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Is the Moment Right to Reinvent Environmentalism?
Alex Steffen, 23 Dec 04

Can we really reinvent environmentalism? Can we create a vision of sustainable prosperity powerful enough to capture the world's imagination? Can we reframe the debate around our relationship with the planet? Can we deliver new green technology and innovation to back it up? There are some good reasons to think we can.

First. several prominent environmentalists have delivered stinging rebukes of the workings of the developed world's environmental movement in recent weeks, most famously former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, who delivered an "autopsy" of the conservation movement.

The time seems right to rethink fundamentals.

Second, it's becoming more and more clear that our impact on the Earth's climate, biodiversity and ecosystem services is more dire than many of us understood, and appears to be accelerating. It is now clear that it is not only possible to trigger environmental collapses, but that we're beginning to see them unfold. That, especially, is Jared Diamond's contention in his latest book, Collapse:

"Today, ecocide has come to overshadow nuclear war and emerging diseases as a major threat to global civilization, and it will become acute within the next few decades. We are faced with even more environmental problems than past societies--specifically, human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the Earth's photosynthetic capacity--and the risk of such collapses is now a matter of increasing concern. Indeed, collapses have already materialized for Somalia, Rwanda, and some other Third World countries. ...

"First, ask some ivory-tower academic ecologist, one who knows a lot about the environment but never reads a newspaper and has no interest in politics, to name the overseas countries facing some of the worst problems of environmental stress, overpopulation, or both. The ecologist would answer, "That's a no-brainer--it's obvious. Your list of environmentally stressed or overpopulated countries should surely include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somalia, plus others." Then go ask a First World politician--who knows nothing and cares less about the environment and population problems--to name the world's worst trouble
spots: ... countries that, as a result of those problems of their own, are also creating problems for First World countries, which may end up having to provide foreign aid for them, or may face illegal immigrants from them, or may decide to provide them with military assistance to deal with rebellions and terrorists, or may even have to send in their own troops. The politician would answer, "That's a no-brainer--it's obvious. Your list of political trouble spots should surely include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somalia, plus others."

"Surprise, surprise: The two lists are the same."

So, there's motive and opportunity: what about means?

That would appear to be arriving. Look at the explosion of interest in bright green technologies in the design professions, in business and in popular culture. From Hollywood to Wall Street to the radical fringe of design innovation, there's a sense that a cultural moment is unfolding. An awareness that sustainability can be cosmopolitan and urban, stylish and dynamic, profitable and progressive.

I know I can provide anecdotal evidence for the trend myself: I've been getting a bunch of calls from journalists and requests to speak to groups in the last month or so. Other allies I've spoken to report a similar buzz. Heck, even the parties are getting better, like the Treehugger launch party the other night, which was jammed with hip, interesting people having a fabulous time and talking about how to change the world.

Having a fabulous time. Changing the world. Isn't that what it's all about?

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One of the simplest, and most maddenly difficult, tasks is to distinguish "Development" from "Growth." The Earth has developed for several billion years using pretty much the same resources; it hasn't "grown," but it's "developed" mind-blowing diversity, complexity and beauty. Humans haven't learned to do that yet. I think we can. While I'm sure that exponential growth isn't sustainable forever, or for even much longer, the potential for humans to develop is probably unlimited. I think that's a key distinction, but it's daunting to make it in public. We're addicted to growth.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Dec 04

Jacqui at Enviropundit and I (at Sustainablog) have been discussing issues of "eco-economics" over the past week. Unfortunately, that discussion was born out of a less postive development: the criticism of sustainability by "free-market environmentalists" (and I'm using that label in it's more Orwellian sense). It's been 11 years since Paul Hawken published The Ecology of Commerce -- what are we not doing to get these kinds of opitmistic and even-handed approaches to environmental problems into the public consciousness?

Posted by: Jeff McIntire-Strasburg on 24 Dec 04

A few good books I've read lately: "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawken and "Limits to Growth" (the 30 years edition). Recommended.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 24 Dec 04

while i surely agree that there are some great developments like renewable energy for instance and some of them seem very profitable, i must admit that i do not believe that this planet can be healed as long as there is a disastrous system raging on. the system is called capitalism and it makes it more profitable to exploit humans and nature than preserving them.

so we have to rethink the whole system how humans are organized, that is the way they are forced to fight each other and the planet for profits.

so environmentalists shouldn't try to create a greener capitalism but make another world possible by organizing their world differently, more equal and without exploitation. that is the key.

Posted by: sum1 on 25 Dec 04

I appreciate the fact that you posed this topic as a question instead of an exclamation mark.

"Is it time to reinvent environmentalism?" asks whether we are ready for a change, whether we are wiling to collaborate. And IF the answer is affirmative, then let's get started now. If the answer is a mumbling response ... then we better move on to topics in which we have more consensus.

One of my favorite environmental books was published in the mid 90s -- Mark Dowie's Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (published by MIT Press, which has distinguished itself as one of the major publishers of environmental must-read titles). The investigation demonstrated how national and international environmental groups lost touch with local environmentalists.

Unfortunately, not much has changed. No one paid attention to the warnings nor suggestions of how to do things differently.

It does not help that the market for professional environmental journalism, particularly that which covers international issues, has collapsed. We can blog all we want ... but if the infrastructure for progressive communication is missing, then we are doing little more than reinventing the wheel.

Posted by: Ron Mader on 26 Dec 04

It will be up to bloggers and the Net to form a solution to environmental problems.

While bloggers have the freedom to complain about how environmental news is covered, those in the media are busting to make a living. Their stories and publications are ad supported. They are humans like us, but their advertisers hold the purse strings. There has been government interference recently in well respected newspapers.

Bloggers are not regulated by Rupert Murdock or George Bush. Perhaps one way to gain respect is for environmental technological groups to buy ad space. Until then, the future of free press is in blogs, word of mouth and typing.

Posted by: Mike Long on 30 Dec 04



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