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?

In my previous post I argued that environmentalism should be a politics concerned with the ecosphere as an integral part of our society. Here I put forward a few suggestions on specific steps we might take to get to this refreshed environmentalism.

1. Remember that it’s about people. Environmentalism is not about “nature,” science, or ideology—it’s about people and the choices societies make. An effective environmentalism is one that discards the habit of putting “nature,” “biodiversity,” or “the environment” front and center, and instead becomes people focused—developing benefits that people want, values that a broad range of people feel comfortable buying into, and, ultimately, creating a culture that enables political action.

2. Create a vision of a positive and tangible future. An essential but difficult task is to turn our attention away from continuously bombarding people with messages of gloom and doom and to set about the much tougher task of creating a vision of the sort of future that we are offering people. A future that can credibly promise that which people care about—jobs, security, social cohesion, improving living standards.

3. Adopt a humble environmentalism. We face many, complex social issues—maintaining and replenishing our ecosphere is one of them. There are no easy or obvious answers. We can try our best, muddle through, and hope we get more decisions right than wrong. People will not be won over by a preachy, self-righteous environmentalism; they will recognize the value of an environmentalism that is human and humble, and that works with others to improve our social condition.

4. Put results before ideology. If we are to achieve results, we must leave zealotry and ideology behind. A small but vocal few still put ideology before results. Some may object to the globalized capitalist system—but it's the system we have and, if time is as short as we claim, then we have to learn to work with it and take advantage of all it has to offer.

5. Offer solutions not problems. It’s not productive to tilt at windmills. Some argue that an increasing human population and the pursuit of economic growth are both incompatible with a sustainable future. Yet practical, effective, credible, and socially acceptable alternatives are hard to come by. Let us focus our efforts and our rhetoric on those areas where we can offer credible and practicable long- and short-term solutions.

6. Be inclusive. Many in the environmental movement understand that the issues are so substantial and the routes to improvement so complex, costly, and wide-ranging that we cannot achieve our aims without working closely with all parts of society and with industry in all its forms. A successful environmentalism is inclusive not tribal, exclusive, or judgemental.

7. Don’t think conservation, think development. “Conservation” has, sadly, become associated with trying to hold things back—looking more to the past than to the future. The reality is that starting from where we are today, we can only go forward. Going backward is not an option—romanticism notwithstanding. All of our “conservation” choices are development choices and we will be more productive if we view and approach them that way.

8. Earn our living. Governments are indebted and in dire financial trouble. Huge private wealth is not being created in the way it used to be a few short years ago. Environmental issues are too important to have to rely on charity, philanthropy, and government handouts of taxpayers' money. The environment should generate wealth in its own right as an “industry” that employs people and contributes to economic and other types of well-being. Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and African Parks are already successfully moving in the direction of financial sustainability by bringing tangible value to people and organizations. We need more to follow their lead.

In our haste, we must not let frustration at what seems like slow progress divert us into ineffective cul-de-sacs of anger. We are making a massive cultural change that cannot be achieved in a day, a decade, or even several decades. An environmentalism refreshed can ensure that we will continue to achieve positive change effectively in tomorrow’s world.