The new economy could be a boon for the environment, says Robert Bateman, the world’s most celebrated wildlife artist and renowned conservationist.
Wireless and high-tech ventures are a clean industry, offering opportunities to do away with internal combustion engines, reduce fuel-guzzling transportation and connect the world’s environmentalists, Bateman said recently.
He was in Calgary on a national tour promoting his philosophies on big business, global economy, consumerism and modern technology. His thoughts on such matters appear as short essays in his newly released book, Thinking Like A Mountain (Penguin, 130 pages, $20).
It is a personal project celebrating his 70th birthday, but also a platform to express concerns about the quality of life facing his grandchildren.
E-commerce and the information-packed Internet are a “great way to bring people together without using up a lot of polluting jet fuel,” said Bateman, who shares his views with millions through his Web site, www.batemanideas.com
“Actually, the book was an outgrowth of that Web site,” he said.
If high-tech can ease society’s dependency on fossil fuels, Bateman is all for it. His house on Salt Spring Island is electrically heated and powered by solar, wind and water power.
“I’ll probably never pay back the capital costs in my lifetime, but that doesn’t matter,” he said.
With such inventions as hybrid-electric-propulsion cars (developed by the Hypercar Center in Snowmass, Colo.) that consume only one-third of the fuel used by today’s automobile, Bateman remains optimistic that society can use technology to improve the planet’s environment.
The Hypercar Center is a division of the Rocky Mountain Institute which, through its focus on business and energy policies, hopes to eliminate automobile pollution by designing cars that will be powered by fuel cells running on hydrogen fuel, he said.
“Some of these hybrid-electric propulsion cars are already on the market,” he noted.
What is lacking, Bateman believes, is the political will to protect the environment, especially if it means industry will suffer a diminished profit margin.
“None of the parties in Canada or the U.S. federal elections are talking about the environment. They’re totally silent,” he said, noting this ignores the fact the public sees the environment as a crucial issue.
“Instead, politicians are saying: ‘Vote for me and I will cut taxes,’ ” he said. “That’s so people can save more money and buy more stuff.”
Consumerism is rampant, with a public hard-wired to greed and addicted to materialism, Bateman said — a trend he believes breeds self-gratification and an apathy towards such global issues as homelessness, environmental disasters, the impact of merger-mania and loss of meaningful work.
Bateman takes the position that fuel prices should continue to escalate to curb people’s reliance on the vehicle, and that “everything should cost more so people will stop buying.”
It is a stand for which he has been criticized, especially because of his wealth.
“I’ve had people stand up and tell me that not everyone is in the position to be able to pay more, and for that I do not have an answer,” he admitted.
“But I don’t feel guilty and I don’t pretend to be Mother Teresa. I’ve been given a platform by the public. I won’t shut up.”
In his lectures to Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs and business institutions, no one has disagreed with his message, but many have asked what they can do, he said.
“Even my wife has a problem with this, because I don’t always have a solution, but I think just talking about it sometimes brings around an awareness and an answer.”
As a promoter of “small is beautiful,” he isn’t a fan of global economy, believing too much power is removed from the grassroots people for the sake of producing cheaper products.
“It’s a winner-take-all concept, and you have people making big decisions who are miles away from where that decision may have an impact. At the touch of a keyboard, the environment and people’s lives and jobs are being sacrificed for profit.”
In today’s high-tech business, multinational companies and “distant company bureaucracy” look down upon “subsistence living,” whether it is in the agriculture, fishing or logging industries, he said.
“A global economy can remove self-reliance and makes you its puppet. It takes away freedom and everyone becomes the same.”
Behaving like a “big brother,” global economics has contributed to the demise of the family farm, Bateman said. And the big companies behind genetically modified organisms are now dictating what we eat, he added.
“I’d rather see more money put into organic farming than into developing GMOs. There are no subsidies for organic farmers, and that isn’t right.”
Subsidies are tipped in favour of industrialization, but “I would prefer to see the scales tipped in favour of the little guy,” he said.
But many organizations are now fighting the “big brother” approach, using the Web to protest on a global scale, he said.
“There are 30,000 organizations in North America and 100,000 world-wide that are focusing on issues from agriculture to forestry to fishing to the homeless and the impoverished . . . and they are all heavy into the Web,” he said.
“They’re trying to make this world a better place; they’re like ecosystems, or organisms in the soil. There are many and they are growing and they are not run by big brother or any other central centre. Who knows, we could have a new world in 50 years.”
But only if society does not hide behind a computer screen and disengage from the natural world, he warned.
“The touch of flesh and blood and smell and sound are irreplaceable. You can’t really feel what is going on out there by connecting with a computer screen. You have to see it, and be in contact with all the senses.”
Bateman illustrates the possible consequence of such disengagement through his painting of a baby wildebeest separated from its herd. “It has made a fatal decision in leaving the herd. By removing itself from the others, it is no longer safe and could die.
“This is what happens if society disconnects with nature and each other,” he said. “It can be fatal to isolate yourself from the environment and communicate only through machinery . . . values should come first, and then technology.”
The new economy promotes flexibility, but also a lack of permanence, Bateman said. “Job loss and lack of loyalty can result in people feeling useless and insecure. In human and financial terms, that can really cost us as a society.”
But Bateman describes himself as a “possibilist,” believing society can still change course by making decisions which respect both humans and the environment. He remains hopeful for today’s youth, and takes pride in his two youngest sons, who enrolled in environmental geography.
There are university scholarships in his name for students enrolling in environmental studies and two schools — a public school in Ottawa and a high school in Abbotsford, B.C. — that are named after him.
What we need are more business moguls like Ted Turner, who are charitable with their wealth when it comes to paying back the planet, Bateman said.
In 1997, the Turner family launched the Turner Endangered Species Fund, a private and non-profit charity dedicated to preserving habitat biodiversity and imperiled species on the Turner lands. Turner is the United States’ largest individual land owner, owning six ranches totalling 1.5 million acres.
Since its inception, the Turner fund has donated more than $25 million to more than 450 organizations devoted to conservation.
“Ted Turner is a very powerful man, and he’s had such a positive effect on the planet. I give him five stars for what he has done,” Bateman said. “He’s showing that good business is good for the land.”