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

By Ed Whittingham

by Arno Kopecky, ECW Press, 2021/$24.95/264 pp.

Unpredictable yet increasingly consistent, smoke season dominates our conversation whenever it arrives. It’s novel, and ominous, and fleeting, the perfect conversational kindling. Imagine, we say, we’re breathing in what used to be a forest, animals included. Or simply, What a sunset.

So Arno Kopecky writes off the top of The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis. I read this passage on the shore of the Kicking Horse River, on an August evening so smoky from local fires that one couldn’t see more than a few hundred metres downriver. The evening featured a blood-red sunset, both deeply alluring in its beauty and emblematic of our summer of destructive forest fires.

You may know Kopecky as the author of two previous books, The Devil’s Curve and The Oil Man and the Sea, or from his frequent contributions to The Globe and Mail and other periodicals. As I write this, his insightful commentary on BC’s Fairy Creek blockade stares at me from the front page of the opinion section in my Saturday Globe.

The Environmentalist’s Dilemma is his first book of essays, 13 of them. His dilemma is this: Life has never been so good for us humans as measured by countless yardsticks. Think Steven Pinker and The Better Angels of Our Nature. But other species of life suffer from the demands we put on the planet for more convenience, more new and improved things, more-fulfilling lives. Think The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. We are simultaneously making progress and losing ground. How can one both desire the former while deploring the latter? Or enjoy the blood sunset while loathing the fire’s devastation? That paradox forms the environmentalist’s dilemma.

After an eventful year and a half, Kopecky’s book of dilemmas is timely and relevant. It provides a road map to “engage with the story of our times” and the captivating people crafting a response to climate change in divergent ways. In “Rebel, Rebel,” Kopecky spends a year chronicling the Extinction Rebellion movement, from its English origins to his local Vancouver branch of XR. Why does a retired Anglican priest join Extinction Rebellion rather than some mainstream environmental group? “The honest answer is that I feel energized by catastrophe.” In “Once Upon a Time in Deutschland,” we meet his devout Christian, Trump-loving, Iowan farming extended family, and their All in the Family culture wars with Kopecky’s progressive and peppery Edmontonian father.

Rebels, Trumpkins, conspiracy theorists, solitary Alberta dippers, Elizabeth May’s mother, Mickey Mouse—Dilemma’s essays humanize those on the left and right energized by various catastrophes, whether real or otherwise. We need more humanizing such as this if we are to begin reversing the dangerous polarization of our times.

Taken together, Kopecky’s essays form a self-help manual for the inevitable disequilibrium that comes with daily reminders of our inadequate response to environmental catastrophe. Kopecky’s wife, Kiran, puts it well: “There’s nothing wrong with a little cognitive dissonance. We don’t have to make it all go away. We can sit with it awhile, let truths and behaviours that conflict with one another be what they are.”

The book is full of insights like that. When I first picked it up, I half expected angst-ridden, depressing environmentalism. Instead I got wit and relatability. Kopecky is widely travelled and full of panache. This provides him with a deep well of colourful anecdotes to weave into his stories.

Not all of Kopecky’s essays are equally good, but that’s to be expected. If you enjoyed reading Jonathan Franzen’s The End of the End of the Earth, and you need help processing the lunacy of our current politics, you will enjoy this collection too.

Ed Whittingham is co-host of the Energy vs. Climate podcast and a dilemma-ridden environmentalist in Canmore.

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