A polar bear clings to earthen rocks instead of ice

ScienceJuly 1, 2019

An apology from an environmentalist

A polar bear clings to earthen rocks instead of ice

I have worked for the last 15 years or so as a professional in various parts of the environmental movement. And I’m sorry.

I was one of the people who told you changing your light bulbs or buying organic couscous would make things OK. I was wrong and I knew I was wrong at the time. I was one of the people who wrote about the successes of the charities I worked for. I knew full well that we were losing the natural world hand-over-fist. 

I started working for my first major environmental NGO in 2003. I translated the stuff the wildlife boffins were doing into stuff people give money to. The boffins wanted to post out their PhD thesis with an invoice. The fundraisers wanted to send ransom notes with “give us the money or we mince the panda.” I wanted a proper job. I wanted to build myself a future. So I tried for some sort of compromise. 

I flew to the Amazon. I helped investigate a new road for trucking the rainforest out and turning it into toilet paper. I flew to Borneo. I visited the orangutan our donors could adopt. It wisely threw its own shit at me until I went away again. I racked up more CO2 emitting air miles with environmental NGOs than for any other reason.  

I moved to New Zealand and got married. I worked as a fundraising consultant for several global NGOs. I wrote green sections for magazines and newspapers. I saved up for a house. 

In all of these jobs, my bosses told me I shouldn’t scare the horses; I shouldn’t tell the full truth of the encroaching horrors I researched all day. Otherwise, people might give up or — in other words — stop sending us money. 

I complied. I wanted the money. And I’m sorry. 

This is what most of the environmental movement has become. It is one of the major reasons it has failed. I am not about to bore you with page after page of evidence. It’s self-evident. Approach any news channel with any kind of honesty and it will show you the failure with constant updates of catastrophe after catastrophe. 

Being honest about this feels like a kind of heresy. Even now I am using a pseudonym so I can keep my day job in another environmental organisation. That should be a major warning sign. When did reality become so unpalatable that we shouldn’t tell people about it? Since when did so many of us need to be treated like children? Why do those of us who know about these things have to disassemble, distract or blatantly lie about the state of our world?

Eita, Tarawa, Kiribati. Kiribati’s future generations are at risk of potentially lethal sea level rise. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It feels calming to finally open up, if only to myself. To allow what I know to be true to flood in and flood out of me. Because only then can we start to really deal with it on its own terms. It’s now clear to me that “not scaring the horses” is as irresponsible as standing in a burning building selling wet napkins instead of shouting fire. 

The truth is, I don’t know much that you don’t know already. It’s either deep down or, as in my case, a continuous kind of mental tinnitus you notice when things get quiet. 

The Bible had four horsemen of the apocalypse: Conquest, War, Famine and Death. What we are currently reading in our 24/7 news feeds looks more like the final charge of the apocalypse brigade riding those Harley Davidsons with their exhausts sawn off. You have to have your fingers in your ears and sing “la-la-la” to miss it. 

Climate change, mass extinction, topsoil loss, antibiotic-resistant disease, water pollution, air pollution, nuclear holocaust, financial collapse and more are joining the human hunt. They don’t look like the sort of characters who negotiate. 

For many of us, the thundering onset of climate change is what woke us from our slumber. That is the hardest to ignore. The latest comprehensive view from the deeply conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) went something like this: 

“Within the next 12 years, we just need to put aside all our differences and peacefully orchestrate a massive and abrupt slow-down of the world’s economy without destroying it. Meanwhile, we need to pull carbon out of the air with gadgets that haven’t been invented yet, or we’re fucked.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to make a living by campaigning on climate change. Anyone who has made any serious attempt at following the logic through realises we are actually campaigning against industrial colonialist civilisation. For anybody in the industrialised world, this is the source of all our wealth. It’s what pays all our wages. Good luck sawing down the tree branch you are sitting on.  

By now, the Earth’s immune system has rightly identified us as a virus. It’s firing up its antibodies and stimulating a fever to rid itself of the disease. We are like any other organism. Much like bacteria, with access to an abundant energy source — in our case, fossil fuels — we fill up our petri dish. We engulf or expel everything else. When we run out of energy and resources to exploit, the overblown population crashes back to something manageable; or it dies off completely. It’s not evil, it’s just the way life works. 

A rescued baby male Sumatran orangutan, at the quarantine centre of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme where orangutans rescued from palm oil plantations, poachers and pet owners undergo rehabilitation before they are reintroduced into the forests. (Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, we have convinced ourselves that since we have tin openers and smartwatches we are no longer subject to such natural processes. That is a large part of our problem. Today, the imminent breakdown of industrialised civilisation isn’t even a fringe view. It’s all over the mainstream media if you care to look, or even if you simply don’t deliberately look away. 

The very idea of a breakdown in industrial civilisation suggests an interpretation of “civilisation” that is culturally biased and fundamentally wrong. We have been conditioned to believe civilisation is a state of high progress, hence breakdown. This blithely and brutally ignores the billions of people for whom this civilisation is apocalyptic, and always has been. 

Check your history. Every time this particular civilisation turns up somewhere it signals the violent overthrow of the native population and the armed robbery of everything valuable. New Zealand is a textbook case. The ongoing processes in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most obvious current examples.

One of our massive blindspots is that we tend to view industrialised civilisation as normal when, in fact, it’s very weird. The industrialised population exists on a ludicrously unlikely living planet, in the richest 1%, during a period of wealth unprecedented in all of human history. That’s not normal.

I am not wildly successful or talented. I have tended to work in non-management for charities where wages are not high. Yet I can feast better than a medieval king every day of the week. I can buy out-of-season exotic foods from all over the world, and then throw them away when I forget to eat them. 

To think it outlandish to suggest this may not last forever is itself odd. It’s only the depth of our delusion that makes forecasts of a much poorer and more vulnerable way of life seem unlikely. In fact, nearly every other human’s life on Earth, now and throughout history, has been poorer and more vulnerable than ours. We are a culture of Marie Antoinettes, stuffing our faces with cake and idly wondering what that intriguing new scaffold outside might be for. 

The environmental movement was supposed to do something about all that, but it lost its way. 

We were blindsided by climate change, even though we had known about it for more than a century. The only way I can explain that is to quote a Sudanese farmer: when asked why the rich countries weren’t helping to relieve their famine he said, “you can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

All of us who have feasted off the carcass of a dying planet bear some responsibility, but those of us who got paid to know what was happening and failed to find a way to tell you have our own special blame to carry. And for that, I am truly sorry. 

From now on I will try to be honest with you.

Jack Thomas is a pseudonym.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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