Environmentalism has failed. Or has it?
A tale of two paradigms
by Stan Hirst
Back in May 2012 David Suzuki famously declared in his blog that “environmentalism has failed” He went on to explain that, over the past 50 years, environmentalists had failed to realize that environmental battles reflect fundamentally different ways of seeing our place in the world, and that our deep underlying worldview determines the way we treat our surroundings.
He noted that we, as a species, had not come to grips with the explosive events that have changed our relationship with the planet. In trying to address the problems we created dedicated environmental departments in our national, regional and local governments, but this just turned environment into one more special interest, like education, health, and agriculture. This “anthropocentric” view envisions the world revolving around US. So we create departments of forests, fisheries and oceans, and environment whose ministers and top bureaucrats are less concerned with the health and well-being of the actual forests, fish, oceans or the environment than with the resources and the economies that depend on them and are derived from them. We had still failed to make the point, and to act accordingly, that our lives, health and livelihoods absolutely depend on the biosphere — quality air, water, soil, sunlight, and biodiversity.
David’s concerns are not new, in fact they’re related to two prevailing social paradigms, one of which has been around for at least five millennia. The Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) is comprised of three basic beliefs:
- technology will spare the planet, and all things detrimental can be resolved with continued pursuit of industrial advancement;
- economic growth and prosperity will resolve any disinterest or dissatisfaction with societal problems; and
- political representatives in office are there for the benefit of the people and their country, and that ultimately they, and only they, have the capability to handle policies that effect society as a whole.
We can see this basic philosophy as driving current top-level Canadian philosophy surrounding resources development and management.
Widespread societal concern for environmental deterioration, by comparison, is relatively new. The New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) had its roots in the US environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and was partly inspired by Rachel Carson and her bestseller Silent Spring which drew sharp attention to the ecosystem dangers of chemical pollution. The NEP has been loosely based on three key propositions:
- environmental protection is possible through limitations on industrial and population growth;
- planetary demise is directly correlated with human-influenced interactions with natural ecosystems and landscapes; and
- humans are one, usually the major, cause of global environmental deterioration.
Four decades after the birth of the NEP there continues to be ongoing argument on how to properly address global issues. Significantly, social surveys of DSP and NEP protagonists have not, so far, revealed any great willingness on either side to change behaviours or beliefs.
All of this has very practical implications for the Suzuki Elders and the ways in which we carry out our activities. As we state in our strategic plan our goals are to mentor, motivate and support others in dialogue and action on environmental issues, and we attempt to achieve this through educating, communicating and non-partisan advocacy. It follows that nothing much will be achieved if we’re trying to communicate with policy-makers, political representatives, business leaders and/or our fellow Canadians if they’re all imbued with lots of DSP. In fact, that’s the main reason for the oft-heard lament from the Elders “Why won’t they listen to us?”
Are we faced with a permanent stand-off between the DSP’ers and the NEP’ers? Possibly. The DSP has been around for a long time, indicating that at least some of its concepts are deeply embedded in the human psyche. But, in thinking more about it, I suggest we NEP’ers, like the rest of humanity, easily fall into the boundary trap.
We love sharp boundaries between categories of things, be they rocks, birds, people or ideas. “Them” and “us”. “Good” and “bad”. “Black” and “white”. “Red-shafted flickers” and “yellow-shafted flickers”. “Good” ideas and “bad” ideas. The list is endless. But the categorization is usually for our personal satisfaction, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Modern genetics has shown that many groups of animals or plants assigned to different genera or species are actually more similar to one another than they are different. Politicians spend inordinate amounts of time haranguing one another over policy differences, but then seem quite capable of reaching a commonly accepted solution when they run out of debating time.
So I’m suggesting two things:-
- that the differences between people, communities, interest groups and the like on the subjects of environmental protection, resource exploitation and all similar issues which take up much space and time in our daily media are not sharply divided but are rather blobs on a continuum of personal opinion and involvement from one extreme to the other; and
- a significantly big proportion of the general population doesn’t yet know enough about many environmental issues to clearly choose a position, either because they’re still young and haven’t yet learned what the issues are, or they have no great interest in environmental issues anyway. Public opinion surveys conducted over the past five years across Canada have found, amongst other things, that 20% Canadians are not sure whether global temperatures are rising, 23% are not concerned at all about climate change, 55% have never heard the expression “cap and trade” and 25% of people voting conservative in national elections consider that climate change is not real. There is thus still much scope and opportunity for environmental education and general awareness building across the country.
The environmental glass is half full
by Neale Adams
David Suzuki is a visionary and a great Canadian. He is seriously discouraged by what he perceives to be a lack of response to his alarms. He is impatient, as visionaries tend to be. That response is slow does not mean it is not happening.
- Environmentalism has made great strides during the past 50 years. Once billowing smokes stacks were a sign of progress; today they are symbols of pollution and global warming. There are people stuck in an earlier world view who refuse to deal with the reality of our environmental system. However they are mostly old and dying out. The young are environmentally conscious. Generational change takes generations.
- We have increasingly become aware of the serious nature of our environmental situation. Awareness continues to grow. Scientific consensus about the nature of our most serious problem, global warming due to the use of fossil fuels that put carbon into the atmosphere, is hardly 30 years old. The first UN conference on the environment was in 1992, only 22 years ago. Society is a great ocean liner. Turning it around takes time. (Hopefully, meanwhile, there are no icebergs.)
- While the environment is crucial—air, land, and water—so too are food supply, public health, the provision of energy and housing. To consider all but environmentalism as “special interests” except concern about the environment is wrong. Democratic values are important. The structure of our economy and the distribution of wealth matter also. Governments must and do pay attention to all these issues. Is enough attention paid to the environment? No, but attention is rapidly growing.
- Human beings are a four million-year-old species primarily interested in the state of human beings. Of course they have an “anthropocentric” view—what other view could they have? The environment is a serious issue, not because trees and plants and animals are of value in themselves, but because a degraded environment affects human beings. We need healthy forests, fish, oceans, etc., because we are connected to them. If humankind disappears, one need not worry about most other species—most would survive and probably do quite well without us.
The Dominant Social Paradigm was that humankind can experience continued progress. That view is in disarray for many reasons, chiefly because the post-World War II boom is long behind us. Generally, people have become too pessimistic. A grounded environmentalism can be the basis for restoring social optimism.
- Technology in many areas has denigrated the environment, but it in other areas it has cause improvement. What matters is how technology is used. Environmentalists can neither embrace all technology, not reject it. They must help people figure out how to best use it.
- In addition to growing environmental awareness, more people are coming to realize that economic growth does not, and cannot, solve all of society’s problems. Our economic and social institutions however have failed to come to grips with this realization.
- Political representatives hold office to benefit the people they represent as they best can according to their knowledge and understanding. However, Canadians believe that ultimately the will of the people is and can be expressed through elections and other means.
The New Ecological Paradigm is a useful way of understanding what action is needed to solve our environmental problems, but has its limitations and must be constantly examined and renewed.
- Population growth slows and can reverse when people have a decent standard of living. The economic challenge is to provide that standard while using less of earth’s resources. Simply limiting industry or population growth by fiat (e.g., the one child policy in China) does not work well.
- A proper interaction of a population with the natural landscape (however defined) is healthy for both.
- We will never return to a “State of Nature.” The idea of Eden is a useful myth, but still a myth.
There will always be argument on how to live and properly address global issues. However, it is likely that human society will adopt strategies to reverse environmental degradation. Either that will happen, or it won’t. We are likely near the tipping point at which growing environmental consciousness will result in startling economic and environmental change. However, environmental apocalypticism has limited use in promoting this change.