A New Environmentalism?

As you probably know by now, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize last week, sharing the medal and the money with the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. This seems to have triggered some new press for consideration of the idea of what it means to be an environmentalist.

Though few dispute the idea that concern about global warming and other environmental ills is a great good, I’ve encountered increasing hostility for the methods used to provoke it. Perhaps this isn’t truly new, but until last week, I’d never heard such criticism formulated very thoroughly or exactly.

Salon, an online newsmagazine, recently published an except from Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, a recent release from Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. The excerpt condemns the prototypical environmental narrative that humans are bad and sinful creatures who have wronged the planet and “Nature.”

This is the method that was used by Rachel Carson. And it’s the method still used by Mr. Gore. It’s also the method of every environmentalist that made a normal person want to pull their hair out.

As Nordhaus and Shellenberger explain the technique, an activist will:

wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying ever worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.

Eco-tragedies are premised on the notion that humankind’s survival depends on understanding that ecological crises are a consequence of human intrusions on Nature, and that humans must let go of their consumer, religious, and ideological fantasies and recognize where their true self-interest lies. …

For the most part, these environmentalist cautionary tales have had the opposite of their intended effect, provoking fatalism, conservatism, and survivalism among readers and the lay public, not the rational embrace of environmental policies. Constantly surprised and angered when people fail to behave as environmentalists would like them to, environment writers complain that the public is irrational, in denial, or just plain foolish.

The Economist‘s Green.view column recently echoed the book’s sentiment–a distaste for the tradition of the eco-tragedy–but proffers an unlikely hero for the New Environmentalism, Prince Albert of Monaco:

…Most people around the world, [Prince Albert] said, and certainly all governments, were going to have to change their ways. Monaco was indeed part of the problem, and would do its bit to find a solution. But he was not about to trade his ermine robes for a hair shirt.

All of which makes a refreshing change from the hand-wringing greenery of more celebrated environmental campaigners, such as Al Gore, the newly-anointed Nobel laureate. It is not that global warming is not a serious concern (it is), or that the world can afford to be blasé in its response (it cannot). But too much rhetoric of that kind becomes self-defeating: it paints the task ahead as an insurmountable problem, thus frightening people into apathy.

The environmental movement, in other words, needs a few more sunny optimists. Amid the race to save the world from catastrophe, there’s time for a grand prix or two. And we do not all need to give up our dream of owning a flashy sailboat for the sake of the planet. Perhaps they gave the gong to the wrong Al.

Though I’ve never considered myself an environmentalist–something I think the hardcore would claim predisposes me to favor a friendlier New Environmentalism–I hope that activists begin to recognize the importance of optimism in their activism. Pessimism and condemnation turn people off and make them upset. No one wants to be part of the problem, but that is all the traditional environmentalist’s narrative allows them to be.

And indeed, much of the reason I never wanted to be an environmentalist is precisely the problem that Shellenberger and Nordhaus say they have with activists like Carson and Gore: they’re too willing to offer a future full of torture and despair, too willing to reject couch revolutionaries–those who would do like to do something, but don’t possess the time, energy, or will to do all the movement asks.

What a New Environmentalism can do–should do–is to lead those with sympathies for the movement toward a brighter future for the planet. And lead, not with pessimistic tales of future dread, but armed with the truth that if everyone does something, things can change faster than if a small committed contingent does a lot.

Such a movement would need to recognize that the world would not be a better place if all humans suddenly disappeared–something too many environmentalists seem to favor. The self-defeating ideology of the old environmentalism cannot be sustained. A New Environmentalism must push forward with hope; must encourage all people, everywhere, to do what they can. It can’t merely criticize and condemn; it must also be hopeful and uplifting.

Only if such a movement materializes, either through Al Gore or perhaps a new group of activists, could a New Environmentalism truly take hold. I, for one, am hoping that it will.


2 responses to “A New Environmentalism?”

  1. One thing I love about the Economist is that they know the world’s big players read their stuff.

    Hopefully Gore will read this and reconsider his movement. While the gloomy tales of a dead planet may have gotten people’s attention at first, you are fully correct that eventually people will tune him out simply because they don’t want to hear anymore fear-mongering. Switching to a brighter, hopeful message of real change could do wonders to keep the public focus where it belongs – on the little things we can do every day to make a difference.

    Once again, my man, poignant and critical stuff. Thanks.

  2. i agree. i think more than fear leading people to apathy, it more precisely leads them to nihilism, which is a bit more aggressive than apathy.