Reading About Sustainability: The Environmentalist's Dilemma by Arno Kopecky

Reading About Sustainability @trishtalksbooks
September 2023

The Environmentalist's Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis by Arno Kopecky
ECW Press (2021)

Read This Book If:

You feel like it’s time to sit down and read a book about the climate crisis, but what you really want to do is sit around the dinner table and talk with someone who’s thought a lot about this topic and has some really interesting things to say, putting words to some of the difficult conundrums that you’ve been mulling over in your head about how to think about and react to climate change.

About the author:

Arno Kopecky is a journalist focusing on environmental issues. This is his third book. His book The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway won the 2014 Edna Staebler Award and was shortlisted for the 2014 the Governor General’s Award for English-language non-fiction. He is based in Vancouver.

Why I wanted to read this:

I love reading local-to-me authors, and honestly, I found a copy of this book in my neighbourhood Little Free Library. I read the blurb and liked the premise so I made it a priority for this sustainability project. It was a timely and useful read, particularly after having read a lot of other informational climate books. Kopecky’s book is more a “musing” on issues, essays that I could sit back and contemplate now that I’m familiar with some of the basic premises. It felt like a bit of a conversation.

Questions it answered for me:

There are thirteen essays in this book, and each one of them is excellent. Each wrestles with a dilemma that makes the brain hurt just a little when thinking about how to interact with climate change in everyday life. It’s comforting to see Kopecky, a man who has spent an awful lot of time close to this issue and thinking about it, also wrestling with some of the same doubts as I have. He comes at it thoughtfully, and his discussions resonated. His helpful conclusions eased my cognitive dissonance a bit.

And he’s funny! It’s so nice to read a book on a crisis which uses humour to make a point, or for wry self-assessment. This book is easy to read; I found myself wanting to come back to it, see where each essay was going, and what conclusions Kopecky would come up with. Though there are many take-away points, here are a few highlights:

  • He begins by documenting a trip he took with his spouse and daughter to Disneyland in "Mickey Mouse is All Right," which raises many environmental questions. “I’m wondering if it’s even possible for a climate-conscious individual to participate in an industrialised society like Canada’s without incurring some [climate guilt]. That’s true even if you don’t fly to Disneyland with your family, a guilty pleasure at best that no honest appraisal can justify in climate terms. Unfortunately, embarrassingly, to live above the poverty line involves climate-unfriendly actions almost by definition. We drive cars with internal combustion engines, or use electricity derived from fossil fuel combustion, or ship imperfectly…do you use the internet? If so, you’re contributing to an industry that accounts for over three percent of global emissions, comparable to the global airline industry…The closer you look, the more it becomes a question of where to draw the line.”
  • In "The Suspension of Disbelief," he riffs on the history of truth and lies, and how a conspiracy mindset has led to climate change denial. Trying to eliminate the cognitive dissonance of what we wish to be true and what is actually true is really hard, and can lead to all sorts of weird beliefs. It’s dangerous, but there’s a burgeoning hope that we can hold on to truth in this age of “false news”.
  • I also valued the chapter "Rebel, Rebel," about how we often appreciate protesters that put themselves in harm’s way for the environment, but we’re not quite ready to join the protests ourselves. He uses the example of the Extinction Rebellion group. Perhaps the point of protest is to show resistance and to be one of the multitude of voices that give a small shock to the political/corporate/”things as they are” system at crucial points. If protest is done repeatedly at the right times–and in consultation with BIPOC folks–it can make a difference. (Whether Kopecky or I show up to protest or not!).
  • In "Portents and Prophecies," Kopecky discusses the poor case that we make for climate change in our stories about it. Climate change isn’t glamorous: “Anyone who tries to tell this tale enters a bizarre hall of mirrors: We’ve heard it all before and yet need to know more; it’s depressing and yet slips into propaganda if we try to inject hope.” And how do we get past this? “We tell good stories, that’s how.” He notes that fiction in particular has not done a great job of showcasing climate change. I think that’s a super interesting point because I’ve just begun to see some really exciting climate fiction enter the literary stage.
  • The end brings "Every Little Thing," which bookends the collection nicely, because we’re full circle back to how to cope with what is “enough” to do for the climate, back to the question: Does what we as individuals do matter very much? I’ve thought a lot about this. I like Kopecky’s conclusions. There are lots if interesting reasons to recycle, and buy local, to stick to thrift shops and walk and bike more, but in the end:
“I submit that the chief benefit of doing whatever little things we can is personal. Becoming aware that every little thing we do has some impact, and acting accordingly gives our lives purpose It imbues our humdrum daily routine with a little hit of meaning. To eat with intention, to reduce our consumption of material goods, to drive a little less and walk a little more, and to choose our leaders carefully–nont of these things are guaranteed to change the world. But they’re likely to make us feel better.

And you never know. Sometimes, the world does change as a result of these multitudinous actions.”
For me, another reason to act individually, and one that he mentions earlier in the chapter, is to decrease the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that living unsustainably in the face of a changing planet creates. If I feel more in harmony with the earth and my care for it, I’ll be more at peace and in a headspace to look at engaging in effective ways for climate change.

This is a great book to start conversations with yourself and with others. It has sparked a few interesting dinner conversations with friends and family already. I hope you’ll pick it up!


Returning briefly to Kopecky’s comments around the dearth of good climate fiction, for one of my next features for Reading About Sustainability I plan to highlight some literary fiction that does an amazing job of storytelling about the climate crisis. Stay tuned!