require substantial amounts of water, with attendant heat pollution and trace chemical pollution. It's too much work to find out the answers for all such questions given the vast number of products I touch or consume every day.

And so, I am mistrustful of pat answers, or of absolutes of any kind. Environmentalists who favor one-issue solutions are just as guilty as their opponents of separating human beings from our environment--they just want to replace one "unnatural" system with another--one that satisfies a certain green aesthetic.

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