I Heart “the Environment”

The phrase “the environment” makes me gag. Why?

Here’s a puppet example: “Let’s cover a million square miles of desert with solar panels! It’ll help the environment.” What’s wrong with this picture?

First, the picture frames “the environment” as optional. We can “help” it or not – we choose. And “helping” doesn’t involve radical rediscovery of who we are, or deep reassessment of how we live – it means (can mean) implementing yet another industrial megaproject that fits in with business (monetization of the commons) as usual.

Second, the picture depicts “the environment” as separate from humans (those deigning to do the “helping”). Would you like to support the environment? Gun control? Abortion rights? You choose! Pick any dish on the menu!

Then there’s the term “ecocide.” It’s not widely used – and it too sets humans (those using the word) apart from that which is being killed. It allows us to gloss over the fact that this “eco” we are “ciding” is our home.

May I suggest a replacement? Home-icide.

Which raises the question: Why is it obviously repugnant to, say, shit on the living room floor, but completely acceptable to fence off a great swath of living room (room where beings live) and pile it with our trash? Imagine paying a first visit to the apartment of someone you’re dating. Imagine he treats his home the way industrially civilized humans treat ours. Would you even consider another date?

Maybe what’s most sinister about the words “the environment,” and the way they’re used, is that they evoke scenery. A backdrop. Look: In the foreground, there’s (industrially civilized) human life. There are people going to work, going to school. Consuming media. Shopping at supermarkets. Communing with smartphones. In the background, there’s a pleasant vista – grass, trees, sky, clouds, maybe some hills or a mountain range. The job of that vista – “the environment” – is to sit still and look pretty. To provide a matrix for our actions, without complaint. To give, and give, and give, and not get in the way.

In reality, industrially civilized humans play but a bit part in this scene; in reality, most of the action – most of the living – is happening in that backdrop.

Options for referring to the entity formerly known as “the environment” with greater accuracy: Home. The web of life.

Then again, maybe the way to add accuracy to straw statements like the one above about solar panels is to make plain what the speaker really means. As in, “Let’s cover a million square miles of desert with solar panels! It’ll prolong the death march of industrial civilization – while assuring us, for a few more years, that there’s really nothing wrong.”

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.


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