On being an optimist and an environmentalist

I haven't gotten to do much pleasure reading since my first daughter was born way back in 2004 and even less since my second daughter was born in 2006, but I'm finally trying to tackle something longer than a New Yorker listing. I'm nearly done with "Cloud Atlas," by David Mitchell, which I think qualifies as an entertaining serious read. The book covers a couple hundred years through six somewhat linked short stories and paints a dystopic picture of the arc of society and science.  The book's vision of society and science is captured in this passage from near the end:

...Our will to power, our science, and those [very] faculties that elevate us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that'll snuff our Homo sapiens before the century is out!

But while the view is dark, there is a love and perseverance to the novel's main characters (I don't want to give too much away) that suggests a faith in individuals.  While I can only imagine that Mitchell would wince at me simplifying this novel this way, it's message boils down to something like "as a society we're going to screw it up, but through out it all individuals will be humans--loving, failing, being cads, and being heroes." (There's more to in including a great Russian doll simile, but for now let's leave it at this.)

Reading the New York Times article yesterday about Wu Lihong and his valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort to save China's Lake Tai from chemical plants and agricultural pollution, I felt the lure of Mitchell's view. But there were also also uplifting stories recently like the Nobel Peace prize for Al Gore and the IPCC, for example.

Our president has talked a lot about the power of technology and called for a lot of R&D and voluntary measures. I on the other hand have closed my last two posts and many before that with calls to get our public policies right.

Ultimately, I believe to be an environmentalist you have to be an optimist. Given the constant barrage of bad news that dominates our media, you probably have to be an optimist just to be a functioning human. However this Blog Action Day, as thousands of individual bloggers use the power of the Internet to join in new form of civil action, it seems reasonable to ask is there a specific type of optimism that better suits environmentalists? Should we be techno-optimists, Any-Rand individualist-optimists, or political optimists?

While folks may not use these terms, this debate is alive and well within the community. There are those that have faith in technology and believe it's largely a question of choosing the right technologies. Other's argue that individuals must change their behaviors. And still others that say it's all about our public policies. These differences are to some degree captured between three of my favorite blogs: Treehugger, Gristmill, and the Switchboard here--green consumerists, freeze-in-the-darks, and green wonks.

Of course, these options are not mutually exclusive. My colleague wrote this very thoughtful post about the need for balance. I might call it the middle path. What we need are individuals making the right choice about technologies and policies/politician, technologies that make it easier to live lightly on the land, and policies and leaders that drive the market to develop better technologies and use them in better ways.

In the end, whatever gets you up working to make the world a better place, right? For me, when I look at my girls, I got to believe that we can make it work out--we'll get the balance right--people, science, and society--to get to a better future. Mitchell's future is fun to read about, but I don't want my girls growing up in it.

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Senior Renewable Energy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.