According to Johann Hari, writing for Slate, there are at least two kinds of environmentalists: the romantics and the realists.
The romantics—a tradition you can peel back to Wordsworth’s daffodils—see environmental crises as primarily spiritual. They believe concrete and cities and factories are fundamentally inhuman, alienated habitats that can only make us sick. They cut us off from the natural rhythms of the land, and encourage us to break up the world into parts and study them mechanistically—when, in fact, everything is connected…
The rational environmentalists … believe our crisis is not spiritual at all, but physical. Human beings didn’t unleash warming gases into the atmosphere out of malice or stupidity or spiritual defect: They did it because they wanted their children to be less cold and less hungry and less prone to disease. The moral failing comes only very late in the story—when we chose to ignore the scientific evidence of where wanton fossil-fuel burning would take us. This failing must be put right by changing our fuel sources, not altering our souls.
We might recast these as those who want to return to nature, and those who want to preserve nature:
Diagnose the problem differently, and you end up with fundamentally different solutions. You can see this most clearly if you look at the environmentalist clash over cities, over how we should live: Is the way forward to build more cities or to try to get people to flee to the countryside?
Personally, I’m a realist (as is Hari). Hari, though, tries to make the case for realism by pointing to the thought processes involved (e.g., “the cities of human beings are as natural .. as are the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters.”). However, I think realism is the only option for those of us who live in the real world — and I’m not using that phrase metaphorically: really mean anyone who lives on Planet Earth.
The Reality on the Ground.
Here’s the problem: There are over 6,000,000,000 people on Earth. There are only 58,179,688 square miles of land. That is over 103 people per square mile. If we fan out into the countryside, there will be no countryside. And keep in mind that those 58,179,688 square miles of land include the Earth’s deserts (14% of land) and high mountains (27% of land).
I love Nature. I love spending time in Nature. (I’d love to publish in Nature, too, but that’s a different topic.) The only way it will be possible for any sizeable chunk of people to spend time in Nature is for most of us to live in cities — frankly, in cities more dense than the ones that exist today in America.
It may be true that there are too many people, but before anyone suggests we start reducing the world population, keep in mind that if we want to ge to the point where there is only 1 person per square mile, over 99% of humanity must disappear. Personally, that’s not my environmentalism fantasy.