Every environmentalist with a message should read Frank Furedi's anti-environmentalist writing because he offers up a strongly considered, well-argued, culturally relevant argument for his belief that environmentalism is alarmist, fascist nonsense.
He's not arguing on a scientific or dogmatic level. He's not invoking sunspots or god's will or any of the other ignorance climate change deniers push forth. He's saying that the environmental movement's cultural focus on denying progress is wrong-headed. He's saying that enlisting kids in an eco-crusade reminds him a lot of growing up in Stalinist Hungary. He's saying that environmentalists miss the real problem with a culture of consumption when they talk about overconsumption as a moral failing.
Of course, the problem with Furedi's arguments is clear. He uses solid cultural arguments to deny an extracultural phenomenon, and, well... that's like using your years of experience doing the laundry to reject your house's plumbing problem. It's true that in some ways environmentalists are acting like fundamentalists and fascists. But unlike fundamentalism and fascism, our environmental woe doesn't go away once everyone stops believing in it and creating a culture around it.
This is a basic structural flaw, but that doesn't mean that his arguments are silly. In fact, these arguments have the potential to help environmentalism out a great deal! There seems to be enough consensus around the science of our ecological woe to justify changing the way we do things. The problem environmentalists have right now are ones of culture, or how we envision and implement these changes on a broad level. Popular environmentalism should be hooking critical, learned folks like Frank Furedi, not making him play rhetorical three card monte in an effort to prove to himself that the shit is not hitting the fan.
The shit is hitting the fan, and the question is: how do we enlist as many people as possible, particularly people who are smart and flexible enough to doubt? We need people like Furedi! Obviously strategies like leaving little notes at the bottom of emails asking him to consider the environment before printing; reminding him in hotel rooms that he should reuse his towels and getting kids to pester adults about why they are ruining the earth are just making him cranky. I agree! These are legitimately irritating aspects of popular environmentalism, and Furedi makes a reasoned, insightful case about why he has every right to be cranky.
But here's the thing. In his own arguments Furedi rails against the same fundamental problems with consumer culture that all environmentalists should embrace, and he does it better than we do. Consumerism isn't a moral failing, and even if it were that's a weak rhetorical strategy. Making environmentalism a matter of personal virtue relegates it to the world of choice, of lifestyle, and creates a lot of good reasons to reject it, and we don't have time for that kind of culture warring. Furedi's point about consumerism is much stronger: a consumer culture emphasizes things over ideas and conflates buying things with more meaningful acts like satisfying curiosity and self-expression. That's a statement that opens doors, allows people who will gladly cling to their lifestyle out of stubbornness, shame and pride a way to save face! It's a relatively value-neutral invitation to create more meaning.
Hell, his main beef doesn't even seem to be that climate change activists are wrong as much as the fact that he can't trust them because they are positioning themselves as activists and fundamentalists, and saying and doing things that lack integrity and common sense. And when he describes this behavior, he's often right.
There's a lesson in this. When I read Frank Furedi, I wonder whether it's even important to generate belief in climate change per se in order to move the ball forward. I think a lot of people who hate environmentalism would smile if presented with a cultural movement in which personal inventories of experiences and lessons are cultivated, rather than inventories of things, or in which efficiency is a primary aesthetic goal. A lot of people seem to want education and honesty to have a lot of economic value, and I see few people who oppose to cultivating a sense of curiosity about the world we live in, and that curiosity should include where your food and energy comes from. Certainly people who think like Furedi believe in the agency and will to progress that allows that curiosity to turn into better food, better sources of power.
These are simple cultural ideas about abundance, engagement, progress and agency that make the world work better, and that aren't that loaded, guilt-inducing or hard to swallow. There's no need to push everyone's Frank Furedi Button by getting all smug, or developing education programs for kids that are about outsourcing our nagging and shaming. I'm not even sure it's such a good idea to bring up climate change.
I mean, have you ever had a protracted conflict with someone that only got better when you stopped trying to tell that person what to do and let them figure it out themselves? Haven't you ever gotten so wrapped up in defending an idea that you just twisted it into something that's hard to defend once you've taken a step backward and looked at what you were doing?
Have you ever had a problem so big that the only way to engage it is to kind of stop looking at it?
It's entirely possible that the first step to getting folks on board is giving up on what seems to be the first goal of environmentalism: making people believe it.