Bottleworld: environmentalism after the end of the world

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Why start another environmental blog?

Step back to the heady days of 1992, when Lester Brown of the indubitable Worldwatch Institute — who I love for piling on fact after fact about otherwise impenetrably large global issues — wrote an article for New Scientist titled “Ten years to save the world.”

It was an urgent message, and very much the zeitgeist of those heady early-mid-1990s. Luminaries from Helen Caldecott to Neil Young started slipping similar ten-year deadlines into their speeches and album covers. I was roused. I dove into work at a prominent ecological research center with a righteous fury: to discover something, who knows what, that could really help.

I was a kid on my first mission…

Smithsonian bio-dome toy

…then everything went black.

Now it’s 2006 and I feel like I’m waking up in a strange house on a strange couch. Where the hell am I? What have I been doing? Did I eat all these chips and drink all this Wild Turkey? Is this a god forsaken hickie? Did all my flailing around make any difference? And most important, did we save the world, or am I in some interstellar purgatory?

Peeking outside the window, it seems the world is still here. There are trees and sidewalks and stuff. Yet somehow I feel let down. I’m sure I failed to put 100% into stopping global warming, preserving wildlife habitat, sequestering toxins, and all the other stuff I presume Lester would have wanted. But the ecological apocalypse never came. Or, it came, and no one noticed.

So now what?

In some ways it doesn’t seem like much has changed. Another ten-year deadline has just been announced by a new set of campaigners. “Saving the planet” is still the most common catchphrase in environmental headlines, though it should be clear by now the planet isn’t really in danger. This orb of rock will continue transiting around the sun for several billion years, unless Dick Cheney has a weapon of truly cosmic power down there in his bunker.

A more accurate catchphrase might be based on the concept of saving ourselves, as in “we have only ten years to save our asses,” but that doesn’t sound very noble compared to saving the planet. It also smacks of joyless living — the way that some old people seem determined to extend their lives to 100, no matter how miserable it makes them. Life without salt, life without ice cream, life without cigarettes — at some point it is just not worth it.

I have a similar feeling about living in the world today. I don’t want to live in a place without wildness and wonder, without croaking frogs and crazy moths and flowers so secret they practically grow underground. Like Matt Dillon says in There’s Something About Mary: “I love those goofy bastards!”

Yet I feel the wildness and wonder is all being boxed in and ground away. Already the entire terrestrial world has been mapped out, diagrammed and classified. No, the overlords who commissioned those maps don’t really know those places the way the snails and plants and people who live there know them, but believe me, those overlords have plans.

The physical frontiers are gone. We’re living inside a bottle. But the frontiers of our minds and our souls are still open for exploration. I want to know, how can people live inside nature’s wildness and wonder? How can we make it a part of our everyday lives rather than something we visit in parks and museums? In other words, how can we inspire people on environmental issues, rather than browbeat them?

Frankly some “environmentalists” aren’t helping with this. There are those that idealize nature as a color scheme or a lifestyle or a place of cutesy perfection. They purchase products advertised as environmentally correct, but their involvement stops at the schoolgirl romance level. These people are brittle and deeply susceptible to marketers. I’d like to know, what environmental products actually could make a difference for the world, and which are trivial at best? Environmental claims for retail products seem to be largely unchallenged, especially in the gushing blogosphere.

For others environmentalism is an opportunity to act prudish and vindictive. “What would you give up to save the world?” is a typical challenge. But all this guilt-making doesn’t inspire people; at best it just hounds them into submission. Why isn’t the focus on all the good things our lives will gain when we, for example, have renewable energy?

In place of prudes, I’d like to meet some environmental bon vivants — people who actually like all the life that teems around them, and have something original to say about the way that humans should be part of it. I’d like to meet some gadflies too — people who know their facts, and can fill us in with confidence and verve, no matter what the conclusion.

That’s why I started this blog. I hope people read it, write for it, and it does some tiny part to save the planet our asses — from despair as well as extinction. Now that the end of the world has come and gone, we might actually have a chance.

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