books climate change

The Environmentalist’s Dilemma, by Arno Kopecky

The green movement has been warning for 50 years now that the world is going to hell in a handcart, but health and wealth and wellbeing don’t seem to be suffering all that much. Most people don’t seem troubled by environmental questions. Are things really that bad?

That’s an observation that has been described as ‘the Environmentalist’s Paradox’, though it’s not a paradox at all, and more a sign of what I call climate privilege. If we’re not seeing the damage, it’s because there’s a temporal and a spatial disconnection between the causes and the consequences. The effects of environmental destruction often fall elsewhere and elsewhen, and others need no convincing that there is an environmental crisis. This is why environmental justice perspectives are so important.

Still, ideas like the ‘Environmental Paradox’ ought to provoke self-reflection among environmentalists. As the Canadian journalist Arno Kopecky writes in the introduction to his book of essays, “a great many environmental advocates – myself included – are as oblivious to our own blind spots as oil barons and mining magnates are to theirs.”

The Environmentalist’s Dilemma investigates some of these blind spots, the “double-edged questions and difficult decisions” that arise “the moment you acknowledge that human wellbeing is on a collision course with environmental collapse.”

Across the essays that follow, Kopecky looks at activism, politics and vested interests, population, justice and more. They’re imaginative and self-critical, often finding a down-to-earth way into the topic. A chapter on complicity in the climate crisis is based around whether or not he should take his child to Disneyland, for example.

I particularly liked a chapter on degrowth, which has more fun with the idea that anything else I’ve read on the topic. The chapter is called ‘Let’s get drunk and celebrate the future’, and proposes a series of provocative toasts. He rebukes commentators for writing worthy books about why growth is bad, rather than selling us the vision of something better. “Tempt us into the beautiful future that awaits” he says. “Set the table, throw the party, show us where and how the good times will be had.”

One chapter details the author’s engagement with the Vancouver chapter of Extinction Rebellion, which he describes as “less radical and more responsible than its counterparts in London.” He observes and supports, and ponders the role of protest movements as they rise, collapse during the pandemic, and find their place on the other side. I like what one veteran XR activist tells him: “You don’t look to protest movements for depth of thought. You look to them for urgency”

I was pleased to see the book engage with the environmental justice movement and the racism of the climate crisis. “You must explicitly work racial justice policies into any environmental policy, and vice versa” he advises.

As a British reader, I was less familiar with the chapter on Canadian politics, and I found it an interesting insight into the hold that the fossil fuels industry has on government. Also as a British reader, I appreciated a chapter on Germany and its reckoning with a difficult past, a topic Kopecky addresses through his family history. Britain has resisted any such dialogue with our own history, (partly because we’ve used Germany’s story to make us history’s good guys.) I still think that’s coming, and there’s a climate dimension to that too. All developed countries are going to have to reckon with their role in creating a crisis, and Kopecky opens a courageous set of questions here.

In short, The Environmentalist’s Dilemma is a thought-provoking collection of ideas and questions, and it gave me plenty to think about.

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