Environmental optimism

I've been reading Collapse by Jared Diamond lately. It's compelling, and also one of the most utterly depressing books I have ever read. It examines a series of historical collapses of societies, along with examples of societies facing similar challenges to those that collapsed but managing to overcome them. I should probably come back to this once I've finished the book, but so far I'm finding myself much more convinced by the doom-and-gloom side of the argument—in short that one society after another has made the same mistakes and we're in danger of doing the same as a globalised society in the 21st Century—than the hopeful side Diamond tries to portray along with it. There are various stories of societies' survival, but I just can't help feeling as I read them that they owe more to luck than judgement.

Against this backdrop of pessimism about the future, it was a pleasing contrast to turn to one of my usual sources of environmental news, the Sightline Institute's daily score blog—often a pretty depressing source in itself—and see a couple of posts about reasons to be cheerful. In particular, one of their authors wrote a long piece titled Earth Doomed! Not really. At least, we hope not.... and it's worth a read.

It recounts various trends that are improving around the US and especially in the Pacific Northwest (where the author is based), and draws the general conclusion that while there is much to do this is a sign that actually the environmental movement can be successful. The success stories are all examples of campaigns that first changed the prevailing public attitude towards something (be it lead in petrol or predatory mammals in fisheries) and then leading to the introduction of legislation that actually fixes the problem.

There are a lot of lessons that can be drawn from the successes of environmentalism. The article makes an important point about the way environmentalists tend to come across as all doom-and-gloom, all the time, when in fact there are also positive stories to tell, and people respond better to voices that are not unremittingly negative. I think there's also another lesson here, about the way in which environmentalists can succeed. Afflicting people with despondency is never productive, because if it's all futile anyway then why should anyone try to improve the future. Instead, we need to convey two messages: environmental protection is for our collective benefit (Diamond gets this one across very powerfully), and we can make a difference (I'm hoping the remaining chapters of Collapse will persuade me of this).


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