Dear Umbra,

I’ve recently been debating my cousin about the merits of environmentalism, and he consistently attacks my positions by claiming that the studies that make the case that the environment is in trouble are funded by groups that have a vested interest in maintaining that position. In other words, groups that are devoted to environmental protection stand to benefit from people believing that the environment is in trouble. He also argues that the environmental movement has strong negative consequences — for example, the deaths in France in the summer of 2003 from lack of air conditioning (which were more attributable to lack of elderly care, but air conditioning would have unquestionably saved many lives), or the increase in highway deaths following the mid-1970s shift to smaller cars.

I take environmentally conscious policies as a given, and in a sense, that’s his point: that these arguments are grounded less in actual reasoning than in a “sense” that something is wrong, which leads to more harm than good. I don’t know that anything could convince me not to be an environmentalist, but this makes me feel even more strongly that I need better data to support my position. Can you give me some assistance?

Princeton, N.J.

Dearest Judd,

Wondering how to kick butt in

Environmentalism, like any -ism, is a philosophy through which we comprehend our lives. Being an environmentalist means we consider the environment in our thoughts and actions. Environmentalism is not monolithic, and it’s certainly not synonymous with believing that all aspects of modern life are destroying the planet. We contain multitudes, cousin.

But! Mustering an argument does feel gooood, and you’re right to want to do it well. Let’s see what I can come up with for you and your cousin. How about avoiding private and nonprofit groups in your discussions, and using instead studies by the U.N. and other international bodies that have no financial (or certainly no political) motivation to discover environmental problems? For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” Or take the United Nations Environment Program, which asserts, “If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.” Or how about my favorite confused agency, the Bush administration’s U.S. EPA, which can hardly be considered a hothouse of rabid, self-serving eco-heads, yet still voices serious concerns over issues ranging from acid rain to the loss of wetlands? A little browsing on sites like these will elucidate the issues and pack your argument quiver.

As for the world outside of governmental and intergovernmental agencies: I would venture to say that no reputable organization believes everything is hunky-dory with the environment. Even the World Coal Institute, to take just one example, acknowledges the problem by noting that “the industry is striving to minimize its environmental footprint.”

If quoting studies makes no impact on your cousin, there are always readily observable facts. In addition to whatever dedicated research you undertake, take note when you read the news. (Have you and/or your cousin signed up for Daily Grist?) The polar ice caps are retreating, for Pete’s sake. Diversion for irrigation has turned the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake, into a shrunken, dusty salt lick surrounded by people whose fishing livelihoods have vanished, whose ecosystem has mutated, and who are increasingly ill from the salt and pesticide in the air, land, and remaining water. Earth’s remaining forests are coming down at an annual rate of nearly 30 million acres. Have you been following the news on the Newmont gold mine in Indonesia? Thirty-three tons of mercury released into the environment over four years? Lots of sick people over there.

As those last two examples suggest, it is environmental degradation, not environmental protection, that places people’s lives and livelihoods at risk. In 1952, industrial air pollutants in London led to a five-day smog that killed more than 4,000 people. The resultant decades of legislative and other activities, have, needless to say, improved London’s air. There and around the globe, environmentalists are working hard to stop sickness and death: from smog-induced asthma, from climate-change-induced hurricanes, from pesticide poisoning.

As for France: As Bill McKibben recently noted in the pages of Grist, the deaths to which your cousin refers were caused by a heat wave and by the physical and social environment in which people were living, not by a line of environmentalists physically blocking the air-conditioning boutique. And why was there a heat wave? Why is weather getting so wacky? Tell your cousin to ask the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.