Environmental Catastrophe

There has been an environmental catastrophe up here in Toronto, Canada. Let me explain.

For the past half-century, since I was a rural high school student busing into the city on weekends, I had been buying serious books from the Bob Miller Bookroom. It was one of a half dozen or more that sold freshly published classics and philosophy – and other “highbrow” volumes. It was the last such private business to survive in greater Toronto.

Yesterday, I discovered their shop in ruins. The books were being crated off; the shelves broken up. One might compare the scene to a terrorist hit, but of course there were no terrorists. It was just the free market, adopting another “market-based solution.”

The second-hand bookstores have also been closing. Once there were a dozen of them, along just a couple of blocks on Queen Street. Now there are not that many in the whole, vast metropolitan area. I will spare gentle reader the whole chronicle.

One may argue that the Internet made these institutions unnecessary. Go online and you may find everything, it seems – for a price. Ten thousands of old texts, out of copyright, may even be downloaded for free. We may forego a long discussion about technical means. Isn’t technology wonderful, &c.

That is one part of the environmental catastrophe. The value people place on free things is zero, though they may riot if the giveaways stop. When they must actually pay, or make other sacrifices, they value what they have obtained. This is human nature. It does not change when technology changes; it cannot ever be suppressed for long. But it can be corrupted.

I could tell you about the environmental catastrophe in the media, too; how I used to be able to buy serious out-of-town newspapers, and intellectual journals – right on the street. Now all such goods are invisibly online, or more likely, extinct.

We have Facebook and a plethora of low-grade, unreliable websites. And where the kiosks and newsstands survive as franchise names, they sell lottery tickets, soft drinks, and maybe a few (mostly rude) glossy magazines. No one can credibly argue that the “tone” of our society has been improved by these “innovations.”

Do physical objects make a difference in life? Yes. They create an environment. As they disappear it is uncreated. Something else fills each hole. Everything of value – even passing value to our “information age” – has been sucked into the “smartphones” that, I notice, almost everyone on the subway is fidgeting with.

It is an environmental catastrophe. But here I am speaking not of “sustainable resources,” but of the human environment, sucked into cyberspace.


Another, from my walkabout yesterday. I was to meet an old friend in a restaurant, which we found suddenly smashed up. A new one will be opened there, according to a poster. It will offer “organic food.” I guarantee, the prices will be higher. This will help pay for the new decor. The old will go into landfills.

What a waste, I think. Every few years, each restaurant is replaced. More largely, the city is under constant reconstruction. By waste, I mean waste. Think of the incredible quantity of materials that goes into “renovations” that will, in all likelihood, be torn out the year after next.

As the city is transformed, it is humanly decaying. It becomes ever more alien to its inhabitants. Their jobs, too, become more temporary. So do their families, for that matter. The neighborhoods, the churches, are gutted, physically.

Human nature does not change, however, which is why the developers persist in giving their monstrous new subdivisions such Arcadian names. An appalling asphalt wilderness will be called, say, “Mountainview Meadows.” There will be no mountain, no meadow for twenty miles. It is pure hype: glitzy urban hovels, for people who still dream of mountains and meadows.

As I say, this is an environmental catastrophe. There are millions of them happening around us. And yet none of them count, except as statistics.

I laugh bitterly when, for instance, millions are being spent in replacing something plain, simple, and aesthetically unobtrusive with the latest “green technology.” Example, billions to install a new state-of-the-art, exhaust-free “light rail” transit system that will have less than half the capacity, and routes, of the (electric) streetcar tracks that were ripped out a generation ago. The new trolleys (costing millions, each) will now be public transportation from one car park to another.

The streets were broadened to accommodate the muscle cars. The horsepower per rider has increased many times. Children grow up by street sides that remain construction pits, year after year. None of this went into the accounting, except as an afterthought.

Beneath this lies a philosophical and theological problem, more profound than any political or economic one.

The “conservation” ethic I recall from childhood has been itself transformed into an “environmental” ethic, with constant state propaganda and omnipresent commercial hype.

Decades ago, the advocates of “progress” would condemn conservationists for getting in their way. Now they have secured progress, by Orwellian management of terms.

Wherever one sees environmentalism in action, this revised ethic now requires the opposite of conservation. Far from eliminating waste, the “greening” compounds it. It is a constant process of destruction and replacement; endless advocacy for change, change, change. The people themselves must change with the changes.

The very conception of “environment” has been inverted. The qualitative has been replaced with the quantitative. The argument is now for the elimination of what has been arbitrarily demonized: coal, CO2, drinking straws, whatever is the focus this week. Change your lifestyle!

Under the old, conservative thought regime, the environment was for man. Under the new, man is for the environment.

It grieves me that the Vatican has joined this revolution. I hear this in endless papal and episcopal dilations. We get “global warming” even from the pulpit. The Church, too – Christ – “must change with the times.”


*Image: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi by Pieter van der Willigen, c. 1690 [Puskin Museum, Moscow]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.