1279 Many little acts of rebellion

The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis
by Arno Kopecky

Toronto: ECW Press, 2021
$24.95 / 9781770416093

Reviewed by Mike Starr


The Environmentalist’s Dilemma is not a typical environmental call to action. This book is more difficult to categorize; it is non-fiction, intensely personal, and autobiographical in parts, including even some family history. It’s also a confession, a personal mea culpa that all of us in the middle class, if we’re at all aware, should be able to identify with. We see the need for drastic climate action, but we are caught with a lack of options. “Unfortunately, embarrassingly, to live above the poverty line involves climate-unfriendly actions almost by definition” (p. 23).

Kopecky is acknowledging here that he is complicit in the systems that are harming the Earth. If we’re honest, we all (at least those of us in “the West”) have to admit to the same. As the trolls on social media delight to point out, even environmental activists fly to conferences and drive cars that emit tons of CO2 (or are manufactured using processes that create tons of emissions). On a deeper level, we all participate in the capitalist/consumer economy, which keeps most of us supplied with food, housing, and transportation, and also with all manner of knick-knacks and toys that we don’t really need, at the expense of the natural world. This economy, to keep going, relies on ever-growing consumption, and is responsible for using Earth’s resources at a rate that would require 1.75 Earths, at last count, to sustain. The environmentalist’s job is to point out that we only have 1.0 Earths, and that our lifestyles are rapidly condemning this planet to become uninhabitable to vast portions of the population.

Arno Kopecky of Squamish. Photo by Christopher Edmonstone

As if it’s not hard enough to urge immediate and drastic change when one is part of the problem, environmentalists have to communicate with a public for whom life is more and more comfortable. “Things have never been so good for humanity, nor so dire for the planet” (p. 2). Kopecky lists the areas of human progress: for example, maternal and infant mortality rates, food security, education, and human rights, while lamenting the “campaign of annihilation known as the sixth great extinction” (p. 3) against all life that is not human.

Even while speaking of the ever-improving lot of humanity, Kopecky acknowledges global inequity. A large part of humanity is not tasting the benefits of advances and is suffering along with nature. According to a 2015 report from Oxfam, the poorest 50 percent of humanity are responsible for only 10 percent of emissions, and yet are the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Meanwhile, those of us in the global top 10 percent — and this would include most of the industrialized world — are responsible for 50 percent of carbon emissions, and are the least vulnerable to their effects.

Victoria-born Thomas Homer-Dixon

Now climate change is not a new problem; scientists have been drawing our attention to it for decades. What is holding up government action? Kopecky’s next dilemma is one that writer Thomas Homer-Dixon calls the “enough vs. feasible dilemma.” Any action that would be enough to avert catastrophic climate change is not feasible, due to political, economic, and other considerations, whereas actions that are feasible are not enough to avert disaster (p. 190). This would have been an opportune moment to point out that “feasible” has often been defined by oil lobbyists and the politicians they have influenced, rather than by what is actually possible. Seth Klein, in his book A Good War, takes on this dilemma, showing, by reference to Canada’s efforts in the Second World War, that what is enough for our present crises is actually feasible, given strong government leadership.

Kopecky also calls us to demilitarize our language. We so easily fall into using the language of war, and we demonize those who don’t share our urgency for action. Kopecky’s German heritage has been an occasion for him to think deeply on Nazism and how the German public was able to justify voting for and then cooperating with the Nazis’ odious schemes. Yes, the oil companies should be held accountable for their long-term efforts to play down the damage they are doing to our world, but they are not comparable to the Nazis, having “delivered a level of prosperity that our species has never before known” (p. 222). Kopecky’s acknowledgement of the nuances sets him apart from some activists. He spent a lot of time following an Extinction Rebellion group, and admires their cause and their commitment, but doesn’t buy into a stark black and white worldview. “We don’t have to turn all challenges into enemies, every conflict into war” (p. 223).

Seth Klein of SFU. Photo by Erica Johnson

If the climate crisis is not a war, and the oil companies are not an enemy, at least we can acknowledge that we are ensnared by a system that is leading us to ruin. To pretend otherwise is “living a lie.” We feel “the uncomfortable dissonance that arises when we become aware of the incalculable damage our way of life is inflicting on this planet, and on future generations” (p. 231). The only way out of this discomfort is by letting go of some of our comforts: “Becoming aware that every little thing we do has some impact, and acting accordingly gives our lives purpose…. To eat with intention, to reduce our consumption of material goods, to drive a little less and walk a little more, and to choose our leaders carefully — none of these things are guaranteed to change the world.” But Kopecky leaves us with a little bit of hope, “Sometimes the world does change as a result of these multitudinous actions” (p. 233).

To me, the value of The Environmentalist’s Dilemma is this hope, that though we are in some ways stuck within a system that limits our options, we can make little acts of rebellion against the system. Our little actions may add to the little actions of millions of others, and may one day change the world.


Mike Starr

Mike Starr (M.A. Canadian Studies, Trent 1992), retired in 2017 from Parks Canada, where he had spent 24 years as an interpreter, planner, and manager at three different national historic sites, most recently Fort Langley. He now does writing and editing from his home on the Sunshine Coast. Contact him at mike@prose-star.ca Editor’s note: Mike Starr has also reviewed books by Michael Kaehn, Cecilia Morgan, Caitlin Gordon-Walker, and Mary Tasi & Wade Baker for The Ormsby Review.


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