The environmental movement has finally achieved many of it’s marketing goals. A movement that until recently regarded as a home for crackpots now achieves regular prime time news slots. The chattering classes (of Europe at least) regard environmentalism as a valid subject for their attention, and they sign up enthusiastically with it’s messages. However, I think the movement has dropped the ball at the worst possible moment.
The environmental movement is, at it’s core, a moral movement. It contends that we have a moral responsibility to look after the environment around us. This goes right back to one of the seminal works of environmentalism, the 1949 book A Sand County Almanac.
For most of human history the environment has been the greatest possible resource to exploit. It’s diffuse nature and ancient provenance have, throughout the world, led to it being owned explicitly by those with the most to gain from ruining it, or implicitly (through nation states and international agreements) by those who have no direct interest in protecting it. This has been a winning strategy (hence it’s worldwide adoption), and until recently you’d have been considered insane to suggest leaving this vast resource untapped.
Chomsky put the central dilemma well:
“Take the Kyoto Protocol. Destruction of the environment is not only rational; it’s exactly what you’re taught to do in college. If you take an economics or a political science course, you’re taught that humans are supposed to be rational wealth accumulators, each acting as an individual to maximize his own wealth in the market. The market is regarded as democratic because everybody has a vote. Of course, some have more votes than others because your votes depend on the number of dollars you have, but everybody participates and therefore it’s called democratic.
Well, suppose that we believe what we are taught. It follows that if there are dollars to be made, you destroy the environment. The reason is elementary. The people who are going to be harmed by this are your grandchildren, and they don’t have any votes in the market. Their interests are worth zero. Anybody that pays attention to their grandchildren’s interests is being irrational, because what you’re supposed to do is maximize your own interests, measured by wealth, right now. Nothing else matters. So destroying the environment and militarizing outer space are rational policies, but within a framework of institutional lunacy. If you accept the institutional lunacy, then the policies are rational.”
– Interview by Yifat Susskind, August 2001
This “institutional lunacy” still represents the status quo.
We have reached a point where it’s not our grandchildren who will be harmed, it’s us and our children, and suddenly we’re paying attention. For some this might be a strong claim. Personally I am now reasonably convinced that we are heading for environmental catastrophe within our lifetimes. It is very difficult to predict the precise effects of climate change. However the rate of change now seems so high that, even if the final destination is a stable, survivable biosphere, the pending changes in the climate will be enough to kill or displace hundreds of millions worldwide and inundate vast swathes of land. And that’s just for starters.
While environmentalism remained a moral movement it was unlikely ever to gain the mainstream, because so many people have vested interests in exploiting the environment. As a question of the survival of perhaps civilization itself, you’d hope it the environmental movement would be leading the way in policy decisions worldwide. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Many people blame politicians for this, but really I think the movement has signally failed.
Environmentalism is a very broad church, covering many issues, and they all compete for attention. In addition the original moral message of environmentalism is still very strong, and this contributes to the idea that all environmentalism is equally worthy. As long as you are living the good life, then you have done your bit. Which is incredibly unfortunate, because most of the activities promoted by environmentalism don’t make an iota of difference.
This of course is just what our cherished vested interests like to see – a movement that could cause them vast trouble, and cost them huge sums, instead diverted into trivia.
Here, for example, we have an advertisement from Toyota:
Here’s what it says:
We’re all striving for a greener world and one way we can achieve this is by getting in sync with our immediate environment. What better way to explore the virtues of nature than to tune into Nature on PBS, the television program that captures the spendors of the natural world – from the plains of Africa to under the Antarctic ice. Join Diane Keaton as she celebrates the beauty found all around us.
Diane Keaton celebrates the nature all around her by doing her to part to keep our world a greener place by picking up items left on the beach, buying antiques, and driving a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. She believes the key to living green is small gestures that might become habits, “encouraging a new way of accepting responsibility for the well-being of our planet.”
So. The greatest environmental crisis our species has ever encountered, and the correct course of action?
- pick up things left on beach
- buy antiques
- buy a new car
And you know what, Toyota published this in the clear expectation that people would nod their heads and go “yup that’s great, I’ll watch a documentary on lions, pick up some drift wood and then I’m green. Oh and maybe I need a new car.”
This trivialisation of the core messages of environmentalism is a by-product of it’s beginnings as a moral movement. It’s possible for everyone to jump on the bandwagon with their issue de jour, and on what grounds do you disagree? What’s more important, saving the whales or recycling used bottles? Well of course they are both equally important, as long as you feel you are doing the Right Thing. It’s a short step from this sort of reasoning to start buying antiques to save the planet – if it makes you feel justified, it’s got to be good. Right?
What the environmental movement needs to provide is clear leadership, and I’m afraid they are failing badly. Yes, whales are very pretty. But no, saving them is not, right now, our number one priority. Sorry. Nor are recycling cardboard, GM food, chinese dams, river dolphins or any of the other issues that get people exercised. Yes they matter, but do they matter as much as the impending disaster of climate change? Clearly not. It’s looking increasingly likely that there will never again be whales, river dolphins or indeed cardboard if we don’t act, globally, to reduce CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases.
Dealing with climate change requires concerted, coordinated effort. While people believe that whether or not to build coal-fired power plants is of equal importance to recycling that bottle of Beaujolais they had last night then they’ll choose the recycling. But I’m afraid recycling that bottle, whilst proving you are a nice person, will make no difference. If that’s your total contribution then you are sitting on the sidelines. You are as involved in saving the planet as a football supporter in the stands eating a pie and drinking a cup of Bovril is involved in the football match. You sure feel involved, but the result of the match would be just the same as if you’d decided to go to the pub instead.
It does sound as if it’s all pointless, and if we’re going to hell in a handbasket we might as well just get on with it. Which might even be true – my faith in the wisdom of capitalist democracies is not high. However, we owe it to ourselves, and our children, to try. All of the critical actions can be taken by governments, and there are mechanisms for influencing governments. Which leads to getting involved in the grubby, unsatisfactory world of politics. Funding groups that do marketing and lobbying. Writing to your MP. Get involved in collective action. Which is far less satisfying than picking things up off the beach, but really actually might help save the planet.