Environmentalism Refreshed

How can our environmental consciousness be productively enhanced in the new, urban, fast moving, techno-driven, unstructured, freewheeling, post-modern world of the 21st century?

The last century has yielded many societal transformations. Important among them has been the ever-growing interest in the environment in which we live. To date, the success of the environmental movement has been astounding, bringing with it improvements in health, well-being, quality of life, and future prospects for vast numbers of people. We have seen the rise of an environmental social consciousness that is becoming embedded in everyday parlance, values, and social norms. Investment in clean energy, in species, and in ecosystems has reached a scale that was, I am sure, unimaginable as late as the mid-1970s.

Given this background, I am surprised to find a growing sense of defeat gnawing at many of those involved in environmental work today—a growing feeling that we might be stalling rather than moving forward with confidence. There is no doubt that there have been setbacks. Progress achieved in many areas has not been anywhere near as quick as we had hoped for. However, I suggest that these setbacks need to be seen in the context of the long trajectory of success. To maintain this trajectory, I suggest that we might benefit from taking time to look up from our everyday tactical battles and devote time to thinking what “environmentalism” should be about. Like everything else in a changing world, the environmentalism of the past fifty years is almost certainly not optimal for the next fifty, and beyond. While the broad aims remain the same, in this two part series I will put forward some ideas about an environmentalism refreshed—one that adapts to today’s realities and can be successful in tomorrow’s world. How can our environmental consciousness be productively enhanced in the new, urban, fast moving, techno-driven, unstructured, freewheeling, post-modern world of the 21st century?

What is “environmentalism”?

We all talk about “environmentalism” but ask ten people what it is and you’ll get at least ten different answers.

Here is my attempt at a definition: Environmentalism is the politics of co-existence in the eco-sphere on which we all depend. This definition has a number of implications. First of all it acknowledges the obvious—that we ultimately depend on our ecosphere for our livelihoods, continued prosperity and, indeed, existence. We can debate which parts of our ecosphere are most important and how we should manage them, but all that is secondary to the recognition of our dependence. Secondly, it recognizes that environmentalism is a politics. It is not a science or a body of knowledge or a fringe activist movement. It is part of the mainstream politics of our own co-existence. And it is how we co-exist as people in our societies that lay the very foundations of how we then choose to, and are able to, co-exist with other creatures and within our eco-sphere. A true, sustainable and effective environmentalism is, therefore, first and foremost a social issue not a technical or scientific one. It is a socio-political concern that cannot be separated from the many societal questions that we have to tackle.

An environmentalism refreshed therefore breaks out of the environmental activist habit of looking at the world and society through the green spectacles of the environment and of framing the issue as a battle to protect nature from humanity. A more effective environmentalism looks at the world through the eyes of our societies. It addresses environmental questions as social questions that need to balance the many, and often conflicting, needs of building a society that can co-exist—within itself and within the ecosphere on which it ultimately depends. We need to come to think of the ecosphere as an integral part of our society; not something that is separate, needing protection from social progress. If this view of our world can replace the traditional, dichotomous Human vs. Nature perspective, we will be well on our way to refreshing the environmental discourse, making it appropriate to a 21st century world of nine billion people.

How do we get there? In Part 2, I will put forward a series of ideas as to how we might move in this direction.