The Death of Environmentalism

The environmental movement is currently being shaken by a new report that asserts the Death of Environmentalism. Salon magazine has published an excellent review of the article and its reactions.

The report’s main complaint, according to the Salon article?

the environmental establishment’s current approach to fighting global warming is hopelessly wonky, mired in technical policy fixes, like raising CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) emission standards on cars or mandating cap-and-trade schemes on CO2-emitting power plants. The organizations suffer from pigheaded “policy literalism,” refusing to recognize that they’re in the middle of a culture war that won’t be won by “appealing to the rational consideration of our collective self-interest.”

What would save environmentalism? The report argues for a compelling inspiration vision to counteract the right and mobilize the vast numbers of people needed to enact national and global environmental change. This is quite ironic because my research is in the “technical policy fix” realm of geographic information systems and conservation, which has as its main selling point the “compelling” images and maps of environmental degradation. These images are supposed to assist in mobilizing people for change. My research can survive the critiques; after all, GIS will continue to be used for identifying endangered species and assigning protected areas for some time. However, it’s much more difficult for associations such as the Society for Conservation GIS to continue advocating for GIS and to obtain funding when its potential pots of money are hearing these arguments.

Of course less reliance on technocracy and policy wonkery could be rejuvinating to the movement. The US could do with someone like David Suzuki. On the other hand, these messianic types often come bundled with other agendas, like get rid of the foreigners, all technology is evil, etc.

7 Responses to “The Death of Environmentalism”

  1. jennifer says:

    I think it is vitally important to remember our audience(s) when attempting to mobilize for the sake of the environment. Not everyone will understand a technical GIS map highlighting areas of mass negative environmental change, nor will everyone be touched by a motivating talk by a passionate nature interpreter explaining the need for change. Both of these techniques, along with a variety of others are absolutely necessary for keeping environmentalism alive (or reviving it, as per your opinion).

  2. Garry Peterson says:

    The ‘death of environmentalism’ discussion is really about a specific flavour of environmentalism in the US.

    Other comments on this essay are available online in GRIST.

    More broadly defined environmentalism is doing very well.
    Paul Hawken, who wrote ‘Ecology of Commerce’ and co-authored ‘Natural Capitalism’ discusses how far from being a failure environmentalism is a huge growing international movement in a talk for the Long Now Foundation, which is available here.

    Hawken’s view roughly matches that of the ecological economist, Joan Martinez-Alier, who recently wrote an interesting book aboug the same subject – the environmentalism of the poor.

  3. Liam says:

    As I was reading through the article, the problems highlighted apply to a great many other things, where I feel like a lot of the left desperately reasons that only reason so many things are allowed to go wrong, is ignorance. I’m not sure we can continue to rely on that assumption. We all like to hope that if people only saw the environmental impacts of their actions, they would change, if people were aware of the situation in the developing world, they might donate more or pressure the government to deal more fairly, if people knew more about health care/the justice system/civil rights/etc, they’d all just kind of come around, and the world would be better.

    I think the lesson we should be learning is that most people WANT to be ignorant, they don’t want to think about their crappy fuel efficiency, landfills, starving children, and police states. We have a lot of the facts, but no one wants to look. We need to deal with the apathy before we can confront the ignorance.

  4. Jaye Ellis says:

    Interesting argument – I just re-read Arne Naess’s ground-breaking article on deep ecology, which was published, I think, in 1972, and he makes essentially the same argument, namely that if people could just focus on fundamental principles (he proposes 8) then they could avoid getting mired in boring, unmotivating technological arguments about environmental degradation. My concern is that he makes environmentalism look easy: if we all agree on saving the planet, then we will all agree on what exactly to do and how, as well. Yet how can we avoid the technical, scientific, technological issues? For example, we need to know as much as possible about what is harming the environment and how; we also need to gather immense amounts of information about possible solutions and the possible undesirable side-effects of those solutions. So I’m not sure I buy this new version of the argument, either.

  5. Hannah says:

    Perhaps government isn’t going about environmentalism in the right way. If we have spent 15 years and have put so much money into fighting global warming and are not seeing results, obviously we are doing something wrong. And I don’t think it’s the environmentalists that are to be blamed. Canada and the US need to take serious action now. But it is the politics that seem to slow down or hinder the solution. It is almost like we need a dictator, to say, “smarten up”, in order to create change. Former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, fought many battles as he made efforts to reduce traffic congestion and pollution in Bogota. He installed a fast and efficient bus system to reduce traffic overall, and made areas more pedestrian friendly to promote community and health, by installing large sidewalks and bike paths in areas that were ridden with crime, and managed to turn those areas around. He held a car free day in Bogota, which had 6.5 million people at the time. He had recieved personal death threats before doing this, but it was a success, and he polled the citizens to see if they wanted another car free day, and the majority said yes. We need to change how policy works right now. I wish Canada and the US would get its act together. We are considered a first world country, and we have the technology and resources to create more efficient systems and cut back on pollution. We should do this and become models for other countries. But right now, it seems that third world countries are coming up with more creative solutions for cutting back pollution, and we need to start doing the same also!!!

  6. Interesting article, i have bookmarked your site for future referrence 🙂

  7. kevin hynes says:

    I am curious as to when, or maybe this is happening and I
    haven’t heard of it yet, the discussion will begin as to
    paradoxical situation of environmentally minded people of
    all stripe and the demand for tech devices creating thusly
    the damage we decrie. I personally feel conflicted on this
    point and wonder if anybody else is feeling this.