Environmental Discourse – a rant.

Trash bottles and construction equipment on construction site, Marietta, Atlanta, Georgia

Trash bottles and construction equipment on construction site, Marietta, Atlanta, Georgia

Hey Folks,

A word (or rant) about ‘pragmatists’.

How often do we hear people cloak their position in this language, smother their position and use the veil of ‘realism’ as a cover for rationale? The phrase “well, sure, that’s too bad, but we need to be pragmatic .. “ is so often merely an attempt to preserve the status quo. Rather than reach a little further, push a little harder, get a little creative, or honestly examine ourselves and the lives we lead, we fall back on language like “realistic” and “pragmatic” – neither of which solve a problem, and, ironically, express a position often seated on neither pragmatism or realism.

Conversations around environmental issues seem to invoke this veil all too often; “we’d love to leave the caribou alone, and let them roam on the coastal plain, but we need to be practical – realistically, we need oil.” An entire platform was built around this excuse for an unwillingness to change that supporters labelled “Wise Use” – it’s nonsense. This is merely a euphemism for “take what we can and pretend we care what others think; pretend we’re making a concerted effort to be environmentally friendly”. It’s marketing jargon, banal thinktank rhetoric from days gone by, the ultimate aim of which is merely to shape the discourse in such a way that it allows us to keep doing what we’re doing, “same ole, same ole”, to continue business as usual. It’s an attempt to “grandfather-in” harmful behavior.

What’s real is climate change. What’s real is the fact that 97% of the ancient forests of this country are gone. What’s real is urban sprawl and rapid species extirpation. What’s real is the fact that there are more tigers living in zoos and circuses in the US than there are in the wild. What’s real is habitat loss and extinction debt, so perhaps we might consider the matters of practicality and realism from another angle; how pragmatic is it to destroy the only home we know, to continue living lives revolving around unmitigated consumption of finite energy sources? How feasible is it to live in a world with no polar bears, no salmon, no tigers or songbirds, no wildness, and no thereby no wilderness?
Logging in Chattahoochee National Forest, North Georgia Mountains,

Logging in Chattahoochee National Forest, North Georgia

The realistic questions that face us include how do we deal with these issues and how do we change some things, not how do we avoid them and maintain our facade of real concern, a pretense of action? Those are pragmatic questions too many people don’t want to ask. I wonder, for example, if John Muir called himself a pragmatist when he fought for the preservation of places like Yosemite NP and the giant Sequoias. I wonder if Stephen Mather called himself a realist when he laid the foundation for our National Parks. Was Rachel Carson a pragmatist? Aldo Leopold, Thoreau? Was Martin Luther King a realist? Ghandi? How about Jesus? Pragmatic? We could also consider artists? Was Mozart pragmatic? Jimi Hendrix? Picasso? I wonder what the Sistine Chapel ceiling might look like if Michaelangelo had chosen the pragmatic decor over the sublime?

It seems to me that humanity has been at our best when we avoid such traps of orthodoxy and climb mountains. In the realm again of environmental concern, pragmatism destroyed Hetch Hetchy and the Glen Canyon; realists clearcut forests and ranch tall grass prairies. “Pragmatic” gives us more oil rigs and mountaintop blasting coal mines, and those who oppose such things are always, apparently, not realistic. Realists push for things like Cold Wars and pre-emptive invasions, while dreamers oppose such things.

So let’s redefine how we choose to live – pragmatic or not. Want realism? Let’s look at the reality of habitat loss, global warming, deforestation, clearcutting, monocultures. Let’s consider the practical questions of what we do when the oil runs out, biodiversity recedes and global climate change impacts the environment in ways we can’t even yet begin to fathom. It’s interesting to consider how often the same folks who want to monopolize the parameters of this discourse with such constraints so often similarly foster and support transnational corporatization (i.e., monopolization) of economic markets and natural resources. Pragmatic my a**.



12 thoughts on “Environmental Discourse – a rant.

  1. John Wall

    Right on. Pragmatism from an environmental perspective is trying to hold back the flood of greed and gluttony and instant gratification by sticking a finger in the holes of a dike. Real pragmatists don’t always take the easy way. Lazy people do.

  2. Balaji Venkatachari

    Excellent piece. As you noted, “realism” has become an euphemism for “Greed + hypocrisy”.
    ‘Short term gain’ over ‘long term vision’.

    Incidentally I just heard (yesterday) Al Gore speak at our office about his book “Our Choice”, and makes a lot of very compelling points about the solutions at hand. Really worth a read.

  3. Nicole

    Add human greed to the package and we will never get anywhere except closer to our own destruction.

    I’ve turned somewhat hopeless while traveling the Middle East, seeing what goes on in Hungary and now being in Egypt.
    Trash in the most beautiful places and nobody gives a rats a**.

    Construction everywhere,unfinished buildings and all just to fill someones pockets.

    Climate change will not be seriously tackled as long as people insist on claiming that this happens every once in a while.
    Did you hear someone talk lately about the Ozone hole in the sky?
    No? Me neither….

    I don’t know what to do against the numbness I feel, but I know I’ll not become pragmatic.
    There’s always little things every one can do, even though the big idiots out there don’t help solving the problem.

    I just hope that the day Mother Nature kicks us in our behinds it will go fast and painless…..

    (Sorry for the rant, but I always get mad when I see trash and needless destruction 🙁 )

  4. Carl D Post author

    Hey Folks,

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Michael, feel free to pass it on if you want.

    John, excellent analogy, thanks.

    Balaji, I’m looking forward to reading Gore’s book.

    Nicole, thanks for your note; I’m with you, trash just gets right under my skin. It so absolutely illustrates where we are with things; we’re talking about issues like global warming and habitat loss and species extirpations and we can’t even place our empty bottles and cans in the trash; it doesn’t augur for a good future, does it?

    Lily, nice to hear from you – I thought you were too busy on facebook to read this blog. 🙂



  5. Nicole

    Nope, isn’t a good sign for our future at all.
    What irks me is, that in so many places of the world it’s still normal for people to throw trash at the side of the road, or like in Hungary, for farmers to leave empty oil canisters in the forest beside their fields….

  6. Colleen Donohue

    Hi Carl – your Mum again

    ‘Well done – am proud of your thoughts, attitudes and how you feel about this stuff – am with you all the way – is there some way you can get it published somewhere where it may have a wider audience? the whole world needs to read it, become aware, know it, heed it and integrate it into their being. Am proud to be your Mum’
    Also have re-read your material and want to add – it is well thought out, very knowledgeable, intelligent and well written piece.

  7. Carl D Post author

    Hey Nicole,

    I could take you to plenty of places here in the US I’ve seen similar. I watched countless folks throw trash out the window of their cars in Atlanta, and too much of the ’empty land’ here in Alaska is riddled with old refrigerators, cars, oil cans, and whatnot.

    Hey Mum

    Thanks so much – and I’m proud to be your son. I’ll try to get some of this stuff ‘out there’ a little more. Always feel free to link to it when you’re browsing around the net – assuming, of course, you’re not browsing any, errr, “grown up” sites. 🙂 Love you.



  8. Ralph Nordstrom

    The thing that’s challenging is that saving a resource takes constant, unrelenting vigilance. It just takes one to ruin it for everyone. When I first started writing about this topic a year or so ago the beautiful visitor center in the Schulman Grove of the ancient brisglecone pine forest in Califronia burned to the ground. In it was an irreplacable cross section of a two or three thousand year old bristlecone pine. Gone. Next to it were a couple of living bristlecone pines, also gone. One man finally confessed to the arson. He was certifiably crazy, said the government planted sensors in his brain that interfered with his sex life and such. The people you’re talking about may not be crazy but they cause the same irreparable damage and once it’s done it all to often can’t be undone.

  9. Carl D Post author

    Hey Ralph

    Thanks for the comments. You’re right, it requires absolute ‘unrelenting vigilance‘. Turn your back for a second and SOMEONE’s gunna be aiming for whatever they can find – crazy or not.



  10. Bill Leahy

    Excellent post. I don’t think there is much I can add to what you say, only that i echo it wholeheartedly. For years, I have lamented the idea that our whole culture seems to be based on the idea of “more, more, more” and “bigger is better”. More stuff, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger debt and, ultimately, bigger problems. In spite of all this, I still hold out hope. That hope, for me, can be found in places like Wrangell St. Elias (when I can get there), the north woods of Michigan, the canyon country of the Southwest, and other places sacred to those who truly know and love them. These places are not for sale to the highest bidder; rather, they are places where we can go to rejuvenate our spirits and experience the world as it was meant to be. Unfortunately, as you put it so well, most people in this world either don’t understand this, or they don’t care enough to do anything about it. It seems to me that if every person made a conscious effort to make a couple of relatively small sacrifices, such as riding a bicycle to work (a very liberating thing for me), or buying local whenever possible, or just picking up after ourselves, that we could actually have an impact and slow down this monster that threatens to consume us all. One thing that does make me proud to live in Michigan is the fact that we are the only state with a ten cent deposit on all carbonated beverage containers (beer and pop), which makes scenes such as the one in your picture a somewhat rare sight in our state (there’s always some kid, or person who needs the money, willing to pick up someone else’s carelessly discarded bottles or cans). Although I am not a fan of federal governmental interference in people’s personal lives, I wholeheartedly would support a NATIONAL bottle bill requiring a deposit on ALL cans and bottles – beer, wine, liqour, soda, WATER (30 million thrown in the trash or otherwise discarded daily in the U.S.), and so on. Of course, this would not be seen by most as a very “pragmatic” idea, and would certainly be opposed by the bottling industry, the bastards! Enough said. Thanks for giving me the space to rant!
    On a more positive note, thanks so much for posting your fabulous pictures. I am envious of your being able to live and work in such an amazing place. I can only hope that when I retire from my teaching career that I can live in a place that is even close to as amazing as the Wrangell St. Elias. A little cabin in the woods sounds very appealing to me!
    One last thing…..Back in 2005, my first time in Alaska (I took my son this past summer), I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a couple of days in the Skolai Pass area. On the second day, in a cold July rainstorm, I believe my guide and I crossed paths with you and a group of three or four other backpackers making their way up to the Chitistone Pass (we were headed the other way back to the landing strip area). We exchanged pleasantries in the downpour and headed on our merry ways. Could I be correct in my assumption here? I do recall the apparent leader of the group sounding rather like an Aussie:) Maybe, on my next trip to Alaska, I will have to book a trip with you!
    Keep up the good work. Looking forward to more of your posts.

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