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new internationalist
issue 223 - September 1991

Apocalypse and gardening tips
Gloomy green prophets say the end is nigh – and their critics
accuse them of talking rubbish. Tim Chappell lifts his head above the
slinging mud and points to a better way of protecting the planet.

Illustration: ALAN HUGHES For the sake of argument let’s say that global warming is a fraud. That ozone holes are actually completely harmless to the human skin. That sulphur dioxide emissions are no threat to plant life at all. That the Amazon rainforest is in much better shape than we thought, and that the ice sheet in Antarctica is really getting thicker by the hour. In short, that the prophesied Green apocalypse will never happen. We’ve got nothing to worry about. We never had.

But what happens to the Green movement if Doomsday is called off? Is environmentalism suddenly out of a job? Judging by the way people argue, you might think so. Many environmentalists concentrate on arguing that we humans must become green because if we don’t we’ll become extinct. There is by now an established genre of newspaper article in which one group of scientists rubbishes another group of scientists for their gloomy forecasts about the way the environment is going. It’s as if a lot of Greens think that their case is proved if they can show that not being green leads to catastrophe, and a lot of anti-Greens think that their case is proved if they can show it doesn’t.

I think this approach is in danger of becoming a distraction. Not, of course, that monitoring what is happening to our world is not important. It’s vital to understand the way the planet behaves under the manifold stresses and abuses we humans impose on it. But there are several problems with the apocalyptic approach.

For a start, scientific evidence is always incomplete and never finally convincing. And it is always possible to go on claiming that the data have been misinterpreted.

Meanwhile the call for ‘more research’ is often just a stalling tactic. It sounds as if it means: ‘We’re doing all we can’. It’s more likely to mean: ‘We won’t change our ways until we are forced to’. And how can they be forced to change when a mere gesture will do? For example, a four-year government initiates a 10-year research programme and thus supplies the perfect excuse for doing nothing until the report comes in. By then, of course, the politicians will have forgotten all about it. So will the public. Words come cheap. Action doesn’t.

I think the threat of environmental disaster is the wrong motive for environmental action. Some Greens try to justify their prophecies of global apocalypse by pointing out that fear is a good spur to action. In the words of Dr Johnson: ‘The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully’. I doubt it. The prospect of global catastrophe does not concentrate the mind: it traumatizes it. Fear does not lead to action, but to a desire to avoid facing up to reality.

The question is: is the Green movement to be motivated by the fear of mass death – or by the hope of a better world? If we are motivated only by a haunting fear, we will never do more than the bare minimum necessary to abate that fear – if that. Only if we develop a coherent positive vision of the kind of world we want to see will we be able to capture people’s creative imaginations and their energies. For fear helps neither creativity nor energy. Nightmares do not lead to worthwhile action but to the lethargy of despair. To create a better world, we need imagination. We need dreams. We must replace green fears with green hopes: the negative approach with the positive.

It’s a simple but radical proposal because the negative approach is to be found everywhere. For example I recently had a reply to a letter I wrote to the UK Department of the Environment about the dumping of sewage sludge in the sea. They argued that the sea was quite capable of eliminating the amounts of toxin involved, so the dumping did not significantly harm the environment. Here ‘ecological responsibility’ meant ‘doing no more damage to the environment than we can get away with’. And people accept this negative approach where the environment is concerned. But can you imagine them accepting the same approach to their own gardens? What kind of gardener would throw at their plants all the rubbish they think the plants can take without actually dying? The gardener’s approach is the positive one – create as much beauty and life as possible. When they talk about their garden’s potential they do not mean their garden’s potential to absorb ill treatment, but to become beautiful and fruitful.

Technological societies work on the basis of two ideas. One, that what can be exploited, should be exploited. Two, that nature is capable of being exploited infinitely without ill effects. Greens usually attack the second idea and get diverted into fine measurement of exactly what ill effects are resulting from our exploitation of nature. But it is the first idea which is more important. The point is that the exploitative attitude is a wrong relationship to the natural world even when it produces no immediate ill effects. Our relationship should be much more like that of the gardener: not doing every kind of damage to nature we think we can get away with but doing everything we can to create beauty and integrity and continuing life in nature. And not just for our own enjoyment or our descendants’ – but for the health of the planet itself.

Tim Chappell is a postgraduate student of Divinity at Edinburgh University, Scotland, UK.

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