Once, I went to a talk about deforestation. The speaker told a story about a grove of old-growth trees. “They were magnificent, enormous trees . . .” the speaker began. “We sent a letter to the government . . .” he continued. “But,” he concluded, “they were clear cut.” “Ohhhhhhh!” moaned the audience in apparent shock and dismay.
I, however, did not moan. I had predicted that the story would end this way. Most of the audience, I suspect, also predicted the story would end this way. I had heard dozens of similar stories that ended like this. Was it a genuine moan of shock that everyone let out in unison? Was the story really so stunning, so unexpected? Or was something else taking place?
Once, a grad student came to my biology classes to present his research on the Great Bear Rainforest. He presented many facts and statistics. But every time he stated an impressive fact, he’d smile at us sadly and shake his head in bewilderment. “They harvested 100 000 kilograms of salmon.” Shake, shake, shake. “The wolf population is dependent on salmon for food.” Shake, shake, shake. I began to wonder how he expected us to respond. Did he want a hug? Was he hoping we’d burst into tears?
There is something going on here other than the pure sharing of information or the expression of genuine emotion. The emotion feels manufactured. Perhaps it feels requisite. The emotional weight might feel manipulative as well, except that it’s often presented to a group who is quite receptive to this kind of talk, and responds to it by moaning in all the right places.
Most people would call me an environmentalist. I agree with environmentalist views. I worry about environmentalist worries. But however much I believe an idea or support a stance, I cannot bring myself to leap up in enthusiastic bewilderment and dismay, nor join in any weeping, praising, throwing of hands into the sky or other behaviour that rings as an affectation of evangelism.
Environmentalism is a movement that relies on science. For the most part, it is faithful to science. But movements produce cultures, and cultures have communities. People look for identity and acceptance. The trouble is that members of the community may lose their objectivity to questions, accepting the stance of the community majority, sans any real understanding of the science itself. It’s very easy to do.
There exist certain qualities of movements that trouble me. They are shared by subcultures and countercultures, by right-wing and left-wing persuasions, by religions, cults, mobs and political lobbyists.
When a speaker is not presenting new ideas, but rather familiar ones that the audience knows how to respond to, it’s a sign that a culture is nurturing its own existence, comforting its members. What do such presentations accomplish? They reaffirm that we are right and remind us that our opponents are silly. But the cost is that we turn off our objectivity and our capacity to question ourselves. They do not teach us any new ideas, nor even enhance the old, except to entrench us more and more comfortably in what we already believe.
This is so common. Most of us don’t realize how common it is. Around here, we mock it when we see it in religious or politically conservative communities, yet replicate it in left-wing, counterculture, environmentalist or feminist forms. We believe that since we preach tolerance, justice and sustainability, we may use the same group-mentality and intolerance to opposition found in the groups we oppose.
Once a movement begins to focus on insulating itself from the threat of challenging ideas, it becomes dogmatic, oppositional, one more inward-looking island in a sea of non-communication. Each shares the common trait of believing its cause so uniquely moral that it justifies acting the way others may not.
This wasn’t really a commentary on environmentalism. The specific movement is less important than we think. It’s dangerous to forget that.