Environmentalism should look in the mirror to find the source of its troubles.
Hi … my name is Jeremy Carl, and I’ll be guest-blogging here for the next couple of weeks.
I’m currently a Visiting Fellow in resource and development economics at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, India. I spent several years in the private sector and then a few more working with various environmental organizations in the states before moving here, where I spend my time researching and writing about various aspects of the enormous environment/development conundrum in India and China. In the fall, I’m leaving India to head off to Stanford to do a doctorate, continuing the work I have begun here.
For now, I’m going to use my bully pulpit to talk a little bit about my frustrations with our movement, where I think we are going wrong, and hopefully, what we can do to get back on the right track. I imagine I may tread on some toes — but I hope we can have a spirited and respectful discussion.
I think modern American environmentalism commits two deadly sins: First, we are way too focused on domestic problems (thinking only locally and acting only locally). And second, I think environmentalism is far too monolithically liberal, which both hurts us politically and also impedes our ability to come up with good policy solutions. I’ll focus on the first problem today and the second in a follow-up tomorrow.
What most interested me about the "Death" debate was how much of it took place within a set of agreed-upon assumptions, both stated and implicit. I’d like to challenge some of those assumptions.
It’s not global environmentalism that needs to die — it’s American enviroliberalism We need an environmentalism that is global in outlook, non-partisan, and inclusive, welcoming participants with a wide variety of political views. We need our romantics and visionaries, but our dreamers can’t treat the facts as an unwelcome inconvenience.
If American environmentalism ignores the problems of most of the world and the views of more than half the political spectrum, I can promise you it will die, and even those of us who love nature and want to preserve it will not be crying at the wake.
Our lack of global perspective is reflected in the projects undertaken by American environmental groups. Sadly, most concentrate on fundable NIMBAC (not in my backcountry) projects, an ignoring far greater crises abroad that are not as likely to attract funding dollars. I once worked at Environmental Defense, one of America’s most prominent green groups, and while we did a lot of important work, international projects were a very small part of our portfolio — partly, I suspect, because funders weren’t all that interested in them.
Here in India, when people stop to think about the environment, they worry about local problems that get short shrift from American environmental NGOs. The main reason I came here to work is that India has environmental (and economic) problems orders of magnitude more serious than those we face in the U.S. My first several months living in Delhi, I coughed almost continuously due to the extreme air pollution, estimated to kill upwards of 10,000 Delhiites each year.
When American green NGOs do turn their attention to countries like India, they often supporting the wrong people. Take Vandana Shiva, India’s best-known environmentalist, regularly feted by green groups and universities in the U.S. Shiva has crusaded tirelessly against the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased crop yields and kept millions of Indians from starvation, in the process saving millions of acres of Indian wilderness from the plow. She continually makes reckless accusations and vents against the “capitalist patriarchy.” And despite the obvious benefits most Indians believe globalization has brought, she has been a leading anti-globalization activist. She continually argues for “local” solutions, which, while sometimes appropriate, are often far more environmentally destructive than global best practices (such as her advocacy of planting local rice strains that have lower yields and require more water than non-Indian varieties).
As one critic of Shiva’s noted, “Maybe those actually raising crops and feeding their families know something about agriculture that Shiva and her fellow activists don’t.” In the eyes of many Indians, Shiva is a direct contributor to increased poverty. With friends like that, our movement doesn’t need enemies.
Shiva, while herself a (wealthy) Indian, typifies all too many American environmentalists’ patronizing and romanticized attitudes towards the global poor, who, rest assured, are overwhelmingly eager to leave their “authentic” and “simple” low-technology lives for a world of air conditioners, automobiles, and other resource-consuming conveniences that make life in the West so comfortable.