The Arbitrary Nature of Saving Nature

Let’s stop scapegoating when fighting climate change

Hezi Tenenboim
Jun 29 · 9 min read
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Image by David Mark from Pixabay

A semi-viral meme on social media shows a photo of a deer crossing a forest road. “Things are often not what they seem”, the meme says, and then: “This isn’t a deer crossing a road. This is a road crossing the forest”.

I did a little research about this deer and found some interesting details. His name is Marvin. Ten minutes before the picture was taken, Marvin had been strolling a mile away from there, deep in the murky forest, and wreaked sheer havoc.

His victims included Jacinda, the mayor of an ant colony, and 329 of its inhabitants; Donnie and Mike, ladybug twins; three webs that Boris, a spider, was about to insure the very next day; and countless earthworms, fungi and ferns.

Savvy readers already understand what I’m getting at. If said savvy readers happen to see themselves as environmentalists, they must already be writing this story off as the (extremely well-written) ramblings of a MAGA climate-change denier. But bear with me: I’m a staunch environmentalist myself, I love deer and all other creatures, and I wish less forest were disturbed for the sake of roads. So what’s my hitherto confused message all about?

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A German road sign forbidding older diesel cars from entering the street. Photo by Hinnerk11 from Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0.

I’m driving my car through the forest, luckily spared an unpleasant encounter with Marvin and his friends. A speed-limit sign with another sign just above it, the latter donning a jumping deer, orders motorists to slow down to 70 km/h from dusk till dawn — the time period deer are most likely to walk around. (But ten minutes later I’m on the highway, devoid of any speed limit — this is Germany — but still featuring a deer warning sign. How can one be expected to cope with a jumping deer at 150 km/h? This won’t be the last double standard featured in this story).

As I approach home in the center of my city, I’m forced to make a substantial detour. The reason: my diesel car is not allowed anymore on several streets. The residents that inhabit my alternative route are now the new recipients of my car’s nitrogen-dioxide-infused fumes. But wait: this article is not a rant on poor government decision-making. The institutionalized corruption that engendered this policy in Germany, with the automobile industry’s claws sunk deep into government, shall not be discussed. Nor will the environmental sense, or lack thereof, in scrapping four-year-old cars just because they don’t meet an arbitrary emissions value that was shown multiple times to lack any substance; or the fact that a huge number of diesel owners get exemptions (residents, craftspersons, business owners; who’s even left to comply with the rule?); or the scant and flawed evidence that supposedly shows that diesel cars are responsible for any respiratory plight known to humanity, and on which this law is based; yes, all of this will not be discussed. Something will — that’s all I can promise at this stage.

After visiting Marvin the Deer and Rudolf Diesel the Polluter, the natural segue would be, how else, Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. Complete opposites, or rather dreamers of an identical goal who are merely located differently on a gradient? I bet it would be easy to find hardcore environmentalists who would happily reprimand Greta (whom I absolutely love, just to be clear) for her generally modern, anti-ecological lifestyle. Does she live in a cave and feed off berries? Anything short of this constitutes gratuitous destruction of the Earth, they would say. The sheer mentioning of such hypothetical people who would denigrate a much-admired climate-change activist may seem hyperbolic to many of you. If I say, “Of course Donald Trump wants to save the Earth! Who doesn’t? We’re just in disagreement on the way”, I’ll be deemed hopelessly naive.

Let’s put Trump aside. Now seriously: why isn’t Greta trying to be a bit more environmentalist? Surely there’s room for her to reduce her carbon footprint even further. Walk the extra mile. The common notion is that anything helps. If you couldn’t care less about climate change but you start one day to turn off the lights when you leave the room, this is a good thing. I agree wholeheartedly. But where is the line between half-hearted efforts and true environmentalism? Isn’t the line completely arbitrary and subjective?

Just like any other organism on Earth, humans too have a right to live and “do their thing” (this is a scientific term — trust me, I have a PhD in biology). Marvin the Deer routinely treads on other creatures, and nobody complains or demonstrates with signs that say Unvote Marvin 2020. Predators devour other animals, beavers cut trees, moles dig holes in the ground. Every creature aims to maximize its quality of life. The effect this has on other creatures, on Earth and on climate is not part of the equation. If animals could build roads, cars, computers and smartphones — does anyone doubt that they would without blinking an eye?

My true colors are now exposed, think many of you. This whole diatribe merely served to justify humans’ treatment of the Earth. If all other creatures are allowed, why aren’t we? But that would put my assessment of myself as a “staunch environmentalist” at an awkward light. I stand by it. There’s no excuse for Earth’s current mindless, excessive, gratuitous exploitation, meant to feed an insatiable consumption and greed machine.

But this brings us back to the question I raised above: when does “living a modest, decent life” end and “consumption and greed” begin? Doesn’t Greta Thunberg consume? Lately, whenever I hear an activist decry this or that environmental scourge, a single word flashes in my mind: arbitrary.

We are primed to consider certain activities as environmentally harmful, and others as neutral at best. This categorization is very human. Would you like to guess under which category we can find traffic and transportation? Since all of us got to stand at least once at the street corner and have a noisy bus spew a cloud of black smoke at our face, it’s a no-brainer. But whenever I have a discussion with an environmentalist, I ask her: what are your hobbies?

Books? Theater? Movies? Music? Tennis? Chess? All widely regarded as noble, gallant avocations. But what is their carbon footprint? How many trees are cut in order to print billions of books, many of which never reach any reader, many others read once and then discarded? How many actors, crew, and equipment are flown and shipped thousands of miles for the production of an average movie?

But after decades of flawed environmental indoctrination, most people don’t associate these things with climate change. This is why, when a government needs to boast decisive action against climate change, cars are among the first scapegoats. Even if research would show that eliminating books rather than cars would bring more benefit, our leaders would still choose the latter. Perception is the key word.

You might counter: well, nobody ever expects government to do the right thing, so why am I surprised? But may we at least expect green parties and organizations to support the right thing? Since the diesel ban in Germany and other countries, as well as countless other examples of similar discriminatory, arbitrary policy, are the initiative of these very parties and organizations, the answer is clear.

The damage done by such arbitrary policy is multiple:

  1. Scant resources and taxpayer money are invested in useless policies that are just meant to appease an increasingly green-leaning constituency. The diesel ban in Germany cost many millions: planning and consulting, litigation, signage, enforcement.
  2. These actions give the appearance of progress, rendering the public dormant and complacent while not benefiting the environment even a little.
  3. These actions, due to their discriminatory nature, antagonize those discriminated against. I can’t drive my small, efficient diesel car anymore, while my neighbor, who just bought a huge, thirsty tank of an SUV needn’t ever worry of any restriction just because it runs on petrol? This is bull, screw the Earth, I’ll never vote again to anyone who even utters the word “climate”. If SUVs are banned too, the neighbor will argue: “Driving around a huge car is my hobby. I don’t do it in order to reach from A to B. I do it purely as a hobby. It’s fun. Just like books, music and movies. Do these serve any practical purpose? Thought so. Show me a research that proves that big cars damage the environment more than books. Ha!” Quite the verbose neighbor, but hard to argue with him.
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Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

In many cold countries, people can often be seen in winter sitting in their standing cars at a parking lot, warming themselves while the motor is running. “Shockingly wasteful!”, thinks the average environmentalist. Rightfully so: a motor is intended to move objects; if it’s used only as a heater, much of the energy is lost.

In contrast, warming up your home during a frozen winter is never considered egregious. But what does the average person know about the heating system in their home? With the exception of a handful of green-oriented, data-motivated home owners, who can sometimes design and control the heating systems in their homes by themselves, the vast majority can’t influence these even a little, and are in fact not overly concerned about the issue at all. In theory, we can imagine a person shaking her head reprovingly at another person sitting in the car with the motor running; then the first person goes back to a home heated at an inferior or matching efficiency. It matters not whether this is a likely scenario in terms of science. The point is again: perception. We instinctively decide what’s positive and what’s negative in terms of the environment without putting too much thought into it.

A major criticism of Michael Moore and Jeff Gibb’s recent film, Planet of the Humans, is that after an hour and a half of ranting against the green movement, the makers make no suggestion. All you can do is complain? How does this bring us forward, ask the critics. (I completely reject this: not every criticism needs to be accompanied by solutions. It’s okay to just point at something that doesn’t work very well, as Moore and Gibbs did in their film). But is this the case in this story too? All I have to offer is feeble justification to just continue what we’re doing? Don’t cancel this, don’t ban that, don’t touch my diesel — how will Earth ever be saved with this defeative approach?

But the answer to this is already delineated above: don’t discriminate; acknowledge that what humans do is just as “natural”, and therefore legitimate, as what any other creature does; and with this in mind, fight climate change full force!

  1. Institute all-encompassing, non-discriminating limitations, regulations, and taxes. Limit and tax factory emissions; force car manufacturers to produce cleaner cars. To be sure, this is already done — but half-heartedly, the result of the intermarriage between stale, obsolete economic systems and corrupt political systems. These already decimated efforts are further marred by the discriminatory policies discussed above. If some car owners feel discriminated against, it’s easier for car manufacturers to direct the public’s anger towards government and to cry “discrimination” at the first hint of any environmental regulation whatsoever.
  2. Abolish or transition from any practise that is not necessary to maintain our human activities. We are allowed to produce waste (animals do to), but can do so without discarding it in the ocean. We are allowed to produce energy, but don’t have to use coal.
  3. Educate, so that not a single person has an excuse to not know or to deny climate change.
  4. Promote science, so that improved solar panels, wind turbines, and plastic-eating bacteria can help where humans can’t or won’t.

My suggestions are by no means original, and they are already practised to a certain extent. Many readers may feel confused and anti-climaxed. 1,700 words just so that I can keep my diesel? If my list of policies is practised anyway, what was the point?

If there is one message that I wish you all take from this article, it’s this cautionary word that is triggered in my head whenever I hear of a new environmental topic: arbitrary. Is this new campaign that you hear about aimed at addressing the latest fashionable climate foe, without involving much data, research or logic? Does the issue at hand pick on a token fad, a novel victim of fallacious perception?

German car manufacturers were pushing the anti-diesel legislation in a rare display of unity with the Greens. And why not, if millions of older diesels are now to be scrapped and new ones bought in their stead? Can’t be bad for business. As it says in Marvin the Deer’s meme: “Things are often not what they seem”.

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Hezi Tenenboim

Written by

“When I was little, I was very small. My parents used to tell me, ‘Don’t do that…!’”.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Hezi Tenenboim

Written by

“When I was little, I was very small. My parents used to tell me, ‘Don’t do that…!’”.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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