I’m a big fan of a good rant, occasionally offering one myself about my true passion, BibTeX entries, to my sloppy co-authors. So it’s not surprising that What We Leave Behind, a 2009 book about waste by environmentalists Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, won me over. It was a thoroughly entertaining read. Highly recommended!

The book offers a lot of disturbing detail about the waste humans generate and how it shapes the natural environment. For example, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of how plastic waste maims and kills sea life (for more information and opportunities to act, see Plastic Oceans). The analysis of our global waste problem is compelling, if perhaps depressing.

The ranting truly begins with solutions. Both Jensen and McBay advocate a radical approach of active resistance. They believe that industrial civilization is on the path to self-destruction and that incremental reforms are woefully insufficient. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“It’s true that, as we discussed earlier, the collapse of large, centralized organizations can offer great opportunities for community-scale resurgence and resistance. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a partial failure of a state or economy without the thorough dismantlement of oppressive power structures also provides an opportunity for more ruthless power-mongers.”

This goes on, and on, and on… and on. But while the 500-page rant is entertaining, I doubt it provides a real solution to our environmental problem. To me, radical approaches seem effective when they mobilize large segments of the public as supporters. For example, Nelson Mandela’s fight against the apartheid system in South Africa was effective because, ultimately, both the black majority and the international community considered extreme racial discrimination worse than violent self-defense.

I doubt that’s true of environmental campaigns. Ethics notwithstanding, violent resistance may be effective in certain local contexts. For example, Indian farmers may defeat a coal-burning power plant through violent action if their plight appeals to the broader public. It doesn’t follow, though, that radical action in industrialized countries will bring millions of Americans, Europeans, or Japanese to the barricades. As bad as our environmental problems are, they are not an urgent concern in the everyday life of most people.

Effective activism should focus on winning battles. We need concrete targets and goals that reduce environmental degradation, build a strong environmental coalition, and win the hearts and minds of the general public. Violence and destruction of property alienate the general public and strengthen the hand of anti-environmental interest groups.

So, the rant is epic but misguided. Environmentalism is at times a frustrating vocation, but that’s yet another reason to maintain a sharp focus on effectiveness. As long as environmental campaigners set realistic goals guided by strategy and achieve them, life on the planet has better prospects. Acting out of frustration — something I find myself doing all too often — is a recipe for failure.

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