On Conservationism and Living Close to Nature

Motor News of 1966 was a decidedly conservationist publication.

The title page of a magazine I recently surveyed for my research includes a depiction of what might be a classic environmentalist fable. In it, a group of woodland creatures, including deer, squirrels and chipmunks, a rabbit, and a fox, look on in horror as a procession of logging equipment moves along a half-constructed road towards their forest. The caption for this title page, displayed on the inside front-cover of the magazine explains that: “Ever advancing man causes consternation to the forest folk whose board of directors seem vitally concerned with the inroads to their domain…”

Can you guess what magazine this is? Perhaps a 1970s-era environmental publication, such as Alternatives Journal? OMaybe a more generalist left-wing publication that decided to make an environmentally-themed cover? Or perhaps a children’s magazine, something like National Geographic World, trying to teach kids about the environment using *Fern Gully* style storytelling?

Nope. None of the above. The picture is from the May, 1966 issue of the Michigan edition of Motor News; a publication that the American Automobile Association sent to all their members. I was somewhat surprised to discover that during the 1960s, Motor News was a bona fide environmentalist magazine. In addition to its cover pages, which frequently featured wilderness imagery, the magazine published a monthly “Conservation Corner” column, which talked at length about the natural world in Michigan, and the things that threatened it.

It is a bit weird that Motor News was doing this. After all, at the same time they were eagerly promoting the construction of more and more interstate highways across the United States. But this makes the mistake of seeing Motor News through a present-day lens, where we know the threat that cars pose to the environment. In its historical context, however, an association of conservationism with road-building actually makes a lot of sense. It was environmentalists who lobbied for the construction of a highway through California’s redwoods, on the grounds that if more people could see the trees, then they could pressure the logging industry to stop cutting them down. After all, if you love the wilderness, then you have to get there somehow. Henry Ford himself described his love of birds in his autobiography:

Birds are the best of companions. We need them for their beauty and their companionship, and also we need them for the strictly economic reason that they destroy harmful insects. The only time I ever used the Ford organization to influence legislation was on behalf of the birds, and I think the end justified the means. The Weeks−McLean Bird Bill, providing for bird sanctuaries for our migratory birds, had been hanging in Congress with every likelihood of dying a natural death. Its immediate sponsors could not arouse much interest among the Congressmen. Birds do not vote. We got behind that bill and we asked each of our six thousand dealers to wire to his representative in Congress. It began to become apparent that birds might have votes; the bill went through.

Don’t think that this perspective is extinct, either. Watch a few car commercials, and you’re guaranteed to see at least one family or young couple park in a scenic natural location and eagerly fling open the trunk to pull out some camping, hiking, or mountain-biking equipment.

Have environmentalists matured beyond this? Do we now know better than to embrace ecologically destructive technologies and practices simply because they give us a better view of the nature we want to protect? Maybe. But we should be cautious before we make that assumption. This little case study tells us something very important about the environment: being in nature and protecting nature are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes, in fact, they can be directly opposed. Nature doesn’t always want us around.

This, however, is a fundamental challenge to a lot of environmental movements that are based on the ideal of a direct contact with the natural world. Consider, for example, the eco-village movement, as described by ecovillage.org:

“For millenia, people have lived in communities close to nature, and with supportive social structures. Many of these communities, or “ecovillages”, exist to this day and are struggling for survival. Ecovillages are now being created intentionally, so people can once more live in communities that are connected to the Earth in a way that ensures the well-being of all life-forms into the indefinite future.”

It sounds great. And it would be very hard to argue that the ecovillages’ residents’ hearts are not in the right place. But we need to critically analyze whether “communities close to nature” is not just a modern-day, environmentally-friendly retelling of the narratives that gave birth to suburbia a century ago. Can the eco-village and earthship movements really provide a model that allows everyone to live close to nature without inadvertently crowding nature out? And if not, then what is the benefit of developing a radically sustainable lifestyle that is only sustainable if practiced by a comparatively small group of people?

I’m not saying there aren’t good answers for these questions. I’m not very familiar with the ecovillage or earthship movements, and so I’d be doing them a disservice to assume they haven’t thought of this problem. But any movement that promises to save nature in part by moving more people closer to it, needs to consider the fact that Motor News once had a conservation column, along with all that implies.

Living close to nature inevitably means lower-density living. That means we’re more likely to be dependent on motorized transport, as well as on less efficient food and energy systems. Plus, human existence has a definite spatial footprint that will inevitably have some effect on the nature around it. In order to accommodate the human race in spaces that are both just and sustainable, the environmental movement should be strongly concerned with promoting human land use patterns that are efficient. For most of us, that means multi-story buildings in cities. Our experience of nature will have to be limited to comparatively short, low-impact trips. The sooner we get used to that, the better.

On the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy

The demise of streetcar systems like this one in Los Angeles was probably not due to their being bought out and shut down by car companies. Picture from the Huffington Post.

When I tell somebody about my research, they often bring up the alleged General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, a popular folk-tale in the history of American transport. The story goes something like this: At the early twentieth century, virtually every major North American city had a streetcar system, which was basically a lower-tech version of what still exists in a few cities such as Toronto and San Francisco. These systems posed a problem for the rapidly expanding car industry, and so a few car companies (most notably General Motors) bought out many local streetcar systems and immediately shut them down, in order to push the United States towards dependency on the private automobile.

Now I’m just a lowly PhD student, and my research focuses on intercity transport rather than urban transport. So there are many people more qualified than me to comment on whether or not this actually happened. What I can do is point to a few of these people and the arguments they make.  An excellent paper to read if you’re interested in this history is Zachary Schragg’s The Bus is Young and Honest. According to Schragg, the elimination of the New York City streetcars was more due to the bad reputation then held by streetcar companies than to any shady dealing by automobile executives. Like most forms of private transport infrastructure, New York’s streetcars functioned essentially as a monopoly. While some legislation tried to counteract this, for example by legally imposing a fare of a nickel, the streetcars did pretty well for themselves in the nineteenth century. Most people could not afford their own transport, and so anybody who wanted to travel within the city would have basically no choice but to accept the terms offered by the streetcar companies.  This caused resentment among those who thought a nickel was too much to pay for what was often a crowded, dangerous ride. Basically, The New York City streetcars were like the Comcast of their time.

The public got their comeuppance in the 1920s and 1930s, however, as inflation continuously cut down the value of the five cent fare and streetcar companies struggled to balance their books. Streetcar companies mounted a campaign to have the fare changed to a dime, but much of the public and political establishment was uninterested in helping an industry that had been so happy to exploit them when the shoe was on the other foot. When the mayor flatly refused their request for a fare increase, the streetcar lines cancelled several lines services to put public pressure on the mayor. The mayor’s response was to replace the streetcars with buses. And that was the beginning of the end for the New York streetcars.

Of course, Schragg’s account only covers New York City. But in my opinion it is far more likely that the demise of the American streetcar was due to this kind of local politics than that it was due to the conspiratorial actions of car manufacturers. Cars were already gobbling up huge chunks of passenger travel by the start of the 1930s; the United States did not need any extra push into car dependence. Furthermore, my own research has revealed that the pattern Schragg describes played a role in long-distance transport as well. American railways in the early twentieth century were monopolies, and like the streetcars, the public and the political classes often saw them as monopolistic, exploitative, and generally untrustworthy. This eventually resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which in 1920 was given veto power over any railway fare increases. This was absolutely crippling during the Great Depression, when the railways, faced with competition from the roads, couldn’t even adjust their fares without a lengthy series of government hearings. but when they tried to change the law to be more favourable, many of the railways’ complaints fell on deaf ears.

This seems to be a very common pattern: Privately owned infrastructures tend to be monopolies and so they often arouse public anger. This leads to regulations restricting the actions of the companies owning those infrastructures, but the public anger continues. As soon as a new and exciting technology whose problems are not yet widely understood provides a viable alternative to those monopolies, the regulations make it very difficult for the old system to compete, while the distrust of the people who own the old system makes it very difficult for them to get the regulations changed.

So no; General Motors probably did not buy out the streetcar systems in order to push the country towards car dependency. But that doesn’t doesn’tean that the story is not still interesting as a folktale. Why does it still have so much lasting power?

I think it has something to do with portraying our present-day concerns about technology into the past. Today, the car-based transportation system is not in a very strong discursive position. It is not a monopoly like the railways of the past, but it has still aroused concern and condemnation due to things like climate change, local air pollution, congestion, accidents, road rage, noise, and the bulldozing of neighbourhoods to build highways. To put it bluntly: the moral status of our transportation system is not very good right now. But people seem to have trouble understanding that the moral status of technological systems can change over time. People who are opposed to the car system today tend to assume that the only way such a system could have come into being in the first place is by some kind of trickery. Similarly, railroads and municipal light rail have a pretty good reputation these days, and so when people note that they used to be more dominant, it’s assumed that their downfall must have been due to foul play. Whence the popularity of the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy theory.  

The true story, that cars and buses might have actually looked like a pretty good idea in the 1930s, while trains and trams had a nasty reputation, is less appealing not only because it requires more nuance, but also because it has implications for the present day. If the Americans who so eagerly dashed towards a car-culture in the 1930s were so mistaken about it, then what does that say about the new kinds of infrastructure that get us excited today? It means that we might have to think much more carefully about replacing our existing technological systems with things like drone delivery, Google fibre, or 3D printing. It means that we need to be sceptical of anybody offering a quick technological fix to our problems today. We can still support radical new technologies, but only after a great deal more thought.

Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

A passage in Naomi Klein’s new climate manfesto, entitled This Changes Everything, stood out to me:

The southeastern [Indian] state of Andhra Pradesh has been the site of several iconic struggles, like one in the village of Kakarapalli, surrounded by rice patties and coconut groves, where local residents can be seen staffing a semipermanent checkpoint under a baobab tree at the entrance to town. The encampment chokes off the only road leading to a half-built power plant where construction was halted amidst protests in 2011. In nearby Sompeta, another power plant proposal was stopped by a breakthrough alliance of urban middle-class professionals and subsistence farmers and fishers who united to protect the nearby wetlands

Richard Branson tossed a globe around at a climate change-related press event. Naomi Klein argues that this image is illustrative of the fundamental political problems of climate change: We think we’re in charge of the Earth.

If you’re a bleeding-heart lefty like me, then that quote probably makes you very happy. After all, it ticks all the boxes: Pastoralism, nonviolent direct action, organized peasants, and a vaguely anarchist makeshift checkpoint set up under a tree. This, and other passages in This Changes Everything make climate activism seem like the culmination of all that the left has been working towards for decades. That, in fact, is precisely Klein’s argument: Climate change might be terrifying, but we can solve the problem with the same movements and policies that, by a convenient coincidence, fit exactly with the movements and policies that Klein already supports.

In case you haven’t detected it yet, I should say at this point that I’m somewhat skeptical of this thesis.

It’s not that Klein is wrong. Not exactly. Her argument can be broken down into two premises: Firstly, that climate change cannot be addressed without also changing the neoliberal economic order which prevails around the world today; and secondly, that existing left-wing movements already provide a template for how to create a low-carbon society. Klein’s argument in favour of the first proposition is entirely convincing. One chapter points out how international agreements to deal with climate change constantly run up against the free trade agenda. Another demonstrates how “green billionaires” such as Richard Branson are basically useless: at the end of the day, capitalism being what it is, they have to prioritize their investors over the climate. The first half of the book has a radical premise, but it is extremely well-supported by a unique synthesis of recent environmental history.

But once Klein is finished tearing down old systems, she devotes about a third of the book to building up an alternative. And this is where the problems emerge: Klein abandons the critical approach she applies to the prevailing right-wing order, giving the left-wing largely sympathetic treatment where the climate is concerned. Rather than taking up the difficult soul-searching that will be required to adopt even left-wing movements to the challenge of climate, Klein instead simply presents a series of tropes that have been staples of the left-wing echo chamber for decades. This approach isn’t always off the mark; it’s unsurprising that those who have been fighting against neoliberalism for three decades will have at least some of the answers when it comes to averting the harm it does to the climate. And Klein does indeed point to some promising movements for change. Her account of the role of indigenous movements in stopping pipelines and fracking is particularly compelling, particularly as she draws links between these and other kinds of on-the-ground resistance efforts.

But even in this case, she seems to have half-forgotten about climate change. In many of the cases she cites, the resistance is primarily motivated by concern about the local effects of the fossil fuel industries: Water tables poisoned by fracking, mountaintops destroyed by coal mining, and coastlines threatened by oil tankers. These are very real and pressing concerns, and we should support people fighting back against these harmful effects of the fossil fuel industry. But Klein leaves a very important question unanswered: If these impacts on the local environment are somehow mitigated, then can we still count on this kind of local resistance purely for the sake of the climate? If fracking is made healthier, coal mining is made less destructive, and fossil fuel transportation by ship and pipeline is made safer, then can we expect these movements to stick around purely for the sake of the climate? Perhaps there is an argument to be made that we can, but Klein doesn’t make it.

Another problem is that while Klein spends a good deal of her book excoriating the established environmental movement for its collaboration with industry, she falls hook, line and sinker for some of the cultural baggage that has been holding environmentalists back. Environmentalism, she argues, should be low-tech, democratic, and rooted in the need to protect local ecosystems. Klein makes an absurd comparison between view of conservation inspired by images like Earthrise and the Pale Blue Dot, and the image of Richard Branson holding up a big inflatable globe, as if he’s “in charge” (a favourite term of Klein’s) of the entire planet. If your environmentalism is inspired by an enterprise as technocratic of the space program, Klein argues, then you’re doing it wrong. Much better to fight to protect the lower-case earth: the ground beneath your feet. Klein’s stretched comparison between her own fertility struggles and the struggles of the planet to bring forth life reaffirm this view when she heavily implies that the naturopath she visited was far more effective in helping her become pregnant than the more traditional fertility doctors she had previously tried.

Klein’s fertility treatment is her own business, of course. But when combined with her thoughts about the Pale Blue Dot, it becomes clear that Klein’s book is based firmly in 1970s environmentalism, which was at its heart a reaction to industrial technocracy. This led to a deep distrust of scientists and engineers in favour of a personal, even spiritual engagement with nature. And forty-four years after the first Earth Day, Klein is pushing the same basic narrative, in which science and technology are primarily part of the problem rather than the solution. I bet you can guess what Klein thinks of nuclear power.

The thing is that nothing is that simple. Yes, technology has been poisoning the planet on a large-scale since the nineteenth century, and scientists and engineers have often done more harm than good. But this is not the 1970s, and many of the scientists now sounding the alarm about the climate are part of the kind of large, bureaucratic scientific institution that makes hippy environmentalism so uncomfortable. The engineers developing wind turbines, electric cars, and new kinds of bike infrastructure are also often very establishment figures, many of whom probably lack any kind of spiritual connection to nature. But we need all hands on deck to address the climate crisis. Yes, we need to challenge the prevailing economic order as well as our own rates of consumption. But we also need to leverage every single sustainable alternative we can get our hands on, regardless of whether it is centralized, local, high-tech, low-tech, socialistic, or capitalist. Because the climate doesn’t care about our political and economic preferences.

I don’t really mind if environmentalists prefer to see the planet as a space-ship, a goddess, a super-organism, or even a resource to be exploited, so long as that worldview is mobilized into a willingness to fight. But Klein’s distrust of scientific diagnoses and technological solutions is dangerous. The planet may well need its equivalent of naturopathic doctors who are capable of looking at it holistically and proposing low-tech solutions that take advantage of existing environmental processes. And it certainly needs dedicated activists ready to put their bodies on the line in the fight against fossil fuel companies. But the Earth also needs something more like traditional medicine: lab-coated scientists who use satellites, computer algorithms, and advanced chemistry to diagnose its problems, as well as ambitious engineers who can prescribe high-tech solutions. We need all of the above.

Anybody who has read more than a few posts in this blog can tell that I’m pretty left-wing. And that means that, naturally, I think that left-wing thought is a better approximation of reality than right-wing thought, including the centre-right consensus of the current economic paradigm. But it’s hubristic to think that any political ideology, which is an imperfect product of political alliances and historical contingencies, provides the perfect analysis of or solution to climate change, which is bigger than any political debate. Klein is probably right that right-wing ideology is inseparable from the practices that are causing climate change. But just because we on the left are more sympathetic to the problem, it doesn’t mean that we, too, won’t have to make political sacrifices. Real action on the climate demands that we seriously reconsider our positions on things like gentrification and technocracy. We need to fit our concern for the oppressed into the harsh facts of climate change, and find ways to help them that don’t make the problem worse. This difficult task is what Klein misses in her book.