Environmentalists need to focus on what we can agree with

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Finnish Ecomodernists at a Climate March, 29.11.15. Photo by Meri Tuuli Lauranto.

Greetings from Paris! Despite considerable logistical difficulties, we’ve managed to hand out nearly 2000 copies of Climate Gamble to interested people around COP21 climate conference; many thanks to everyone who’ve supported our campaign so far.

As expected, there has been some criticism. Many people sincerely believe nuclear power has unacceptable risks or drawbacks, or that nuclear industry is part of the problem rather than the solution.

This line of reasoning is entirely valid and supported by strong arguments. Nuclear power is far from the problem-free solution it is sometimes portrayed as, and nuclear industry hasn’t been exactly the shining paragon of good corporate citizenship. While there are some bad arguments against nuclear power (CO2 emissions, for example: lifecycle emissions are broadly similar to lifecycle emissions of wind power), there are also good arguments and very smart, sincere people behind the anti-nuclear position.

We obviously disagree with some of the conclusions that are made from the same premises. Our chief disagreement is in whether we need nuclear power or not, and whether the benefits outweigh the risks. We believe it may be possible to power the global society with renewables alone, but we are afraid that without nuclear, we are taking more risks in the climate fight than we should take. This is not an isolated opinion: among others, some very influential climate scientists are saying the exact same things. Furthermore, reviews of non-nuclear climate mitigation scenarios find consistently that they are dependent on a large set of hopes and assumptions becoming reality.

While it is far from certain that we can do the job even with nuclear, the amount of lucky breaks humanity needs is almost certainly smaller if we allow ourselves to use all the options. If we fail to mitigate climate change while denouncing nuclear power, our descendants – if there are any – will forever wonder whether the crisis might have been averted or at least its worst impacts mitigated if nuclear energy had not been opposed so strenuously. We think we owe it to future generations human and nonhuman to at least keep an open mind regarding potential solutions to one of humanity’s greatest challenges so far.

But even more important, in my opinion, is that we allow those who are concerned about our common home to join forces. It seems highly improbable much progress will be made if those concerned about the environment or social justice devote one hand to fighting those who agree with the broad goals, but disagree over some specifics of the strategy. This is one of the key reasons why I’m involved in the fledgling Ecomodernist movement: I want to help provide a platform for those who have felt excluded from traditional environmental activism, because they happen to be in some disagreement with some of the values and premises of the traditional environmentalism.

This year’s Climate March was advertised with the words “if we want to change everything, we need everybody.” There is much truth in these words. If the label “environmental activist,” for example, is reserved for only those who subscribe to the tenets of the traditional movement, it is painfully clear we will fail. In the timeframe we have available at least (less than 35 years), there are simply no prospects whatsoever for “converting” the required majority of world’s population to accept a set of values and premises that are highly Western-centric, Leftist, and make some very strong assumptions about particular technologies for example.

Instead of hoping a mass conversion and adoption of traditional environmental values hook, line and sinker, I believe environmental activists need to reach out to those who’ve been excluded so far. This year, the Ecomodernist movement brought about dozen people to march for climate in Helsinki. Only a dozen, because we organised our participation on a very short notice; but dozens more indicated they would like to participate in the future. With one or two exceptions, not one of them had ever demonstrated for the environment: most hadn’t ever been in a demonstration of any kind.

Perhaps you believe the environmental movement can do without these people. Perhaps you even believe it should do without. If you think so, I think you are wrong. In the aftermath, there were obviously some who questioned why we carried banners supporting low-carbon energy – nuclear power. But the wisest comment came from a self-described opponent of nuclear power: this is a time when we should concentrate on what we have in common, rather than focusing on what separates us.

I heartily agree. These words, among others, have already influenced my thinking. In the past, I’ve been highly critical of traditional environmentalists and sometimes attacked them rather viciously for being “dumb” in their opposition to nuclear power, or in their support for highly destructive practices such as widespread bioenergy use just because it’s nominally “renewable.” I apologise for being such a jerk and try to rein it in, preferably stopping it entirely. We really do need to focus on what we have in common: our concern for our common home and those whose home it is.

It is true, as several critics have pointed out, that many “new” environmentalists have been highly aggressive towards existing environmentalism and environmentalists. I’ve been one of those aggressive people, after all. I think this needs to stop, if we want to change things rather than flaunt ourselves to the small circle of like-minded people. There is no joy nor hope in trying to convert traditional environmentalists to wholeheartedly support nuclear power, for example: the goal is just as futile as the goal of converting the majority of the world to the values of traditional environmentalism. For the most part, all such efforts will achieve is a pat in the back from those who already agree.

Instead of scoring points among the already converted, I think ecomodernism and future environmental movements, which I believe will emerge, should focus on those who care but haven’t been able to work within existing platforms to channel their energy towards the overall goal: of building a better world for everyone.

An aside about heresies

Nevertheless, I think it is instructive to try to think why there have been so vicious infighting between people who call themselves environmentalists. In Monty Python’s fantastic Life of Brian, there is a brilliant scene where hapless Brian mistakes the activists of anti-Roman People’s Front of Judea for the activists of Judean People’s Front. As explained by Reg, the leader of the People’s Front,

The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.

The scene is hilarious because it is firmly based in reality. We humans seem to have a tendency to reserve most scorn not for those who disagree with us in everything, but for those with who we have more in common. The one who disagrees with us in everything is simply an implacable, inhuman enemy, not worth a dialogue. He must only be destroyed; once every enemy is destroyed, a Final Victory will occur for those who share the True Faith.

But the one who agrees with many things yet disagrees on some points is worse: he is a heretic, or a traitor. Heretics may be reconverted to the True Faith and their souls saved; traitors have a reserved seat in Hell.

As you may have guessed already, much of this dichotomy may stem from the Western cultural tradition that is heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions. These religions have clearly defined “us” against “them” and very black and white visions of “good” versus “evil.” (Thanks to the thoughtful student of Hindu environmental activism for pointing this out to me. If someone ever again says there’s no benefit from studying different cultures, I’m going to be quite angry.)

It just may be that such deep, unconscious, culturally embedded frameworks of heretics and traitors may explain some reasons why many environmental activists in the West at least have lately been bashing each other. I, too, shared this worldview: the traditional environmentalists are so much like me in almost every respect that I have hoped to convert them to the One True Faith of atomic powered future. In effect, I’ve been trying to persuade what I see as heretics in order to save their souls. Likewise, many have tried to convert me to renouncing the Atomic Devil.

And when these efforts fail as they usually do, we’re billed as traitors and enemies to the movement, to be excommunicated from the presence of the faithful. To many, it seems to be hard to accept one may be very much for environmental and social justice while still supporting nuclear power. To others, not supporting nuclear power at this juncture seems the very epitome of stupidity or worse. Witness, for example, the regularly surfacing insinuations that those who disagree must be in the pay of some nefarious organisations. It is probably far easier to believe the disagreement stems from selfish motives than to face the fact that there may be persons who agree with you on most but not all things.

That said, there are also legitimate corporate lobbyists interspersed among both “new” and “traditional” environmentalism. There really are people employed by the nuclear industry PR departments, for example. Likewise, the traditional environmental movement works closely – in my opinion, somewhat too closely – with renewable energy industries and their lobbying groups, taking their claims a bit too uncritically. In accordance with the rest of this article, I think we need to be in speaking terms with these lobbyists as well: based on my experience, most of them are decent people who want to do good. But we must not let them define what we want to do. Personally, I believe one reason to support the inclusion of nuclear power within climate change efforts is to keep the renewable industry on their toes: if we exclude potential competition, we increase the risk that these very large and powerful industries may capture the climate mitigation movement entirely. There are a lot of good people in the renewable industries; but they are still companies, still obliged to make a profit, with all the potential consequences this brings in our current form of economic system.

 

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