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Real Environmentalism: Pro-Nature, Pro-Man

Guest Column
Daniel R. Feldman

In response to Matt Craighead on April 13 [“Bush’s Environmentalism: Anti-Nature, Pro-Man”]:

What can I say? You hit the nail on the head: we environmentalists are anti-human, anti-business, and in fact, we’re opposed to everything that’s good and wholesome about this world. Our petroleum-run economy is the best thing that’s ever happened to this world, and yet we environmentalists can’t stand it. When we see eight-ton sport utility vehicles that are more elements of conspicuous consumption than actual vehicles, we gag. When we look at the fast-food, throwaway, television way of life that is the ultimate truth of our society, we are revolted.

It leads me, and it might lead Matt Craighead to wonder: why would such a group of firebrands be so diametrically opposed to all that is holy in America? Is it a sense of contrarianism that compels us to shudder at strip-malls and coal power and oil drilling? Is it the need for a sense of doom that pushes us to believe that consumptive human practices will lead to global catastrophe? Or is it a sense of nostalgia for the sixties when free love ruled and anti-establishment philosophy reigned?

Perhaps we environmentalists are a bunch of kooks looking for a problem in our all-too-perfect society of consumption. It is possible that there is a screw loose somewhere that hinders us from being able to enjoy what all Americans take for granted: the God-mandated requirement that we are personally responsible for the maximum usage of resources. If an American wants to take a whole case of napkins to wipe his or her hands, then he or she should be able to; if an American wants to buy a 60-ton tank that gets three gallons of gas to the mile and drive it to work, nothing and nobody should stand in his or her way; and if an American feels like killing off the last of the bald eagles to grow more McDonald’s beef, then he or she should be empowered by our society.

From my perspective, however, being an environmentalist does not equal being a misanthrope, and Craighead’s argument ignores the fundamental tenets of environmentalism. We environmentalists believe that responsibility and foresight are virtues which are sometimes ignored in the extraction of resources, the destruction of environments, and the emission of air and water pollutants. To that end, wildlife destruction, air and water pollution, activities that lead to global warming, and the expansion of consumptive practices is that this way of living is fundamentally unsustainable: by perpetrating irresponsible environmental practices, we set ourselves up for a resource crisis that is more horrible than most of us can imagine. By clear-cutting the forests for their lumber, strip-mining the land for coal and other natural resources, casually spewing pollution into the air and water, and the like, we are doing excessive and unnecessary violence to the very thing that is essential to our continued way of life and survival. Consequently, environmentalists feel that a sustainable lifestyle is much wiser because it enables us to avert the environmental disasters towards which we are heading.

In addition to the aesthetic affront associated with environmental destruction, there are many frightening practical environmental losses. The realized consequences of irresponsible environmental practices would be disastrous: deregulation of water and air pollution would have massive health consequences, especially for children and elderly people. The extinction of species would lead to an undeniable ecological impact on the world, and in the event of a loss of species, we can only hope that the ecological impact will not severely destabilize our food chain. The most extreme impacts, however, would result from global warming. New figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate the average earth temperature to rise by several degrees over the next century. I truly fear the consequences of such a result, for such a change in temperature may seem small to most people, but it would cause massive changes in climate systems leading to untold desertification and coastal flooding. Also, many temperature-sensitive species of animals and plants would become extinct, while there would be massive displacement and starvation of human populations. To ignore the fairly-conclusive scientific data in exchange for the economic, social, and political gains over the next century is to invite disaster. But by making lifestyle modifications sooner rather than later, it is possible to avert these disasters, at least partially.

Fundamentally, environmentalists see the world that we live on as large but finite, mighty but also fragile. Our overbearing lifestyle is reckless in its usage of resources (America consumes about twice as much energy as everyone else, we drive far more miles than any other country, we consume about twice as much water as the next-most water consumptive country, and we produce more municipal trash than any other citizenry; and that’s on a per-capita basis) is one that is not suited to the world in which we live. There are too many people and too few natural resources on the planet to allow six billion or so people to live the lifestyle that we do. Some might contend that this is just a consequence of us being industrialized, but if one compares our consumption to that of other developed countries, one will find that we are infinitely more voracious. Then, some will argue that we are reaping the benefits of being the world’s leader and superpower, and that people from other countries are just unlucky. Fortunately, I do not even have to address such an inappropriate usage of quasi-patriotism to justify an irresponsible lifestyle by which we egocentrically feel that America is somehow better. Environmentalism looks toward sustainability as the answer: each human will have an impact on his or her environment, but by conserving resources and limiting general environmental impact, it is possible for us to live more sustainably.

Environmentalism is not a misanthropic philosophy; rather, environmentalists seek to live more responsibly with respect to the world by showing Americans that their current lifestyle is truly unsustainable. Some at MIT believe that the advent of new technology will be our savior in terms of providing better alternatives to the current standoff between consumption and sustainability, but in lieu of a series of panaceas which address each of our environmental conundra, let us recognize the limits of the world around us, let us realize that we are both directly and indirectly responsible for environmental destruction, and let us endeavor to live within our means for the long run. Responsibility, sustainability, and foresight are virtues.

Daniel R. Feldman ’02 is a member of SAVE, MIT’s student environmental group.