The Environmentalist

The changes that I have applied in my daily life over the past years in order to contribute to a healthier environment, and that I have seen so many others in my surroundings make too, made me wonder about ‘our’ position in the current climate debate. With us, I mean people privileged enough to have the time and resources to consider sustainable life-choices. Performing ‘environmentalist’ behavior many regard as ‘good deeds’. Almost like charity – doing good for the other. The other, as in people or animals on the other side of the globe. Others that I believe we intrinsically want to care for. However, making ‘good deeds’ for the environment an inherent part of our everyday life will be easier, and more genuine, if we realize that these acts are also acts of charity towards ourselves.

George Carlin’s show on ‘environmentalists’ is one of my absolute favorites. Any other fan of Carlin can already sense his sarcasm when hearing the term ‘environmentalist.’ He wonders why we always try so hard to save the planet. ‘Everrrrybody has got to save something today! Save the bees, save the trees, save the snails… and the most arrogant of all: save the planet! What? Are you kidding me? We haven’t even learned how to take care of ourselves, one another. And we’re gonna save the planet?!’ According to Carlin the planet will be juuust fine. It was here before us, and will be here looong after us. We are the ones that need to be saved. So let’s stop using the [goddamn] planet as an excuse. He continues telling us that saving that the planet is just another selfish act of rich white people wanting to keep their own living environment clean.

Although this quote is from his show in 1992, he touched upon a point which today appears even more relevant than twenty-six years ago. Maybe we should stop using the planet as an excuse, like Carlin pointed out correctly, and admit that we are the ones that need to be saved. Admitting this, and not only admitting but also accepting and learning to appreciate it, will make the debate more genuine. In the end, we are part of the planet just as we are part of nature – an undeniable entanglement. Of course we can dream of life on Mars and see ourselves separated from planet Earth, however without it we would have never been here in the first place. Thereupon, to be able to live on Mars we would have to change ourselves and our ways of life drastically, so will we then still count as the same human beings? In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari beautifully illustrates that there is no way of speculating about how, when and why Homo Sapiens will act in the future, as we will evolve into different thinking and functioning beings.

I recently heard a story from a Buddhist teacher – so subtle yet illustrating – who compared our relationship with the earth and nature with one of bread and fungus. If you put a piece of bread somewhere and leave it there for long enough, the micro-organisms will start developing and life will flourish. This new situation will create causes and conditions for new life: fungus. The fungus will go ahead and live on the bread. However, it cannot simply decide not be part of the bread anymore and live somewhere else. Nor can it destroy the bread and expect to live on without the provided causes and conditions it needs to survive. Of course, this story should be analyzed rather metaphorically than literally, but it is an interesting way of reminding ourselves how we got here in the first place and the causes and conditions for human life.

Looking at this from an anthropological perspective, I wonder where the notion came from that we have to take care of the planet before taking care of ourselves? Carlin’s statements made me re-evaluate my own position and statements in the current climate debate. To genuinely rethink and reshape the future of humankind we need to start talking about us as part of the planet and not be afraid to say: shit, we need to save ourselves – climate change is not going to destroy the planet, it will destroy us.

Interested in the various relationships people have with nature, especially in urban surroundings, I researched urban gardeners in Havana. The urban garden is an intriguing space to look at these relations as on the one hand it is human made, but on the other hand the gardeners have to work with nature to sustain it. Resulting from my ethnographic research I have written a book ‘The Urban Gardens of Havana: Seeking Revolutionary Plants in Ideologized Spaces’ with Dr. Younes Saramifar. Here I engage with the questions of human-nature relations and try to learn how a different type of dialogue about climate change can influence our perception of it.

If writing about these topics has made me a so-called environmentalist is hard to tell. However, despite his sarcasm and political critique towards such notions I am convinced that if Carlin would still be alive, we both would agree that our current separation from and distance towards ‘the environment’ is heavily politicized and would benefit from critical re-evaluation in all layers of Western society.

And now, let’s have a laugh

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