Friday, February 13, 2015

Species of Environmentalist

Had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone from my Environmental Literacy class about the different kinds of environmentalists. It is a fantastic class, and one of the most interesting meta-aspects of it is the diversity of perspectives.

My friend with whom I spoke is a dyed in the wool Environmentalist. Loves the outdoors and hiking, idolizes John Muir and Aldo Leopold, etc.

On the other hand, I am going to be an engineer and my particular fascination is with the built environment. My friend finds it peculiar that people like me, who are not particularly outdoorsy, who emphasize the value the environment gives to humans rather than its intrinsic value, make up the majority of the class, and that most of our discourse centers upon nature in relation to what it gives humans.

On the very first day of class we discussed values: should we want to save the environment because it's the environment, or because it gives us utility? As with most of our more philosophical discussions, the question went unresolved.

We did determine, though, that most people do not share that much in the "land ethic" and so a utilitarian point of view will get more support. But is there a difference between what is practical and what is right?

Perhaps there is. Perhaps people should want to treat the environment well because they love nature. I personally am rather fond of nature, the ocean in particular, and environmental beauty and majesty is a worthy motivator.

But survival is more important.

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Sustainability is about self-preservation. Sustainable development involves the environment, economic state, and equity. I would try to optimize on all three fronts, and that might mean sacrificing some environmental goals.

"You're more likely to contribute to sustainable technology than to write a poem about Aldo Leopold."

Yeah, that's true. But I have written poems about nature; as a kid I would dream of living in wilderness; I could have turned out one of those dyed in the wool environmentalists who know every bird, every tree.

I'm half kidding. I think the "problem" with people like me, as people like my friend would see it, is that I care about the environment in the abstract, in general, as a system that supports and is supported by life. Yes, I have a favorite tree, but I have not climbed it and built a house among its branches. I cannot identify birds by song. One stream is as good as any other.

That means I can think about the environment in terms of an optimization problem. Its value is not infinite, even if many other variables have a large dependency on it.

Maybe I am hopelessly anthropocentric, maybe I am just wrong. Maybe I am just another narrow minded engineer all too caught up in human systems.

I don't know. I have a lot of good friends whose appreciation of the environment and of nature goes a lot deeper than mine does. Other friends see it as background, a pretty backdrop to the intricacies of human life.

The military should breed environmentalists. Renewable energy links directly to energy security. Climate disruption will ratchet up geopolitical tensions. Resource scarcity and the shifting of prime agricultural lands bear on our international strength. Who knows if five star generals read Muir? Their driving motivations are national security.

We should all care about the earth beneath our feet and the air which we breathe, and our reasons for caring will change over space and over time.

Perhaps I am a bad environmentalist. Perhaps, in that case, I will evolve.

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Have a good weekend.

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