Earth Day 2001

By Mark Wegierski
Volume 11, Number 3 (Spring 2001)
Issue theme: "George W. Bush, last Republican president? And does it matter?"

This past April 22 was the thirty-first anniversary of Earth Day. The first Earth Day, which took place in 1970 and capped the ferment of the 1960s, arose from the efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson and involved some twenty million people in the United States. Senator Nelson writes at the Wilderness Society website, "After all, a nation's capital (its wealth, so to speak) is the air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity. Take this away and all you have left is wasteland." The Wilderness Society says, "Our goal is to ensure that future generations will enjoy the clean air and water, wildlife, beauty and opportunities for recreation and renewal that pristine forests, rivers, deserts, and mountains provide."

It is unfortunate that in current society there is such a massive "disconnect" between the various ecological, population control, immigration, and national identity issues. The British political theorist John Gray (formerly at Oxford, now at the London School of Economics) has argued for more convergence of profoundly ecological and profoundly traditionalist thought - "an agenda for Green Conservatism." The themes considered below, seen as the main "forces that drive this world," are discussed in a way that hopefully moves beyond conventional definitions of Left and Right.

The common attacks on ecology by the right wing, their derisive attitudes to so-called "tree huggers," their harping questioning of the massive, well-documented impact of many types of pollution and environmental destruction, and their embrace of growth mania and economism are clearly insalubrious. At the same time, the unwillingness of many left-wing environmentalists to contemplate issues of population and immigration control is unhelpful to truly saving the environment. There also occurs the vesting of all notions of ecological goodness onto Third World populations, whereas the reality is that Europeans are usually far more concerned with ecological issues and environ-mental preservation today.

Technology: Everyone knows about the colossal impact of computers and the Internet. What about cloning? What about genetic engineering? What about nanotechnology and computer-based artificial intelligence (AI)? What about chemical and nuclear pollution? Technology has been driving forward in a surging progression that only appears to increase, the further on it goes. It may appear that people themselves have long ago lost control of it. According to ecological thinkers like Arne Naess, the technosphere is devouring the ecosphere. Canadian philosopher George Grant has argued (following the ideas of the French critic of technology Jacques Ellul) that the cumulative, dehumanizing effects of previous advances in technology will tend to impose on human beings the ways in which any new technology will be developed and used. Bill Joy, chief software architect at Sun Microsystems, has warned of the possible perils of AI, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering in the April 2000 issue of Wired.

Overpopulation, Urbanization and Migration: People are living in larger and larger cities, whether in North America, Western Europe, the former Eastern bloc countries, the Third World, or East Asia. They are also moving around the planet far more than at any other time in history. The diverse, crowded-together urban environment is one that usually undermines attachments to traditional family, country, and religion, and also places great strains on natural systems. Mega-urbanization, environmental degradation, and mass migration are predicted to be the major components of "the coming anarchy" (Robert D. Kaplan).

Media and the Consumerist message: Now becoming increasingly electronic, mass media are tending to establish themselves as self-contained, borderless, worldwide empires and virtual realities. With the abandonment of "bounded horizons" (F. W. Nietzsche) or of rooted, reflective particularity (Edmund Burke), and the embrace of polymorphous limitlessness, it truly is becoming "a world without boundaries" (a favored slogan of so many advertising campaigns). The information traffic most people are caught in today tends to create a postmodern blur. It is a global empire, not a "global village" (Marshall McLuhan). There is occurring in the media a corporate and consumption-driven "colonization of the lifeworld" (Jürgen Habermas) - for example, the frenzied pursuit of "cool" through commodity-fetishism (now focusing not so much on the physical product as on its image, brand, or label). American pop-culture becomes the global culture. A low-grade English pushes out other languages, which often appear - with all their distinctive formality - far less suited to a hyper-technological world dominated by consumer-tribes. Everyone knows who the pop star Madonna is, whether they want to or not. Even many highly traditional societies appear unable to resist these kinds of pressures. As we are "amusing ourselves to death" under the "technopoly," there is now occurring "the disappearance of childhood" and "the end of education" (Neil Postman).

Tribalism: One of the major responses to the loss of traditional outlooks today, tribalism is expressed in fervent religious or ethnic fundamentalism. It also appears in North America as ethnic separatism. This is the multifaceted and many-colored "Jihad against McWorld" (Benjamin J. Barber).

Violence: This is an element occurring in nearly every part of the world, from L.A. gangs to Bosnia to Colombian druglords to Russian Mafia to Rwanda and it generally is growing worse. In nearly every part of the world, sovereign states are losing out to informal and irregular groupings and widespread corruption tending towards "Brazilification" (Douglas Coupland). There is a multi-dimensional assault against the traditional nation-state. As the nation-state appears unable to cope with civil conflict, it is even less able to defend the environment.

How might it all end?

Look at the world portrayed in Ridley Scott's dark-future movie Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Read Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (film by Stanley Kubrick). Read William Gibson's Neuromancer, the classic cyberpunk novel, portraying a highly polluted world ruled mostly by mega-corporations. Earth's future is very unlikely to resemble the cheery, techno-utopia portrayed in Star Trek.

What can we do about it?

Stop the wheels. Embrace the idea of limits in an out-of-control world. Embrace being, not having. Love nature and your roots. Become involved in your traditional heritage, but in a reflective, not fanatical, way. Try to read more serious books, especially those related to your own roots and history. Consider beginning or building on a religious engagement complementary to your roots and heartfelt spiritual longings - while eschewing fanaticism. Try to reduce the number of hours you watch television. Don't try to turn your computer into another television. Use the Internet mostly for serious e-mail and research, not graphical amusements. Become involved in ecology, but in a constructive, not hysterical, way. Make conscious decisions to reduce your consumption and enslavement to fashion trends. Consciously resist total immersion in pop-culture. Try to combine love of your own heritage, country, and local community, with love of nature as a whole. Insist in public discussion that politicians begin to take these concerns seriously. Begin sending letters to the editor, and writing your thoughts and ideas down. Join with people who feel as you do.

A saner, safer, less hurried world - "of less noise and more green" (J. R. R. Tolkien) - may somehow be brought into existence.

About the author

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based historian and writer who frequently contributes to The Social Contract.