Green At What Cost?

By  "Tern" Jessica Leber
I have to hand it to Wired magazine—their provocative June cover certainly grabbed my attention as I passed a newsstand in my rush home. “Attention Environmentalists:” reads the headline, “Keep your SUV. Forget Organics. Go nuclear. Screw the Spotted Owl.”  Say what?

The article’s contrary-for-the-sake-of-it premise is that if you want to solve our planet’s problems, your single-minded goal should be to tackle global warming, no matter the cost. If we don’t cut our carbon now, the article asks, who cares if we restore the Everglades? Florida will probably be under water anyway.

The meat of the piece involves 10 supposedly true, supposedly heretical suggestions for how to be part of a new, practically-minded breed of green. Among them: nuclear power is the answer; old-growth forests should be logged; air conditioning saves energy; urban density is good, and hybrids are bad. Read the original Wired article and these thoughtful responses (here, here and here) to help parse the good and the blatantly ridiculous in these claims.

But forget these specifics. I want to consider the basic principle—that we must reduce carbon at all costs--beyond my knee-jerk reaction to the spotted owl dig. The article claims to make a utilitarian argument, a balance sheet calculation that the fate of current society depends on how we respond to climate change and that, therefore, we better be ready to sacrifice other environmental priorities to avert crisis.

Undoubtedly, there are endless ways to further screw up our environment which might nudge down the global thermostat. Why stop at a few? Is this really the path we want to take? It’s this same type of tunnel-vision focus (on our economic well-being) which got us into this mess in the first place. And I don't think that minimizing the most emissions for our buck is really a sensible end goal. How about measuring our success in terms of human lives or a healthy ecosystem? When we destroy places like the Everglades and the wetlands of the Mississippi Gulf, we make our communities more vulnerable to major disasters like Katrina, for example.
The take home point for me is that, individually, we need to thoughtfully consider what it means to be an environmentalist. This is partly a question of knowledge (it’s so easy to become confused—local or organic? Dishwasher or sink?), but it’s also a question, ultimately, of what we value most. As more and more people come to prioritize action on global warming, not all will also give a hoot about the spotted owl.

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