“Environmentalism has failed” is a statement that deserves attention. It comes from famed environmentalist David Suzuki marking 50 years since Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, widely regarded as having sparked the environmental movement.
Suzuki’s May 2 article on the fundamental failure of environmentalism is ominous. The world faces not only environmental calamities such as deforestation, coral reef depletion and freshwater shortages, it is also mired in economic crises and harsh political realities.
Despite the promise of “Arab Springs” and the global Occupy movement, we are increasingly in planetary peril. Throughout his life, David Suzuki has been a leading educator on planetary health; his conclusion about the environmental movement’s failure must be agonizing. Perhaps that’s why his blog offered no new way forward.
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If decades of environmental campaigns produced significant gains but have lost the overall struggle to protect planetary life, that raises key questions:
What caused the failure? What is to be learned?
What do environmental organizations, supporters and concerned citizens do now?
What do we say to children, and to young advocates?
Where’s the new strategic road ahead?
As a longtime troubadour and ecology advocate, in word and song I’ve celebrated this bountiful planet and our place in the family of all life. Besides my eco-awareness songs for kids beginning with ‘Baby Beluga’ in 1980, ten years later I also recorded an ecology album, Evergreen Everblue.
I’ve worked with kids of all ages, attended environmental conferences, and met with leading campaigners such as climatologist James Hansen and Green Party leader and MP Elizabeth May, as well as with eminent thinkers across a number of disciplines. I feel a responsibility to briefly address the key questions this sobering moment holds.
What Caused the Failure?
Primary among the many factors that can be cited is the growth of corporate concentration, power and dominance. This in part may explain the gridlock among nations when it comes to concerted eco-progress. Perhaps it’s also been a failure of imagination and language.
The environmental movement failed to change the way we look at the world and our place in it. Even after the 1970 NASA portrait of Earth from space, we didn’t learn to feel our interconnectedness and belonging on this planet, third from the sun.
Nature became “the environment”: a reductionist term devoid of relationship. The grandeur of Gaia, thus reduced and objectified, separated us from our Earth Mother. And environmentalism itself became divisive. While environmentalists struggled mightily to save this species/habitat and protect that, activist hubris pitted “environmentalists” against those who were not.
Environmental challenges were hard to ignore. In 1989 in Vancouver I heard Stephen Lewis say that if China and India were to use coal to fuel their exploding economies in the 1990s, what the rest of the world did in carbon reduction wouldn’t matter. He was right. Ten years later, United Nations Environment Programme’s GEO 2000 Report decried not only a lack of overall progress in environmental protection but also the loss of ground in the 1990s, which UNEP had dubbed “the turnaround decade.”
That news pained me as much as discovering in 1989 that St Lawrence River belugas were riddled with toxins at levels found in hazardous waste sites. Or learning in the mid ’90s that human breast milk was contaminated with trace amounts of PCBs and dioxins, among the most of lethal poisons. Belugas and breast milk were new canaries in the coal mine.
A word about language: in the press release for GEO 2000, the landmark UNEP report described as “the most authoritative assessment ever of the environmental crisis facing humanity in the new millennium,” the fragmented language is in direct contradiction to the report’s stated aim of integration, synthesis:
“…full scale emergencies now exist in a number of fields. “The environment remains largely outside the mainstream of everyday human consciousness and is still considered an add-on to the fabric of life,” says GEO 2000 (italics added). Furthermore, “Despite successes on various fronts, time for a rational, well-planned transition to a sustainable system is running out fast,” says Klaus Töpfer, UNEP’s Executive Director. “In some areas, it has already run out. In others, new problems are emerging which compound already difficult situations.”
The failure of words is as simple as it is stunning. To make the very point that “the environment” remains separate from everyday life, why use that same barren term? That environmentalists still make that linguistic faux pas, seemingly oblivious to the irony, is truly baffling.
Small wonder that what has not changed is precisely what must change: “everyday human consciousness.”
What do environmental organizations and their supporters do now?
Well staffed large membership eco-NGO’s are institutions in their own right, with a culture, modus operandi, and funding strategies with which they compete for tightly contested funds. In a way, they too constitute a status quo. Do they re-invent themselves now? For example, does the David Suzuki Foundation (to which I was a founding donor) close up shop or retool its aims and operations? Will Suzuki reduce globe-trotting, reuse his fame portals, and recycle global success stories into a rich compost of new ideas?
Sustainable advocacy is an art. Like artists, advocates must grow or stagnate. Environmentalism’s failure is bound to spur new thinking and action. Online organizations such as 350.org already display an impressive global reach and response.
It’s a time for daring. Funders and supporters are seeking out transformation agents and catalytic ideas. They might look to those with bold visions for societal transformation. Organizationally, “less is more” may be the way ahead. Increasingly, people and groups are enjoying a partnering synergy made easy by social media.
What will we say to children and youth?
This is the hardest question to answer. The three R’s won’t be abandoned; kids will learn about them and nag their parents. But it’s a different kind of environmental education that needs to begin and ramp up at all grade levels. One with connect-the-dots clarity between, say, advertising, consumption habits, pollution and global warming. The young tend to be well informed, although we can understand the impulse to turn away from overwhelming global crises. Yet a great many stay engaged, in all manner of worthwhile pursuits.
As Earth advocates go, children and youth are among the most inspiring. Their words move you to the core. We’ll need to encourage and amplify their voices, and to support their right to be heard. We need to hear from them. And listen.
What’s to be learned? Where’s the next strategic direction?
Is there a financial bailout for our big beautiful planet? Can we say our biosphere is too big to fail? Despite over 20 years of climate stabilization campaigns, in the year 2010 annual greenhouse gas emissions were the highest ever recorded.
Humanity is in a survival crisis-a crisis of identity, conscience and spirit. Who are we as an evolving species? Do we really care more about money than our children? Or is a collective spirit stirring millions to rally for more just and equitable societies?
We need a lexicon for reframing global issues into a connected whole, a unifying lens “for seeing the world anew”: a language of waves, not particles. One that connects and inspires, uplifts everyday life. Can “sustainability,” a current buzz word in business and in education, catch on as a moral code of conduct – in a mainstream movement with children at its heart? Can this be how a shift in consciousness sparks a deep empathy for the present generation and for generations to come?
Students, teachers, families, corporate executives, and media need a thorough grounding in restorative sustainability: an intergenerational triple-bottom-line economy (“bionomy”) that fosters social and environmental well being. Long term rewards must replace growth-obsessed bottom-line fixation. Without economic maturity, we’re still on the new Titanic.
Situation critical: the movement to protect and restore Earth’s living splendour needs rebranding. Welcome to the post-environment age. Possibilities abound.
We all remember advertising jingles from our youth. If jingles are that potent in selling things, why not use music to move ideas-sustainability-in populist language? For a massive movement to win the hearts and minds of billions? Or at least those of a huge critical mass?
Every society’s treasure is its young. Since children are multinational and have the most to gain or lose from our response to environmentalism’s failure, we can embrace “a culture of respect” for the world’s children and their planetary home. Respecting Earth and Child can offer a universal ethic for honouring all of life. Earth-friendly equals Child-friendly, and we all win.
Daniel Nocera’s synthetic leaf for storing solar energy is among the eco-tech miracles needing support and accelerated pathways to market. Also worth noting is a recent US drive for “atmospheric trust legislation” by which governments might rise to meet their “public trust” obligation to youth and future generations. These represent glimpses of new ways of seeing possibility and connection.
There is no alternative to a thorough detoxification of the air, water and lands we inhabit. The longer we put this off, the harder it gets for restorative sustainability to take hold. The Gulf oil spill and Fukushima mega-disasters brought little transparency we could trust, and at enormous cost both economic and in public health. In the US, the military is the greatest polluter, and there hundreds of toxic waste sites that need attention. Worldwide, breast milk carries trace levels of PCBs and Dioxins. Only sustainability is a positive vision broad enough to address all of these threats, whose uniquely vulnerable victims are children.
The needed shift in consciousness may yet win the day. In the cold of winter the forces of renewal position tender buds to emerge from the toughest branches in Spring. Nature’s dance is mighty. Wildflowers proliferate. With a profound understanding of the King Midas fable we might yet avoid the Midas curse and hold on to all that’s most precious. Long live Mother Nature.