What will environmentalists be up to in 2016? Spur more carbon reductions, clean up the Bay, affect the vote?
It’s impossible to forecast, mainly because “environmentalists” don’t exist. Not the way you’d think, given the usual news coverage.
In 2015, you may have heard environmentalists were out in force. They stopped a big pipeline, impeded off-shore drilling and pushed for strong climate summit action.
You may likewise have heard they destroyed jobs, threatened market values, brainwashed a pope and upset Jesus.
But rarely did any version of the news explain who “they” might be. Who constitutes this ominous troop of crazy-folk, alternately wrecking economies and watchdogging the planet for us while we go to work and do chores and cheer for basketball teams??
“They” is nobody.
In half a lifetime of conservation projects and meetings, public hearings and creek cleanups, I’ve never met An Environmentalist. Nobody I know claims that label.
No academic program turns out certified environmentalists. People you’ll meet with environmental engineering or environmental science degrees are as likely to work for gas companies as this vague “environment” we figure that somebody official is monitoring.
The unpaid people actually pulling trash out of rivers, protesting a pipeline or boycotting Monsanto are more likely your neighborhood gardener, some schoolkids, fishermen, farmers, business folk and grandparents who want some brook trout and bees to survive them on this planet.
And there’s the difference.
Living people care about particulars, not abstract ideas. They love their kids, their granny, a mountain—not a boring abstraction called “Environment.”
“Humans,” when you restore a live root to the word, really are made of “humus”—the living compost of millions of years of life, stardust, seasons, rocks, light, water and fire.
It’s natural, then, that we’d relate to the tangibles around us as well—a familiar bright kitchen, cider and pie, the old coon dog Zack and his ornery ways.
We care about our work, some bluebirds in June, string quartets or polka bands or fishing on a beloved riverbank, watching our troubles float downstream into the pink summer dusk.
No lawmaker would dare say that concern for these tangibles posed a threat to Jobs and the Economy, American Prosperity or any other enshrined abstraction.
But replace that kitchen, coon dog and riverbank with the word “environment” and poof—the brain collapses. We’ve never seen “the environment,” haven’t been there, never tasted it fresh out of the ground or heard it sing in the school recital.
This makes it easy for big-polluter coalitions to disjoin our own lives from that remote “environment” and more easily undo the water and air protections impeding “our freedom.”
Factor in constant special-interest spin about “radical environmentalists” and that scary “long-arm-of-the-EPA,” and we might readily agree that protecting “the environment” is indeed un-American. Certainly the fate of such an abstract no-place is immaterial to ourselves.
All this hot air clouds more than our understanding of reality. George Orwell wrote, in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” that such word-mangling has the power to corrupt entire societies.
If words are vaporous enough (Regulatory Overreach Protection Legislation, Defense of Environment and Property Act), nobody will know what they mean or give a darn, and all kinds of charlatans can scoot their self-interested agendas through the public system.
And we collude, Orwell noticed. We ourselves parrot this vague political gibberish (“faith and freedom!”, “defending America!”) because it’s easier than inquiring into reality ourselves or exercising any logic.
But cutting through this verbal fog to find some terra firma is not that hard.
To locate that phantom “environmentalist,” for instance, or “the environment” of newsfeed fame, requires only a look around. That’s what the root word “environ” means: the circle around you.
Notice your own warm kitchen, a sweet steam of stewed apples on the stove, the living lights in your family’s eyes. “The environment” infuses all of these.
Take a wider look around the place where you live—the fresh cold breathing ground, the pale faraway ridges, low creek bottoms and distant rooftops and, on a starry midwinter’s night, the vast dome of our majestic universe all around..
Who’s here in the midst of so much life and splendor flowing through your own circuits? That would be the only environmentalist you can expect to respond to the place in 2016.