The Environmentalism That Wasn't

Our fascination with the disaster the recent hurricane wrought upon the East Coast derives from its challenge to the fiction of human control. Despite the ways in which mankind has conquered its natural environment, we still remain vulnerable to its power. Consider that what started out as little more than a collection of thunderstorms over the warm Eastern Atlantic, has now inflicted massive amounts of destruction—halting life as usual all along the eastern seaboard. The denial of our helplessness in the face of nature, manifest in the endless attempts to dominate the environment helps explains the recent failure of environmental activism concerning global warming. Half a decade ago, the rise in Al Gore’s popularity following the 2007 release of An Inconvenient Truth culminated in his Nobel Peace Prize and roughly coincided with the development of the first major piece of legislation intended to address climate change (the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill of 2009). The American public seemed more than ready to begin tackling global warming.

Unfortunately, only a couple of years later, climate change has once again receded from the collective conscious, seemingly becoming a non-issue. Global warming played no role in the recent presidential election. Obama was confident that environmentalists would turn out for him because of the greater threat Romney posed, and Romney was content to ignore the issue entirely. With Hurricane Sandy, every major news station disrupted its broadcast cycle for around the clock coverage of the storm and its aftermath, and yet they rarely mentioned global warming as a factor. Why has climate change become a taboo subject in the country again? Shouldn’t the instance of not one, but two major hurricanes landing in the Northeast in two years trigger a major discussion on climate change?

Natural disasters such as the recent hurricane at the very least should raise questions about global warming and its implications. Global warming’s swift but silent departure from the national spotlight is largely a function of the way the nation responded to the conservative narrative of the environment as external to us, suitable for human mastery, free from consequence. The recent hurricane—as but one of many recent natural disasters aided by rapid climate change—presents an opportunity to challenge that narrative.

That the hurricane rendered networks of transportation impotent from the subway system, to bridges, to even the gas stations denies that narrative’s claim to validity: the environment is neither external nor limitlessly controllable. While we can so often entirely neglect our place in a broader natural world, there will always be events that, through the threat of catastrophe, disrupt our investment in the fiction of control modern humans cling to.

Hurricanes as natural disasters necessitate a reevaluation—or, for those of us untroubled by questions of our relationship to the environment, merely an initial evaluation—of our place in a broader ecosystem of which we are but one of many players. Hurricanes are a reminder of the dominance of the natural environment in which we reside; they force us to attempt reconsider humanity’s supposed dominance upon a planet that, in truth, remains very much outside of human control.

Hurricane Sandy thus presents a rare opportunity for the re-politicization of our relationship toward the environment. Especially given the recent election and its attendant reshuffling of political priorities, we cannot ignore this opportunity to return climate change to the forefront of our nation’s political debates. The next opportunity may come too late.