Ecopinion: The Selfishness of Environmentalism


By Kara Rodby I’ve been proudly replying “environmental science” to all of the endless major-inquirers since my first day at Northwestern.  I’ve been in SEED since my first quarter, and am now in Real Food at NU. I took part in Green Cup, Philfest, and so much more.  But it was not until this year that I actually even took my first environmental science class and that I think I can actually answer what it means to be environmentally conscious.

Before this class, I, like I think many people, had this naïve, romantic perception that being environmentally conscious meant paying homage to this huge, bigger-than-us entity (maybe even force?) that is the Earth.  I thought we were protecting the forests and the oceans and the animals because they themselves had an intrinsic value to them that ought to be preserved, that some of us could still recognize the incredible gift of life that was facilitated by this great Earth and thus put a limit on our selfish, anthro-centric ways in order to protect the Earth.

globaltempThis is not a true representation of what being green means, though.  If we look at a graph of the average temperature of Earth over its 3.8 billion year history, we see that the Earth is actually currently in a cold zone.  Due to cycling of CO2 and O2 levels, the Earth has experienced temperatures below, and often way above what we experience now.  The result is evolution: organisms that cannot deal with the current conditions die and others with favorable traits for survival evolve and take over.  This is a constant cycle the Earth goes through, and it seems to be able to adapt no matter what happens.

From this graph we can make a number of conclusions: 1) global warming is not anything the Earth cannot live through, 2) protecting the organisms that live now is just placing arbitrary value on these species over those that lived during other climate eras, and thus, 3) our attempts to protect the environment do not pay homage to the Earth’s natural state, but rather are efforts to preserve the current environment for ourselves, because it is the only one humans can survive in.

This was a little disheartening to me at first.  I liked the idea that I was doing something that was greater than the selfish endeavors of every other human action (maybe I should find a religion, but that is a different topic…).  The conclusion I have come to, though, is that all human action is selfish, and I (or maybe we) have to accept this as inevitable of human nature.  At the very least, environmentalists are more selfless than the non-environmentalists because we see the value in preserving the Earth for future generations, and this is still a noble cause.

Maybe this is not a realization for you, maybe you knew this all along and are happy I finally fell back down to Earth.  But I hope this causes someone to reconsider the way they view environmentalism.

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