I knew it was just a matter of time before this nonsense was trotted out.
Last week, Obama administration officials admitted that the Deepwater Horizon blowout is the worst oil disaster in American history, exceeding the Exxon Valdez spill, as they estimated that the gusher had spewed between 15 and 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Around the same time, however, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) declared that the oil pumping into the Gulf is “not an environmental disaster”:
Young said: “This is not an environmental disaster, and I will say that again and again because it is a national phenomena. Oil has seeped into this ocean for centuries, will continue to do it. During World War II there was over 10 million barrels of oil spilt from ships, and no natural catastrophe. … We will lose some birds, we will lose some fixed sealife, but overall it will recover.”
The reason I suspected it was just a matter of time is that this is one of Rush Limbaugh’s favorite truisms, that environmentalists are full of shit because they know that, given enough time, the planet will right itself. It’ll outlive us, even! It’s one of the right wing’s all-time favorite ways to co-opt progressive language—accusations that we’re victimizing and condescending by suggesting that policies aimed at preserving or encouraging good things are a good idea. In this case, the “victim” of liberal condescension is the planet itself. By not wanting people to spew pollution all over it, destroy ecosystems, or heat it up to the point where large parts of it become unlivable, we’re apparently condescending to the planet, insulting its ability to recover from the injuries conservatives gallantly want to give it.
As arguments go, it’s pretty stupid, though it’s hard to say if it reaches the level of “the free market is socialism if it doesn’t break for me!” But while the surface argument is asinine, this argument is actually more clever than it might initially seem. Don’t think about the surface argument—think about the assumption bundled inside it. Think about whose interests are quietly left out when a conservative argues with a liberal about the planet as a living entity that will recover after we’re all gone. Oh yeah, the people who rely on the ecosystem.
By trotting out this argument, what Limbaugh and his parrots are saying is this, “Those environmentalists are sure goofy! The only reason they care about the planet is because they have some sort of weird affection for squawking birds and dirt. They probably sleep in trees and commune with the goddess. But hey, let’s play along and tell them that their cute little obsession with nature—which has nothing to do with real life—is plain adorable. But that they don’t need to worry about their worship object, since it’ll be here long after we’re gone. Think long term, dirt worshippers!”
This is what’s also underlying their arguments about how volcanoes emit CO2 and oil leaks all on its own. They’re trying to get their audience to believe that environmentalists aren’t concerned about practical issues, but that we just have an irrational hatred of any human activity that influences the planet. So if volcanoes—part of our worship object—do it, it can’t be wrong, right?
But while there may be a few goober heads that fit the stereotype they’re trotting out, the reality is that environmentalists aren’t actually working from an arbitrary moral system, where everything our god the planet does is right and everything humans do is wrong. For one thing, a lot of us aren’t fundamentalist Christians, and so we don’t buy the argument that humans are somehow separate from nature in the first place. We’re probably the first to compare human beings to volcanoes and hurricanes—of nature, but able to wreak incredible amounts of death and destruction in no time flat.
It’s the death and destruction we’re worried about more than some esoteric conception of the Earth as a living entity. If you actually listen to environmentalists, you’ll see that they’re not only concerned about pragmatic destruction, but the reason they worry so much about it is that we have to live on this planet, and we need a clean environment to do that. A lot of us have no doubt that the planet will eventually recover long after we’re gone—but that’s the eventuality we’re working on staving off. We don’t want humanity to be long gone, but if you fuck up our planet badly enough, it’s entirely possible that it will be one day.
That everything will even out on its own the Gulf of Mexico decades or centuries or whatever from now is all good and well, but that’s not much use to the people whose livelihood depends on the flora and fauna that exists there now and is in very real danger of not being there in the future. In general, the conservative enthusiasm for discounting our symbiotic relationship with nature alarms me. Where do they think food comes from, if not the ground? What the hell do they think we breathe, if not the air? And as a gusher of oil fills the Gulf of Mexico and conservatives run around implying that concerns about water pollution stem strictly from tree-hugging planet worship, I have to ask—what do they think we’re going to have to drink, if not the water? (Yes, I get that we don’t drink sea water, but the larger point is that water pollution is a problem because DUH, we need water to live, both in terms of drinking and the way that the oceans that cover most of our planet contribute to the ecosystem we need to survive.) Do they fucking even eat shrimp?
These aren’t idle questions. Whenever I hear some wingnut going off on dippy environmentalists, I’m forced to conclude that they think that food is pulled out of the vacuum of space, since they’ve discounted the water, air, and land as sources of human sustenance worth preserving.