Sensationalist Sustainability

One of the things that struck me as I was watching the Canadian English-language leaders debate this past Thursday was the amount of attention given to environmental issues. Although this was encouraging (and producing of condescending smirks towards our southerly neighbours), I was also uneasy about the particular focus on the oil sands in Alberta and Saskatchewan, despite its probably accurate depiction as the most destructive project on earth.

Helping me to see why is Wendell Berry (who I have a sizable writer crush on), from an essay called “Conservation is Good Work” in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, Berry helps me to understand my discomfort:

Because we are living in an area of ecological crisis, it is understandable that much of our attention, anxiety, and energy is focused on exceptional cases, the outrages and extreme abuses of the industrial economy: global warming, the global assault on the last remnants of wilderness, the extinction of species, oil spills, chemical spills, Love Canal, Bhopal, Chernobyl, the burning oil fields of Kuwait. But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all of its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exist within a pattern of smaller abuses.

Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, 29-30.

2 responses to “Sensationalist Sustainability”

  1. well said Matt (or should I say well quoted!)

    any ideas as to how those of us interested in propagating good discussions about such matters should go about doing so in a way that draws people in to the discussion rather than creating the usual distance and anger?

    or is distance and anger an unavoidable part of such attempted conversations?

  2. I think that some degree of anger is probably unavoidable, as telling the truth about these issues will produce defensiveness in people (like me!) who have built their lives on an assumption of the current system being amoral. The suggestion that we are complicit with immorality is generally anger-inducing.

    That said, I think that clever, subversive parables might be the ticket here. In particular, I think that the parable the prophet Nathan told to David to expose his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah is the model of what I’m thinking about. Appeal to an already existing moral conviction in an unfamiliar context, but then reveal how it is we who are guilty, God help us.

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