Individual Blame Won’t Address Environmental Problems

Sam Chapman

I find it hard to recall the moment I first became an environmentalist. It’s not as defined as the instant I became a writer (after reading “The Amber Spyglass” at the age of 11) or an environmental humanities major (about the fifth week of organic chem lab). What I do remember is that when my tender young self first cognized the idea of global warming, my instinct was selfish: I felt threatened. I wanted to save the world, but only so that I could have a chance to grow old.

In recent years, particularly in college, I finally began to add people into the equation. I understood how climate change would begin by devastating the blameless, the people closest to the land, and only at the end of its rampage turn its ire against those who set it loose. I discovered that what I most despised had not one name but a myriad: ExxonMobil, TransCanada, Peabody. Their CEOs, who reaped grotesque profits from selling fuel that vandalized the atmosphere, had to either be in total denial or pure evil. I learned that the fight for the planet was an issue of morality, a question of righting wrongs by turning back an industrial clock.

It’s only now that I begin to realize I may have been wrong about some things up until this very day. I’ve written column after column about what an environmentalist is not: not wealthy, not timid, not John Muir. I’ve never stopped to consider what one is. Perhaps this is because there are so few traits all of them share, or because they are so numerous, but I think I know the true answer. The reality is that I am unqualified to describe or define any environmentalist besides myself; so, long overdue, that’s what I’m going to attempt. Is it apathy that keeps me from throwing myself into divestment, or is it resignation? Some of both, but in the end, neither.

This self-evaluation began when I realized how often I asserted that I was not “that kind” of environmentalist––that kind being the Al Gore sort, green because they use incandescent bulbs and do large loads of laundry and inflate the tires of their hybrids. I find these solutions, up to and including President Obama’s first-term tightening of emissions standards, more than ineffectual––I find them condescending. They blame the problem on individuals who don’t understand that they cannot continue the exact same lifestyles indefinitely without consequences. This type of “movement” is a diversion from the truth.

I can’t identify with the small change environmentalists, but neither can I identify with most of the people I meet at Whitman––people who, I want to make clear, are fighting for their beliefs and for the planet in a way I cannot. I find it difficult to take part in the divestment movement because I see it as resistance where progress is due instead. In other words, we will no longer win this fight by turning back the clock. We’ve created our own bottleneck, and now we need to push through.

This is going to happen on a personal battlefield. In a way, then, I’m back to how I was at the beginning, with one minor difference: The Earth does not need saving. We do. It was easy to hate energy CEOs until I realized I was the one paying their salary. When I realized there was no way I could stop––not with the world as it is––is the moment I became restless at CCC meetings. If we manage to stop a fossil fuel company, another will take its place; if we manage to divest, it doesn’t matter––Exxon still has customers.

The world is going to change, drastically and soon. So, going forward as an environmentalist, this is the question I’m going to ask myself: What kind of world do I want it to change into, and how can I help usher it in? When this transformation makes our modern society infeasible––as it inevitably will––I am the kind of environmentalist who hopes to determine what will take its place. I believe action is required, but not in the way we’re applying it now: Instead of trying to wrest the world from the grasp of fossil fuel, environmentalists must ensure something worse does not take its place.