Environmental ‘extremism’


in Politics, The environment

Sometimes, living up to one’s ideals requires becoming an extremist. That is to say, speaking and acting in a manner very different from what is normal within the population. Not doing so risks being a hypocrite, since you would be telling others to take actions that you are personally unwilling to take. At the same time, the connotation of ‘extremist’ is almost entirely negative. People have a general feeling that there is an acceptable range of thoughts and behaviour and that those on or beyond the edges are dangerous.

Consider the issue of Al Gore’s (non) vegetarianism. He has resisted calls to follow the actions of IPCC chairman Rajendra Pauchauri and renounce meat, as a means of reducing carbon emissions. At the same time, he is calling for people to make large lifestyle changes for the sake of the planet. Not going vegetarian leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy, even from those who oppose his position on what should be done about climate change. At the same time, choosing lifestyle options like vegetarianism risks getting him branded as an ‘environmental extremist’ by the political mainstream. Environmentalists who have been calling for the issue of climate change to be pan-ideological would likely regret seeing him thus marginalized.

There are generally good reasons to feel nervous about thinking or acting far outside the mainstream. In many cases, it suggests that you have made a serious error in your thinking. That being said, it must be acknowledged that there are situations when mainstream thinking is based upon serious errors of information, judgment, or understanding. In these cases, one is presented with the challenging question of whether it is best to be principled yet easy to ignore or more influential and somewhat hypocritical.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Berry October 27, 2008 at 3:34 pm

The fact that he is not a vegetarian is only one example of Gore’s hypocrisy. What about flying around the world in chartered jets and living in a house that consumes enough electricity to power 20 average homes?

Milan October 29, 2008 at 9:55 am

Al Gore has done a huge amount to boost the chances of global action on climate change. Lots of travel was probably necessary to achieve that.

As far as houses go, he has done a lot to make his greener. Undeniably, he is a rich guy. That being said, he is living a greener life than most people of comparable means.

. November 5, 2008 at 3:09 pm

A worse slander than being an atheist?

At least there seems to be one in Montana: candidate Roy Bown was accused of being…a vegetarian.

“I am not and have never been a vegetarian,” Brown said. “I am disgusted by the baseless allegation that I am a vegetarian and that my personal eating habits should somehow be construed as opposed to the economic interests of Montana’s livestock industry.”

. September 30, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Mexico: Emergence of an Unexpected Threat
September 30, 2009

At approximately 2 a.m. on Sept. 25, a small improvised explosive device (IED) consisting of three or four butane canisters was used to attack a Banamex bank branch in the Milpa Alta delegation of Mexico City. The device damaged an ATM and shattered the bank’s front windows. It was not an isolated event. The bombing was the seventh recorded IED attack in the Federal District — and the fifth such attack against a local bank branch — since the beginning of September.

The attack was claimed in a communique posted to a Spanish-language anarchist Web site by a group calling itself the Subversive Alliance for the Liberation of the Earth, Animals and Humans (ASLTAH). The note said, “Once again we have proven who our enemies are,” indicating that the organization’s “cells for the dissolution of civilization” were behind the other, similar attacks. The communique noted that the organization had attacked Banamex because it was a “business that promotes torture, destruction and slavery” and vowed that ASLTAH would not stop attacking “until we see your ashes.” The group closed its communique by sending greetings to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the “eco-pyromaniacs for the liberation of the earth in this place.” Communiques have also claimed some of the other recent IED attacks in the name of ASLTAH.

On Sept. 22, authorities also discovered and disabled a small IED left outside of a MetLife insurance office in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. A message spray-painted on a wall near where the device was found read, “Novartis stop torturing animals,” a reference to the multinational pharmaceutical company, which has an office near where the IED was found and which has been heavily targeted by the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). Novartis is a large customer of Huntingdon Life Sciences, the research company SHAC was formed to destroy because Huntingdon uses animals in its testing for harmful side effects of drugs, chemicals and consumer items. A second message spray-painted on a wall near where the device was found on Sept. 22 read, “Novartis break with HLS.” Two other IEDs were detonated at banks in Mexico City on the same day.

. September 30, 2009 at 3:26 pm

“The McDavid case particularly underscored the frustration on the part of the activists who testified. Members of the group had taken part in protests of a variety of targets, including the June 2004 G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., the September 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and biotech companies in the Philadelphia area. Following these demonstrations, the activists concluded that traditional protests were not achieving the desired results, and that they needed to take more dramatic “direct actions” in order to effectively convey their message. Members of the radical environmental and animal rights movements use the term “direct action” to describe a wide range of protest activities, most involving some sort of civil disobedience or other illegal activity.

At McDavid’s trial, Weiner testified that the group members agreed that protests were not working, and that they had decided to “step it up” with direct actions and “look up our own targets.” She added that the small group decided to act independently to force big business and the government to make the changes the activists sought. She also said, “We also talked about using explosives. Eric used the word ‘boom’ to describe it. He said he knew how to make ‘boom’.”

In addition to frustration, the trend toward more violent tactics is also fueled in part by a sense of urgency. Considering the issues of climate change, habitat destruction and the perceived failure of the capitalist system urgent, the activists in the McDavid case thought they did not have time to wait for government and industry to change slowly. According to Weiner, “We had to meet the destruction of the planet with harsh tactics.”

. February 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm

The presence of activists with unreasonable demands also serves an important signaling function. It is a peculiar feature of human psychology that we look first to one another, not to reality, for cues on how to behave. Psych experiments reveal that people will not intervene in a crisis situation — even an obvious crisis situation, like a room on fire or a woman being attacked — until they see others doing the same:

“The passive bystanders in this study succumbed to what’s known as “pluralistic ignorance” — the tendency to mistake one another’s calm demeanor as a sign that no emergency is actually taking place. There are strong social norms that reinforce pluralistic ignorance. It is somewhat embarrassing, after all, to be the one who loses his cool when no danger actually exists.”

“Pluralistic ignorance.” Have you ever heard a better description of climate politics?

When activists go out and march and chant and chain themselves to bulldozers and get arrested in the name of fighting climate change, those actions may not be popular with the wider public, but they signal to the wider public that there is an emergency. That signaling has been missing from the climate discussion. People talk like the world is in danger but they don’t act like the world is in danger. Doing some of that signaling is a service in itself, even if doesn’t directly reduce any carbon emissions.

. February 28, 2013 at 11:24 am

I’m an analyst too. I’m reasonably kempt. I’ve mocked the activists who whine about Obama’s “climate silence” while ignoring his climate actions— like unprecedented efficiency mandates that have slashed demand for dirty energy and unprecedented green investments that have launched a clean-energy revolution. But when it comes to Keystone, my analysis is that the activists are right. Fossil fuels are broiling the planet. The pipeline would turn up the heat. If Obama approves it, he’ll deserve all the abuse the activists hurl his way. There are many climate problems a President can’t solve, but Keystone isn’t one of them. It’s a choice between Big Oil and a more sustainable planet. The right answer isn’t always somewhere in the middle.

. September 1, 2015 at 1:05 am

In fact, here’s how David Balton, the State Department’s diplomat for ocean issues, explained it. On the one hand, he said, the idea that we should stop all Arctic drilling was “held by a lot of Americans. It’s not a radical view.” On the other hand, “there are plenty of people on the other side unhappy that areas of the Arctic, and areas on land, have been closed to hydrocarbon development by the very same president.”

So – and here’s the money quote — “Maybe that means we’re in the right place, given that people on both sides are unhappy with us.”

Maybe. But probably not. Because here’s the thing: Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with, the ones where compromise makes complete sense.

Down the hall from Balton’s office at the State Department, he has some colleague negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. By its very nature, a deal has two sides and you meet somewhere in the middle  —  to insist that Iran get nothing in return for giving up their nukes would be to kill the very idea of negotiations. That’s true in most encounters. If I want $30 an hour to work for your fast food restaurant, and you’d just as soon use slaves, then $15 an hour represents a workable compromise. We can come back in five years and negotiate some more. Be reasonable. One step at a time. Zealots make bad policy.

But climate change isn’t like that. Balton  —  and Obama, and almost everyone else in power  —  makes the same simple-but-deadly category mistake. They think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between people and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.

Because physics doesn’t negotiate. Physics just does.

. August 16, 2016 at 11:58 am
. January 22, 2020 at 5:13 pm

If defending life on Earth is extremist, we must own that label

George Monbiot

Police say climate groups such as Extinction Rebellion are a ‘threat’. They’d have done the same for the suffragettes and Martin Luther King

. January 22, 2020 at 5:19 pm

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr, subjected to smears very similar to those now directed against XR and other environmental groups, noted: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

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