These past few weeks, I found myself in face to face forums and discussions about green living. I wouldn’t be motivated to attend of my own accord. But I did so to support my wife, who was part of these talks. She is currently into conducting natural hand dyeing workshops, which would be a fascinating topic for another blog. But today, I’m writing about the open forums where people had a lot to say about green living in general. And I bit my lip for the entirety of the talks.
Back when I was a graduate student taking up Environmental Science, I often wondered why my professors weren’t really part of any environmental advocacy movement. They did extension and consultancy work. But they’re never at the forefront of any advocacy, which to my limited exposure and mindset back then, seemed like a no-brainer.
I thought about joining Greenpeace Philippines, but never got around to actually doing so. The reason for my being deterred seemed pretty shallow, though. I just happened to arrive late for their orientation. Traffic wasn’t good and I got lost trying to find their headquarters. By the time I found it, people, most of whom were much younger than me, were already filing out. I talked a bit with the guy who probably facilitated the orientation, but that didn’t amount to much. Maybe he was tired and didn't have much patience left for some late-comer. Maybe he saw me getting off my old gas-guzzling 1991 Mitsubishi Galant and wasn't impressed. I don’t know why I expected a warmer reception. But not receiving it cast a wet blanket over my enthusiasm. And that was it. Almost.
Despite that, I still regularly visited the global online forum of Greenpeace. There weren’t a lot of actual volunteers among them. But a lot of people from all over the world visited, which I found exciting. I was eager to be more aware of what’s going on outside my backyard, so to speak. However, as time went by, I noticed tension among its constituency. Much of the activity in the forums was generated by a minority of alarmists and pseudo activists. Moderates such as myself simply tended to go with their flow. While on the other end, were the supposed trolls, contradicting the alarmists. I still haven’t forgotten how a particular Norwegian dude kept posting about his refusal to subscribe to the popular sentiments and how tasty whale meat was. Boy, were the alarmists triggered. At first, I found the whole thing distasteful. I didn’t understand why he even bothered. But in the end just shrugged my shoulders snickering to myself. He was a bona fide troll and not worth taking seriously.
I also had my own tussles in that forum. For example, one time, someone started a photo contest, which I eagerly joined. It was simple enough – send in pictures of birds. Now, I wasn’t much of a photographer back then. This was my pre-DSLR days and I knew next to nothing about photographic exposure. But I was confident enough to say that my work back then could hold its own against anything else that were submitted. I lost. Do you know why? It wasn’t because my pics were bad. Well, they're not that good by my current students, but trust me, the others I saw were worse . It’s because the judges and the rest of the vocal members didn’t like that one of the birds I shot was tied to a perch. They immediately assumed the birds in my pics – a Philippine Hawk-Eagle, a serpent eagle and a kestrel – were pets. I explained that they were in a bird sanctuary, so I was able to shoot up close. More importantly, these birds were being taken care of with the intention of being re-introduced to their habitats. It hardly mattered.
I got myself in another argument later. I don’t even remember what it was about. But I was calling for a less-lopsided and more evidence-based discussion on whatever environmental issue the topic was. Remember, I was still an impressionable environmental science student at the time. All I got for a response was this rant that didn’t even address my point. Then it finally occurred to me… much of the vocal crowd were driven by emotions, rather than a scientific or factual understanding of how the environment works. I suspected that I was in the virtual presence of arm chair activists, judgmental vegans and neoliberals – the makeup of what we know today as the social justice warriors. They hated people like me. This was all but confirmed through interviews with former Greenpeace members I read, including one of its co-founders. I just got tired of the constant hatred for humans, so I logged off one final time and didn’t look back. We can’t come up wth sensible solutions to dealing with environmental issues in contempt against humanity. Like it or not, we ourselves must factor in the solution and therefore cannot be ignored. It’s been years since I have intently browsed through the Greenpeace website.
Little did I know that this was but one of many battlegrounds for the prelude to the post-Gamergate culture war that we are experiencing today. It certainly changed the way I think about global issues such as climate change and how I approached any sort of discussion. And then and there, I understood why my professors weren’t big environmental advocates. We have a different calling – to properly educate people by making them aware of the many sides to each issue and let them make up their own minds. And yes, that includes us, too. There is still so much we do not understand about this planet. Saying anything definitive about how and why there is climate change is something I will leave for people better than I.
Now, going back to the Unconference, I kept quiet because while I definitely have my perception and opinions, I didn’t know these people. Where they come from is easily apparent. But how they are as people… I didn’t know. I wanted to avoid any risk of starting arguments with strangers. I had no intention of making a scene while my wife was in front of everybody. But I will say that such discussions can be helped immensely if more people well-versed in the known science are part of it. The Google search engine is an incredibly powerful tool, but I don’t think we should rely solely on it for knowledge. At the same time, the scientific community could do a better job spreading the knowledge. There is never a shortage of studies in universities. But how much of their findings actually trickle down to the general public? Papers are published exclusively in journals which, aside from people doing research themselves, hardly anybody would read. And even then, many of these papers are behind pay walls, which I honestly, would not bother with unless my university already has access.
Academics and scientists doing local grassroots work need more support and exposure. While I’m not saying there is a total disconnect, the divide is certainly significant. And in some cases, it’s toxic. Smart-shaming has unfortunately become a thing, likely a negative reaction to how some of the more intellectually gifted people behave. As they say… with great enlightenment comes great arrogance. I see it a lot in the Internet and it is miserable. But it is a relief to see that it’s not like that in my immediate physical reality. That’s why there is still much relevance in face to face open forums. You can’t beat the sharing of knowledge and experience that happens in them.
I would like to see the divide bridged someday. Advocacy needs to be tempered by balanced thorough knowledge and academic pursuit guided by positive purpose. I get the value of being emotionally driven, but without the proper compass, it can be a dangerous path to take.