The Deadly Middle

No, this isn’t a post about politics (though politics is very much on most people’s minds right now as the U.S. presidential vote count nears its razor’s-edge conclusion).

This is a post about the global environmental crisis, and our response to it. (“Our” meaning environmentalists.)

As I type those words “global environmental crisis” and read them over, they seem thin and flabby, like a popular song that gets too much airplay and loses its power to move people.

So how about I try a different set of words. How about “worldwide state of environmental emergency.” That’s a mouthful, but has a bit more compelling feel to it.

This blog and my book are aimed at a specific audience: people who 1) believe the climate scientists and other experts who say we are in a global state of emergency; and 2) share my belief that we, everyday people, have the power to turn things around. My term for our group is #GrassrootsGreenMobilization, also known as “Deep-Green Troops.”
(A collateral audience of this blog, and of my book, is people who need or want to radically reduce their financial overhead. Also people who want to take their household disaster-resilience to a whole new level. But for this post, I’m just focusing on my original intended audience of “deep-green troops.”)
A term popped into my mind today: The Deadly Middle. It describes a phenomenon I’ve noticed for a long time and sometimes felt hopeless about. The Deadly Middle is the vast mushy terrain between “appropriate response to acute emergency that’s right up in our face” and “appropriate response to non-emergency situation.”

When there’s no emergency, people go about their day in a normal fashion. When there’s an acute, in-your-face emergency, it’s all hands on deck and everyone’s trying to help. Say you were at the beach and a child was drowning. Some people would be diving in to save the kid; others might be calling 911 or running to get the Beach Patrol, and so on. Nobody would be standing around yawning or pointing fingers or sipping umbrella drinks.

The problem is, when it comes to the environment, there is a huge emergency, but it’s not the “child is drowning right here right now” kind. Welcome to the Deadly Middle, where not everyone even agrees there’s an emergency, and even among those who agree, there’s not enough agreement on what’s an appropriate response.
It often feels surreal. People who genuinely believe there’s a state of worldwide environmental emergency are still drinking bottled water; still hopping on airplanes for social and recreational visits; still accepting the car-dependent lifestyle; still (fill in the blank with your favorite everyday eco outrage).

People are good at responding to emergency when the government tells them it’s an emergency. The Covid shutdown was a prime example. People (for the most part) listened and responded in a manner appropriate to a state of emergency.
Granted, not everyone agrees that we are in a worldwide state of environmental emergency. Those who don’t are not the audience for this post; I’m not out to persuade anyone who’s not ready to be persuaded.

The audience for this post is those of us who agree that there is an emergency. Right here right now, and everywhere.

How should we best respond? If the government’s not telling me we have an eco crisis, and I’m doing things like carry around my own reusable spoon and cup, refuse rides that are out of people’s way, go thirsty rather than drink bottled water, do without a fridge to offset the extra electricity consumed by Zoom meetings, sound a bit shrill and rabid when speaking out against harmful landscaping standards, am always standing up opening my mouth about something at a public meeting, shun new clothes for the most part, spend hours writing letters to the editor and my elected officials, etc., don’t I just end up looking like a bozo or outright lunatic and not accomplishing anything?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, there are always social penalties for going against mainstream norms. Penalties can range from mild ridicule to full-blown ostracism or even permanent estrangement and loss of livelihood.

But then again: If someone is going around saying there’s an emergency, but their actions don’t match their words, aren’t they the one who looks like a bozo?

Lately I have been getting more comfortable with the phrase “We are in a worldwide state of environmental emergency.” As in: No, I’m not buying this or that product; no, I’m not burning a bunch of gasoline needlessly; no, I’m not donating money to this nonprofit organization that’s a poor steward of resources; no, I’m not investing any of my life savings in Wall Street … because we are in a state of worldwide environmental emergency.

Try it out, and if it helps, use it! To me it’s like having a really big tough friend standing behind me when I’m talking back to the bullies.

And yes, sometimes the bully I’m talking back to is my own self. My own desire, sometimes, to shut off my caring and just be free to consume mindlessly. When I say the thing about the state of worldwide emergency, it weakens my own inner bully and fortifies my caring self.

Lately my approach to dealing with the eco crisis is to ask myself: To what extent am I feeding it? To what extent am I starving it? You may have heard the tale about “Which wolf wins? Whichever wolf I feed.” I’m not perfect but at least I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, my actions are subtracting from the crisis more than adding to it.

Also consider: If we eco folk are going around trying to convince people there’s a state of emergency, and our words are visibly matched by strong actions, other people are far more likely to listen and follow suit. Thus helping to accelerate a shift away from consumerist defaults.

Looking back over the past few decades, I think this has been a weakness of the environmental movement all along: that our actions haven’t matched up to the urgency of our words. I expect the people who believe there’s an emergency to be living their lives a LOT differently from those who don’t believe anything’s wrong.