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Taking corn over coral reefs: How to get pragmatic Americans to care about environmentalism

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Mike Hogan / Opinion Editor

Throughout the year, environmental issues have largely been put on the backburner as Americans struggled with more immediate concerns like weathering the tough economy and foraging for health care. But there’s trouble afoot in the Earth’s ecosphere; the drought this summer and Superstorm Sandy are sobering examples of the havoc climate change can cause on human populations. More indirectly threatening but no less important is the ongoing extinction of huge chunks of the planet’s species.

And yet a shocking number of Americans remain apparently unconcerned with the anarchy we’ve unleashed upon the world. Why aren’t people more worried? Well, nature herself might be partially to blame, since instincts seem to have made the human animal naturally more concerned with short-term dangers than long-term ones. But if parents and grade school teachers failed to teach American adults to look to the future, it’s unlikely that anyone can finish the job now. So what can be done to save our favorite life-supporting planet?

I believe part of the reason people remain indifferent to the unfolding ecological catastrophe is that it has been framed in terms of plants and animals that, frankly, urban Americans probably don’t care about. I asked what could be done to save our favorite life-supporting planet; what we really want to save is ourselves, because as far as we know, this is the only human-supporting planet. To paraphrase the late comedian George Carlin, the planet will be fine. We’re the ones who are screwed.

There are two solid reasons for a human-centric approach to environmentalism. The first is pragmatic and simple: it’s easier to make people care about something that affects them personally. I would argue that by spending so much time talking about rainforests and coral reefs, environmentalists have in some ways hamstrung the entire movement. After all, the people who are interested in gorillas and exotic flowers were probably already in the “Save the Planet” camp anyway. In order to make a significant impact in this country, activists must target the average American, who may or may not spend an hour outside each day.

So, while giant panda bears are cute, they probably aren’t the best mascots for the environmental movement. Yeah, it’s a bummer that their habitat has been destroyed by humans and that they may go extinct. But most people have never seen a panda in real life and probably never will. If all the pandas kicked the can today, my experience of them would be unaffected; I could still see them every day in documentaries and World Wildlife Foundation commercials.

As a new mascot, I propose corn. For humans, corn is a necessity, not a cute feature of our planet. If subsequent summers are as hot as this one was, corn might be a bit harder to obtain. This would be bad, because corn keeps me and people across the globe alive; we eat it, drive with it, distill it and drink it. I’d trade coral reefs and pandas for corn any day.

This is not to say that every plant and animal should be valuated based on its economic worth. Take my golden retriever Sadie for example; she eats a lot and has never been known to do any work. If she were a person we’d be telling her to get out of the house and pursue the American dream, which involves working to buy a nice house of her own with a golden retriever in the yard. But I love Sadie, lazy as she is, and I’m invested in preventing her species’ extinction.

Other flora and fauna, though not directly beneficial to humans, are integral threads in the complex ecological web that keeps us alive. Still, there are many species we want to keep around solely because, well, they’re just cool. This brings up the second argument for keeping environmentalism focused on humans, and it’s a bit more philosophical.

Most of the creatures, great and small, that we try to keep alive are protected because we like them. We place value on animals because they are cute or for similarly arbitrary reasons. Nature, however, doesn’t care. If humanity causes its own demise and leaves behind nothing but weeds and cockroaches, that’s no worse than what we have now. Complexity and bright colors are all well and good, but they’re well and good only because we say so; outside of the human perspective, a lion is as good as a lichen, which is as good as the rock it’s stuck on.

Some may object, “But what about the lion? It probably wants to stay alive! And it’s suffering from the devastation caused by evil humans!” There’s truth in this, and I think it’s always wrong to cause pain that could be avoided, including pain to animals. But at the end of the day, I put humans first, and so does almost everyone else. Every day, your body kills millions of germs that had the same right to life as you and the lion. You kill the germs without remorse because they threaten you, and if the lion was about to maul you, you’d probably get rid of it, too. Heck, if I were starving, I’d hunt down whatever animal I could, even if it were the world’s only unicorn, and I’d cook it into delicious sparkling unicorn steak and eat it with relish because, you know, I was starving.

If we really valued every living thing on par with human beings, the best course of action would be to stop eating plants, animals and everything else, because the fact of the matter is that living causes deaths. We’re in the middle of a tremendous mass extinction event that we humans are causing, but we’ve been driving creatures to extinction long before the industrial revolution. We can’t keep every species alive, but we can try and preserve the ones that are valuable to us and the larger environment.

So if you go out prophesying ecological doom, don’t talk about the end of days for coral reefs. Talk about doom for humans. Talk about the impoverished world we’ll be leaving our descendants. Only in this way can we convince people to make the policy and lifestyle changes that are necessary to keep this planet habitable. And maybe, as a byproduct, we’ll be able to save a few pandas.

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