Review: The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture

The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture
The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture by Mary Pipher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.

What environmentalist has not at least sometimes felt the way that Mary Pipher did when she set out to write this book? It can be devastating: every day you set out to fight something, and most of the time you lose; when you win, the wins are often temporary and lost again in the future. Climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, all continue to worsen, while society as a whole remains willfully unaware, determined to shop its way to salvation. Each of those problems has the potential to collapse human society and even end the human habitability of planet earth; combined, they are terrifying, and yet very few people seem to be terrified. For people working, either professionally or on the side, in the environmental field, the combination can be psychologically debilitating.

So what a wonderful idea, to write a book from a therapist’s perspective, on how not to become unhinged and to maintain one’s ability to work productively.

Except that Mary Pipher is not qualified to write this book. Her environmental activism began in 2010, and she is unable to consider the humanity of her opponents.

I admire her body of work and have read most of her books, including Writing to Change the World, which was phenomenal. I understand and respect that she has a lifetime of activism behind her on many issues. But environmental activism and specifically climate change activism are different in some key ways that she does not discuss or admit to, the key difference being that the loved Other is constantly dying, and this may cause the death of everything. And with all due respect, those of us who have been working on this for more than three years have already gone through the process she describes–more than once. What will she do when all of the work she pours into this comes back again and again as worth nothing or less than nothing? When she fails, not once, but dozens of times–will she keep getting up and finding solace in continuing to work and building a community? Maybe. But I’d find it a lot more convincing if she either had that experience herself, or had talked to those of us who had.

The other issue, the dehumanization of the proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline, is particularly ironic as she spent a large part of Writing to Change the World arguing how important it is not to do that. As a result, she comes off as less of a climate activist and more of a NIMBY, determined to keep the Keystone Pipeline away from Nebraska but otherwise content to keep her climate activism to reusable shopping bags and CFL lightbulbs.

As someone who has been in the environmental field since highschool (I helped start my highschool’s environmental club), who has studied it and worked in it full-time ever since, it is impossible to overstate how enormously frustrating this is. Every landscape is special to the people who live there. Every one has some feature or service that makes it unique and important and worthy of conservation. No project is perfect or without impact. There is no such thing as a “perfect” location for any project; just ones that are good enough, and ones that aren’t.

Having been on the receiving end of the kinds of character assassinations that she engages in (in my case for wind energy projects), I can state categorically that it has no positive outcome whatsoever to speak or write of people that way. Whoever produced the Keystone XL Environmental Impact Statement, and without regard to the quality of their work or the accuracy of their conclusions, they are almost certainly good people trying to do what they believe is the right thing. To characterize them as corrupt evil-doers trying to buy off Nebraska politicians goes far beyond “unhelpful.”

There is some good material here to those new to climate activism–say, post the Copenhagen debacle–in terms of how to cope and keep working. For anyone who has been through more than a few rounds on this one, this is not the book for you. I wish Pipher had sat on this for a few years and written it with the benefit of more hindsight and perspective, after having had some conversations with her enemies, and after having talked to climate activists who have had to cope with these emotions over decades. How great it would have been to hear Bill McKibben’s thoughts on this, or Hansen’s. I very much suspect that by 2020, Pipher will feel the same way.

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