What Happened to Environmentalism Impacts?

If arguments being made by affirmative LD debaters are any indication of environmentalism’s momentum in a post-9/11, post-recession world, we should be very worried for the state of the planet. Said debaters have proven that if impacts aren’t about terrorism or economics, the alternative is throwing one’s hands up in the air and getting tricky.

Why are we so scared of defending impacts about the environment, particularly impacts involving global climate change? Why do we feel the need to flirt with bio-diversity impacts while secretly wanting to talk about our politics scenario all along—or the thing about mangrove trees stopping big waves of destruction…or about how mining makes a few people sick. We’ve become so deterred by the prospect of talking about the planet that we’re talking about villages instead, all in the hopes of making a concrete difference or, at least, averting a “real” catastrophe like war or terrorist attacks. Apparently The Day After Tomorrow didn’t convince anyone in the debate community.

Which is odd given that community’s ostensibly liberal slant. Has the Left given up on the environment in a world where we’re more scared of bombs and recessions? A world where we’re more concerned about the here and now. Or, is this just a peculiarity of debate itself, an indication of where its arguments are trending? Perhaps a combination of both.

It’s the strategic component that deserves our attention here. I’ve seen this topic debated at Blake and the VBT so far and witnessed only the most hesitant attempts to engage big, environmental impacts. Instead, 1ACs have preferred delving into small-plan impacts (e.g. environmental effects on local populations) and/or secondary impacts (i.e. a non-environmental scenario). Sure, there’s been the occasional bio-diversity impact, but there’s been an absence of hard-core, environmental advocacies. Rare is the mention of fossil-fuels breaking the environment. Rarer the mention of forests saving it. What happened to the core of environmental literature?

My guess is a few things.

Defending core literature is scary

In part, we’re faced with yet another example of debaters running away from the core of the literature they’ve been tasked with defending. The responses are supposedly too bountiful. The prospect of global climate change remains apparently too controversial to leverage in legitimate risk analysis. Slow as policy-makers have been to incorporate the environment into their risk-assessments, LD debaters appear to be in step. 

Maybe teams are just saving their best evidence for the TOC, but I have a suspicion we’ll see more of the same from a strategic standpoint: small plans and non-environmental impact scenarios. Even if the core literature from this topic isn’t conducive to the strongest positions ever, it’s probably worth utilizing. That might mean defending a position with a target on its back. It might mean defending a bigger plan, a more substantial policy option with broader implications. Understandably, those are propositions that give affirmative debaters pause when the 1NC has seven minutes to read evidence that could drowned the subsequent 1AR. But our ability to dominate 1ARs fundamentally depends on access to the best evidence out there, and I don’t think I’m seeing that evidence read very frequently, if at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more wide-spread attempt to avoid running a stock 1AC—defending either a plan or the whole resolution. Though there’s something about this core literature that’s accelerated that trend, it’s a trend that preexisted this topic—and an unfortunate one, to be sure.

We’re obsessed with dead or suffering bodies…and probability

It’s become abundantly obvious that persuasion matters when it comes to impacts. It matters so much that debaters have become self-selecting, running impact scenarios they know will resonate with their judges. Some of those judges will care deeply about the environment, but virtually all of them care about the reduction of human suffering and death. Their comparatively universal value makes it difficult for debaters to abandon the tried-and-true body counts, particularly ones happening now or likely to happen in the near future.

In other words, there remains an unstated bias (among critics and competitors alike) against far-away, long-term implications. Never mind how massively catastrophic climate change could be in human and economic terms alike—we feel reasonably sure we aren’t on the brink of that catastrophe. But could a 1AC’s post-fiat world make serious headway in averting that distant catastrophe? If so, that seems like territory that should be explored. As small as this topic seems during the average debate, its wording allows it to be quite big. It opens a legitimate door to multi-actor fiat in all its theoretically dubious grandeur. It demands bold policy actions that subject resource extraction to the preeminence of environmental concerns. Just how bold those policy actions are depends on little more than decisions made by the 1AC.

We’re actually not all that committed to environmentalism

Though it’s fundamentally beyond the scope of this small contribution, there’s probably something to be said about our underlying attitudes toward the environment. Whether we admit it or not, we are children of a very developed world. We enjoy the products of environmentally-tainted production on a daily basis. Our economy and freedom of movement are premised on a series of planet-dirtying practices. On some level, that has to affect our willingness to tell the story of environmentalism, to re-issue the edicts that publicly temper our very real commitments to development. We’re all aware of what’s happening to the environment, but we’re only sometimes willing to do very much about it. 

The difference between the Right and Left on this point is far more a function of ideology than output. Despite the stark disagreements between the two sides, there remains a nearly universal unwillingness to seriously alter our daily routines on behalf of the environment. What little we do is often done for us by corporations steered by consumer choice. Indeed, the most effort we typically exert on behalf of the environment is choosing one brand over another.

So maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that debaters are choosing strategy over the environment. The topic has given our community a ready-made soapbox for the reaffirmation of the environmentalist creed.   

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