More Questions than Answers, Always

David Orr’s highly-anticipated and eagerly-attended lecture at McGill caused me to question his utopian views of education and the environment. He spoke broadly about global change and environmental degradation, and posited that an ecological education should be a prerequisite for convocation from any university, no matter an individual’s area of specialization; the paper that certifies a degree of higher learning should not be obtained without an adequate demonstration of knowledge of macro- to micro-scale ecosystems and the role humans play in their transformations. The details of this prescribed ecological knowledge is more specifically outlined in Parasite Kid’s post below.

In attending similar seminars over the past three months, I have tried to grapple with the fact that the people I have listened to champion the same shift in worldview, necessary for avoiding environmental catastrophe and/or self-extinction as a human species. They fly around the world to speak to audiences like the filled auditorium at McGill, and address the need to turn rhetoric into action, consumption into compromise. And while I agree with the principles embodied by these presentations, I understand why some audiences may have trouble finding credence in a speech given by speakers who do not appear to practice what they preach – who spend more time in the air than they do on the ground.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps this is the process of my own ecological education: to filter the rhetoric, to take away the main values, and leave the inherent (and likely unintentional) hypocrisy behind. I do recognize the value of Orr’s words, and view such representative figures as necessary for shifting public opinion so that it embraces an environmentalist ethic, an intellectual humility in relation to other species. Perhaps the slight cynicism expressed above is the manifestation of a sort of compassion fatigue.

The term “compassion fatigue” first rose to prominence in the 1990’s in the United States. It refers generally to a saturation of ideas or images to which the public consequently develops a resistance and potential attitude of carelessness or cynicism. I am using the term in this post in both a euphemistic and hyperbolic sense. Demonstrations of the urgency with which environmental degradation must be addressed is preaching to the converted in my case, thus the fatigue I refer to is my own exhaustion at running in circles around the same question: how does one reach the non-converts? But this is the question that keeps figures such as David Orr so full of idealism, passion, perseverance, and fully-booked for speeches. This is, in my opinion, the question that remains unanswered, and the most important question there is today.

Orr’s ultimate ideal – solution, one could say – is universal education (at the post-secondary level). But this is a privileged and exclusive utopia. Further, switching worldviews is not as simplistic an option as Orr and others seem to suggest. Mentalities are ingrained, inherent to individual ways of conceptualizing the world and its systems and cycles. Appreciation of and understanding of the environment must therefore be a cultural prerogative, a Durkheimian “social fact,” in order to effect and ensure enthusiastic change. But I am still not sure where this cultural environmentalist habitus can or should start. Earlier than university, certainly. But at what age? At what scale? From what angle? Questions of such monstrosity are exhausting, as they keep asking for more and more, for answers I can’t find or create.

6 Responses to “More Questions than Answers, Always”

  1. crocus says:

    I agree with this post whole heartedly: After hearing at least 3 talks in the last few months that all sound the same (40 minutes outlining many world ills, and 20 minutes talking about broad concepts for reform) I sometimes feel no further ahead than before.

    After one talk in particular, an undergraduate student got up and asked the question, “So, what do we do now?”. At the time I thought it was extremely funny, as it is such a common question to hear at talks like these. But, why is it so common? I would like to suggest that it is the broad nature of these talks that draws questions like this. The world issues presented are so huge and we feel overwhelmed – that is the intent.

    However, when the talk turns to address where we can go from here, the ideas presented are also broad and few people understand how they fit into it. How does one person change fuel efficiency? Promote alternative energies? Enact educational reform? The short answer, most often they do not. I would like to challenge speakers giving this style of talk to bring their message down from the ivory tower a bit. If these talks are to inspire the everyman to their part, they need to give examples of how people can make real change. I am not saying that we need more people to promote the use of energy efficient light bulbs and energy star appliances (we have heard that enough), but to advertise places where people can find more information, organizations that people can contact to get involved…. something feasible.

    I think sometimes the focus on thinking broadly (and interdisciplinary) about world concepts alienates us from how our personal actions translate into impact. These speakers are able to draw large crowds. If they offer solutions that everyone can grasp and accomplish, perhaps we can see great change.

  2. parasite kid says:

    I think we are rather priviledged to be getting this “compassion fatigue”. When you step back into the real world for a moment you are struck with just how different other people’s realities are. For this I think speakers such as Orr are incredibly important. We just need to get these speakers into public forums of broad audiences, find ways of ensuring turn out and try to continue the dialogue that ensues.

    Despite having “heard it before” i still found my spirit buoyed by the energy and the volume of the audience. In the academic realm, maybe the sad fact is that we have to rely on flying somebody with status from afar to get the turn out and stimulate the discussion. So I guess the challenge for us is rather like those striking off to travel for the first time…not to be blind to what we have right around us as we strive to explore beyond our borders.

  3. crocus says:

    I am really glad Parasite Kid has brought some optimism to this discussion. I for one, can tend to be tragically optimistic (I have found myself always trying to find the value and goodness in each of the talks so far)….. it is quite funny that this time around I tried to be more critical in my mind, and in some ways turned out more cynical.

    I would like to confess that for all of the talks I have heard this year having the structure that I outlined above, I have enjoyed them all and agree with the message. I also like that so many people have come out to the talks as the messages are important. I think my criticism comes in wanting to hear more manageable solutions for the general populous. When I speak to family members about large world issues, they feel like they don’t know how to get involved with larger changes that need to happen (i.e. how do they try to promote new energies without putting their buying power behind new products? They do not have money to do so, nor do they want to contribute to more consumerism).

    I agree that for a lot of people this is the place to start for learning the importance of global scale environmental problems. I would just like the see the dialog continued into discussion about real action.

  4. merle says:

    I will use the opportunity Culture Kid opened up by her post to criticize our own MSE on the gap between the preaching done within the institution (or by speakers/professors) and the practices of the institution (or by speakers/professors). I don’t know much about the practices of this particular institution promoting environmental awareness, some of which might be very remarkable, but not all of them. Every time I go to an event organized by the MSE or its members and I see Styrofoam cups and disposable dishes, I wonder how we can then say to others to change their behavior. How can we try to influence people outside and even inside the institution, e.g. even our students (undergraduates and graduates), if we don’t start by giving a good example in our everyday practices?

  5. Jones says:

    I would like to add to Crocus’ second post (the more optimistic one). I too spend a lot of time thinking about the right ways to act to make a difference. My family and I always buy energy saving devices. We buy local produce and try to eat organic whenever possible. I live off a middle-class income which is largely devoted to these consumer choices of mine. Of the millions of people who can’t afford the alternatives, and of the millions who don’t know why they should buy the alternatives, I really feel that my spending is making little to no difference.
    I like to comfort myself with the idea that one cannot move a mountain, but one can move a rock on that mountain. If enough rocks are moved so is the mountain. It just takes time.

  6. Culture Kid says:

    I would further like to add to Crocus’ second post. The seminars I’ve attended for this class have done nothing to further a critical problem I have with engaging in multi-disciplinary environmental dialogue: fence-sitting. But I’m the one who ends up on the fence as I waiver back and forth between cynicism (at the idealism and hopeless optimism I hear others voice) and strong belief and confidence that there is something to be done for “the environment” (which I will not attempt to define here, now – I’ll save it for later). So in a sense, I suppose I apologize for the cynicism displayed in my synopsis and analysis of the David Orr talk, because in general, I really do think we need more people as idealistic as he is, rather than more cynics. I am attempting to become a realist, somewhere in between the two.