Environmentalism Was Never Dead, Despite Announcements of its Funeral

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Feb 2009

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Picture: Rene Ehrhardt
Picture: Rene Ehrhardt

In 2005 two environmental activists published a provocative paper titled 'The Death of Environmentalism.' It was met with predictable fury from the environmental movement and with support from big business who wished for nothing more than to see the extinction of pesky environmentalists.

Hindsight broadens our historical perspective.

Around the same period as the publication of this paper, I rebutted an article in the local media that echoed these allegations of the lack of direction, of alternatives and of leadership from within the environmental movement. My point was that it was not that the environmental movement lacked alternatives but that the dominance of the corporate-aligned media had marginalised numerous voices of reason. Needless to say, my rebuttal remains unpublished by that sector of the media.

How did corporate capitalism predominate over environmental truths? Simply by doing precisely what business does best - by throwing money at the problem. Public relations hacks were hired to de-link fossil fuel use from global warming and to greenwash dirty production methods. Front groups were created to persuade the uninformed that global warming and other threats were mythical scaremongering.

This level of manipulative debate was epitomised in the 2001 book 'The Sceptical Environmentalist' by Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg was feted by the corporate world for 'exposing' the apparent poverty of conceptual solutions to the global environmental crisis. His solution? Adapt to the changes we face and engage business models to solve our problems, which he insisted were not urgent anyway.

The corporate paradigm ignored all nuance or recognition of an environmental crisis. The reason Lomborg got so much coverage was simply because he said what the corporate shills wanted to hear. The Kyoto Protocol was nebulous nonsense and would solve little. We could employ cost-benefit analyses to deal with our environmental concerns. And so on.

That Lomborg was declared guilty by several creditable scientific institutions of abusing statistics, of omission of facts, of distorted interpretations and so on to 'prove' his points, was overlooked by the media. And of course by big business.

Perhaps the most telling detail about Lomborg is that he found his natural home when he was appointed professor at Copenhagen Business School. Business schools are hardly the place of employment for real environmentalists. While one constantly hears business leaders and environmental despoilers declaring themselves to be environmentalists, this  usually amounts to little more than a lame attempt to greenwash abysmal track records.

It is notable how Lomborg was championed by the mainstream corporate media like the Economist, Time Magazine, Business Week and of course that hotbed of environmental radicalism, the World Economic Forum! When I last looked, the real environmentalists were protesting outside Davos, not preaching from within the shrine of uber-capitalism.

I do not wish to belabour the Lomborg parable. His case study simply highlights how those whose worldview corresponds to the dominant globalised corporate paradigm, while downplaying the urgency of the problems we face, is bound to become a poster boy for their creed. With his good looks and alternative lifestyle, Lomborg was just that – the corporate world's pin-up boy.

In contrast to all of the above, the truth is rather more prosaic. Self-supporting assertions that environmentalism is dead – echoing Nietzsche's cry that God is dead – are clearly premature.

Nowhere was this cry louder than from within the empire of neo-conservative corporate misbehaviour, the USA. It was a lie that rode on the coat tails of the disastrous Bush presidency. The election of this buffoon caused rejoicing from within the oil industry because they no longer had to lobby the government, they were the government! Both Bush and Cheney were part of that industry. In reality the US-inspired neo-conservative coterie did everything in their power to reduce the power and influence of the environmental movement by undermining its veracity, its messages and its legitimacy.

Yet in the face of the unprecedented crisis within the modern financial system, environmentalism has emerged resurgent. It has not arisen zombie-like from its grave nor has it been resurrected from an intrinsic crisis of confidence. It was never dead. Environmentally sound concepts have emerged as pillars of hope for our collective economic and ecological salvation.

The market implosion has highlighted the extent to which environmentalists have long had solutions to most of our problems. From overfishing to disastrous industrial agricultural practices, to loss of tropical forests and the unsustainable extraction of resources - and to so much more – the voices of reason were swamped by the wave of corporate greed.

The tattered remnants of the old order have now begun to perceive that not only were they wrong but that the environmentalists were correct about most things. Of course the Kyoto Protocol was crap. It was a seriously compromised compromise; compromised by big energy and its political mercenaries. It was never going to be allowed to work. It was not meant to work. Instead it created another nonsense speculative trading vessel for carbon credits that is as arcane as any other derivative trade and that will crash just as certainly as Lehman Brothers did.

Real possibilities of creating sufficient liquid fuel from algae - those useful little unicellular organisms responsible for beginning life on earth - are now feasible. Additionally, algae can scrub CO2 from the atmosphere and from power plants.

Wind energy is now cheaper than most other energy when a full cost analysis is made. Electrical energy from the sun is predicted to be economically competitive with fossil fuels within the next two to five years. Energy from the ocean waves and currents is ready to be tapped by numerous proven and experimental methods. These technologies create jobs and increase value to shareholders not just in financial terms but also by making the world a better place.

The environmental movement, rabbiting away in the fields, have found that they can double and triple crop production. Not by replicating the green revolution with its high energy fossil fuel and fertiliser inputs and its industrial agricultural model that sterilises vast tracts of earth and ocean. Instead, methods that mimic and co-opt natural processes have been proven far more efficient and safe. 'Agro-ecological farming' has become the new buzzword, an emergent reality. It can create and save soil, water, nutrients, jobs and societal structures simply by adopting innovative, proven methods.

In contrast, the corporate privateers continue to fly the flag of genetically modified (GM) crops being able to feed the world. They blindly ignore the proven reality that GM crops yield less than natural crops and require far higher chemical and pesticide inputs.

There is a global realisation, from the richest to the poorest, that we cannot treat our planet as a sewer and expect our lives to smell of sandalwood. Proper stewardship and sustainable use of our environment not only create jobs and capital, it makes the world a better place to live for all its inhabitants, not just humans.

Our built environments can adapt as we consider the impact housing has on the global ecosystem - and design accordingly. We can improve our health. We must never overlook the fact that it is inevitably the poorest and most marginalised who bear the brunt of pollution, environmental exploitation and externalisation of costs. Just consider the people of Somalia whose waters have been used as a toxic waste dump. And the residents of Bhopal who were killed, maimed and disfigured by a western multinational that remains off the hook, more than twenty years after the fact.

Environmentalism is not only about nature and the world. Its about the people, about where we live, about how we interact and socialise. It is even about how we see ourselves in relation to God. While God may be dead for some, there is a deepening sentiment within the faith based world that it is our collective spiritual and moral responsibility to not only nurture our world, but to leave it better for our children. To strive for and to attain a world richer in opportunities, less polluted and more responsive to change.

Environmentalism is not dead. It never was. It was just buried under a welter of rhetoric, of corporate propaganda and greenwash, spawned from the devil work of a financial system run amok. Now that the beast is dead, or at least in its death throes, the visions nurtured by the global environmental movement can finally enable our lives - and our world – to be made whole again. 

Long live environmentalism!

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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20 Feb


Thanks for a heartening article, I sometimes feel that I am banging my head against a brick wall. Particularly with Eskom's refusal to move to renewable energy and its zombie like attachment to nuclear and the PBMR. They now believe that they can put radio active waste down boreholes without compromising the environment.

SA being 8th in the world for genetically modified crops only adds to our woes. We just have to keep making our voices heard until the politicians respond.

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Rory Short
23 Feb

The Environmental Paradigm and SA

Where is the old paradigm in its death throes ?

Cerainly not here in South Africa as Judith points out in her comment. We might have been politically innovative in 1994 but it seems the leadership that emerged from that political watershed were Rip van Winkels when it came to other equally pressing issues. They seem to think that all that was wrong with the old SA was its political trajectory and once that was sorted out other things and their associated mind sets could continue unchanged. They are very wrong of course but have yet to see it.

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