Forget the whales -- save the Earth

Environmental IssuesConservationWeatherGlobal ChangeEcosystemsDeathPolitics

ENVIRONMENTALISM is dead.

True, there are plenty of events Sunday marking the 38th anniversary of Earth Day. But most of the causes Americans associate with traditional environmentalism — recycling, cleaning up a local waterway, protecting a piece of open space, saving an endangered species or even cleaning up the air — well, they're pretty much irrelevant now.

It's not that such green activism is ineffective (as two progressive activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, asserted in a provocative 2005 white paper, "The Death of Environmentalism"). My point is more basic. Environmentalism is dead because the vast majority of environmental causes simply don't matter any more. They don't matter in the way that holding a full house doesn't matter when the guy across the table is holding four aces.

Traditional environmental concerns have been trumped by a single, overriding problem: global climate change. Henry David Thoreau asked, "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"

Environmentalists today face a similar question. Why fight for a local or even national cause when a global change could erase any victory? Preserving a beach ecosystem becomes meaningless if the coast is obliterated by a rising sea. Putting polar bears on the endangered species list is risible if the Arctic ice cap melts away to nothing each summer.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool environmental activist, that funny feeling you have is the ground shifting beneath your feet.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes building two new dams in the Sierra, as he did in January, and argues that if California is going to have enough water, they are necessary to compensate for an expected reduction in the state's winter snowpack, how is a good green to respond?

Once upon a time, there was no target so quick to be challenged by the Sierra Club & Co. as another dam — and these dams certainly will be challenged. But Schwarzenegger is right; we should be doing what we can to prepare for climate change, and while I don't know if those dams are a good step, I do know that the governor's argument signals a new, brutal calculus for environmentalists.

Already, old-school environmentalists Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and Stewart Brand, who created the Whole Earth Catalog, have embraced nuclear power as a lesser evil than climate change. Are environmentalists entering an era of wrenching hand-wringing as they choose among evils?

I hope not. Instead of triage, the right response is to accept the hard truth that the only thing that matters is controlling global warming and preventing catastrophic climate change — and then to fight like never before to do that. The dedicated, single-focus activists who make up so much of the environmental movement may, in the future, still be able to save the redwoods, or the Mexican gray wolf, or the whales — but only if we save ourselves first.

It is ironic that what's killing old environmentalism — so long derided by its critics as elitist, fringe and special interest — is a problem that is, at last, both universal and personal for every human on the planet. Climate change makes moot past environmental issues precisely because it isn't about an obscure species or remote place. It's about us, and our fate. It is about the real possibility of the unraveling of modern civilization. When a cause becomes the central concern of a society, it ceases to be a cause. It becomes an organizing principle for an era and its people.

Environmentalism may be dead, but we're all environmentalists now.


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