A Fresh Take on Environmentalism

I tend to stray away from using labels to describe myself; frankly I tend to avoid describing myself if at all possible. Call it a fear of commitment or conflict, or wishy-washiness, but I find that labels encourage limited thinking, it immediately boxes you in and generalizes you into a large group of supposedly like-minded people, and generalizations have a bad reputation of being the causes to a lot of conflicts. I like to think that I avoid labels to continually push myself to make informed decisions on my own, to come to terms with a set of beliefs and principles that I can back up strongly. It’s certainly not an easy thing to do, but it helps by not limiting myself to general groups or labels. Yes, I admit that I use the much-abused term ‘Sustainability,’ but frankly, everyone has a different definition for it, and the sustainability I use may not match others’ definitions. But I fully recognize that fact that over-use of such ‘buzz-words’ like ‘innovative’ eventually obscure its original meaning or reduce the impact of such words. Over using these words is something of which I am guilty of.

It may surprise some people, especially after reading a bit of my blog, that I do not consider myself an Environmentalist. Yes, I care a lot for the environment, I try my best to live by environmentally-friendly practices, but I would not consider calling myself an Environmentalist, simply because of the connotations, both good and bad, that come with it. I do have some strong opinions regarding the environmentalist movement and such and I’ll talk about some of them now.

At the beginning of the month, Paul Kingsnorth of the Guardian posted a thought-provoking article called “The new environmentalism: where men must act ‘as gods’ to save the planet.” The title itself piqued my interest and I gave it a read. Kingsnorth describes the emergence of a new group of environmentalists which he calls ‘Neo-environmentalists’. While the environmentalist movement has made some progress to protect the Earth’s natural resources and environment, there hasn’t been much progress in terms of international cooperation or development of any concrete and definitive regulations. Because of the lack of progress, some environmentalists are turning to technology and business as the answer, instead of the problem. Neo-environmentalists utilize money and power and Kingsnorth describes them as:

“Neo-environmentalism is a progressive, business-friendly, postmodern take on the environmental dilemma. It dismisses traditional green thinking, with its emphasis on limits and transforming societal values, as naive. New technologies, global capitalism and western-style development are not the problem but the solution. The future lies in enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, nanotechnology, geo-engineering and anything else new and complex that annoys Greenpeace”

It’s a pretty radical approach to environmentalism, one that has its pros and cons. I’ll talk about the pros first, and what I think this new way of thinking can do to push environmentalism to change their traditional approach.

Quinn, from urgentevoke.com is an environmentalist AND entrepreneur, a rare combination.

Neo-environmentalism is a progressive, business-friendly, postmodern take on the environmental dilemma. Instead of being stuck at a roadblock, neo-environmentalists are working with the obstacles to make progress. And if you think about it, this isn’t a completely new concept at all. In fact, despite anti-business and anti-capitalist tendencies by many environmentalists, environmentalists are great entrepreneurs. If they don’t agree with how business should be run, they start their own, be it an organic grocery store or urban farm. Entrepreneurship is still business, but its business continually being pushed to change. I think we should build on that. I think this approach in working with the business world instead of constantly opposing it will bring more positive results than anyone originally intended. Besides urban farms, environmentalists are also emerging in the clean-tech sector with many alternative energy start-ups making a name for themselves along with a good deal of money, and the money-aspect matters.

It dismisses traditional green thinking, with its emphasis on limits and transforming societal values, as naive. From my experience, environmentalists try to get others to practice environmentally-friendly actions such as recycling and composting because it’s good for the earth and will protect the environment. This reasoning is also the main reason why they don’t convince as many people as they’d like, living environmentallyconscious doesn’t give the person any direct or tangible benefits. Sure, you can tell them that they are ensuring clean air and water for years to come, or that they just saved a little polar bear from drowning, but they’re not going to make a living off of a feel-good feeling. The method of throwing startling facts and making others feel guilty hasn’t seemed to really pay off, leaving many people regarding environmentalists as obnoxious, arrogant or judgmental (yes, there was even a study done which concluded that eating organic food can make you more judgmental!).

Traditional green thinking is the constant uphill battle of trying to change societal and personal values while combating current economic values. But society is so intermingled with the economy, getting one to change without the other seems pretty difficult to do. Yes, I understand that the belief is that by changing societal values, all other changes will come after, but it’s not a first comes A and then comes B situation, society and economy are both working off of each other and to change one, you’ll have to get your hands dirty in the other. This means that environmentalists have to stop thinking that the ‘good for all’ reasoning is going to get people to go green. The sad, and slightly cynical, truth is that in the end, what motivates people is money. If you can explain the monetary value and benefits of going green, more people will. If you think that’s a very critical view of humanity, it’s because it is. But look at it this way: a common issue between environmental choices and global development is that very often, the urban poor don’t have the time or see the reason for preserving the environment, to them, they have to do all they can just to survive, and very often this results in sanitation problems as well as environmental problems. The ‘for the good of all’ approach doesn’t work here, what works for them is money to get them out of poverty. Money should be just as important, if not more important of an issue to convince people to go green. The Guardian Article mentions that scientist Peter Kareiva who works for the Nature Conservancy argues that conservation should aim to protect wild nature not for its own sake, but to benefit humans. By making it directly relevant to one’s own well-being through the use of monetary values may seem like an ugly and even hypocritical thing to do, but it may be the only alternative we have and it’s certainly a way to get big business to start thinking green.

To encourage green thinking I think it’s best for environmentalists to understand their enemy, and use it to their advantage, play the system if you will. This means being business-friendly, opening businesses that push your agenda, and already, there are many eco-friendly businesses popping up where ‘growth’ is becoming redefined (Patagonia is a good example). Yes, I know it seems very counter-intuitive to support the very capitalistic system that one so despises, but when money means power and you need power to change society, what are you going to do?

Patagonia’s Ad Campaign on Black Friday

New technologies, global capitalism and western-style development are not the problem but the solution. It seems very strange that any of the above mentioned items would relate in any way to environmentalism, but to see the connection, one has to open their eyes and re-examine his or her definition of nature. The nature that we commonly think of is places untouched by man, things that are ‘natural,’ born into this world. But even that definition is being challenged by the progress of biotechnology. There is a very good site called Next Nature that explores the definition of nature and how we should now redefine and re-evaluate or values of nature. I admit when I first saw the site I was skeptical, even critical of this point of view, but I purchased the Next Nature book to explore more and try to understand where these advocates were coming from. The images and concepts presented weren’t what we would traditionally deem as nature, and indeed, they were Next Nature. Basically, Next Nature proposes that nature is not a static system, it evolves along with humankind. If we define Nature as something born and beyond our control, then the definition of nature quickly changes as technology changes. There are things that are born but in our control (domestication of animals and plants, formation of crystals, genetic engineering) and there are thing that are made but beyond our control (computer viruses, the internet, traffic jams and the financial system). In the postmodern thought of Next Nature, the economy is just as much a natural system as the carbon cycle. But what does this mean for the conservationist or environmentalist? It means that nature as we romantically like to think of it, is quickly dwindling simply because we exist and continue to exist. It’s a hard step to make, and one that I’m not even sure I completely advocate, but we have to start broadening our concept of what is nature. While some people may want humanity to regress back to its ‘sustainable’ gathering and hunting days, it’s simply a period of time we as a people can no longer revert to. The tribal days are gone for most of us, and if we want to survive sustainability, we must embrace certain changes and reject others, but we must consider them. If we want to stop constructing street lamps, would it be better to use gold nanoparticle-infused trees instead? While I think the conflict of nature vs. technology needs to be re-evaluated, I also propose that why can’t nature BE our technology, and technology BE our nature? While there are some things that I disagree with with the values stated in the above phrase (mainly western-style development is a good thing), if anything should be gathered from this section, it’s that the economy is now something that should be considered natural, and if so, environmentalists need to consider its existence.

Source: Nextnature.net

Disagreements

Now, with the issues I disagree with regarding this neo-environmentalist movement. The article states that neo-environmentalists believe that growth has no limits and that western-style development is a solution, I disagree. Growth as we know it, getting bigger houses, buying more things, making more babies, is not something that should be advocated. Yes, I know that seems like a direct disagreement with capitalism, but hear me out. I think as the eco-friendly businesses emerge, the true eco-friendly businesses, not the green-washed ones, the paradigm of Growth will change. Growth will be redefined, to what I’m not sure, but something that is considerably more environmentally conscious. Perhaps growth will no longer be the race to produce the cheapest product, but the one of highest quality and longest-lasting. Perhaps growth will be who can set up the most renewable/sustainable product chain and resource. There’s simply no way to have a sustainable western-style developed world. It’s often stated that if China or India made the same mistakes that the western countries did we’d be living in a complete disaster. I highly doubt that anyone believes growth has no limits, and I’d like to meet someone who does to explain to me why they think that works. And let me put it this way, while I advocate environmentalists to utilize the capitalist system to push their agendas, I do not think that the capitalist system is necessarily the answer/solution. I don’t think money is the answer, but I think it’s the best way for environmentalists to get to an answer they want. It seems somewhat paradoxical, to be business-friendly for the sake of ending businesses, and if we truly examine everything from an intellectual standpoint the only conclusion will be utterly depressing (I could go there, but I’m not going to). Neo-environmentalism has gained traction because of its business-friendly approach that doesn’t attack people’s choices, but technology does not solve all problems, and neither does capitalism.

Next, the article also notes that neo-environmentalists consider themselves “as gods” and while that made me intrigued, it also made me shudder. I’m not even sure how the “as gods” bit fits in with the rest of the article, but that very phrase just seems so arrogant to almost want me to turn my head from neo-environmentalism. We are not gods, and nor should act as them, we know so little about the world and universe to even confidently say what the weather will be like in the next few days. I strongly believe humility is the first step to improving, and that phrase is certainly not a humble one. To me, neo-environmentalists still have the same ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude that the environmentalists have, “we have the right answers, and anyone who says differently is wrong.” It’s also interesting to note that the article likens the green movement to a ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ and frankly, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be considered such. The green movement has many if not all the makings of a religion: it’s a set of beliefs that dictate a certain lifestyle, and it even goes as far as to impose those beliefs on others under the name of ‘overall good.’ Anyone who disagrees is ignorant and in this case, a greedy capitalist. This attitude can be seen just by scrolling down to the comments section of the article. The arguments there are so heated, with one person stating “I wonder where these business-friendly ‘neo-environmentalists’ get their funding” and others who utterly reject this way of thinking, refusing to even consider the article an intelligent debate or simply dismissing it as environmental because it includes corporations which are only out for the money and technology (and if they are, how can we use this to our advantage?). But thankfully, there are rare voices in the crowd that suggest that we welcome a fresh perspective and diversity of voices within the environmentalist movement for improvement. After all, the environmentalist movement has been going on for some while, and many have expressed frustration at its snail-like pace, so what can we do to improve it?

Conclusions?

Basically, to sum up my thoughts on Environmentalism, I think environmentalists should consider being innovative not just at the rallies and protests, but also in the business world as well. When you can succeed at their game and then throw it in their faces, the message is even clearer. Why can’t business be used for social good?  Utilize that entrepreneurial spirit, show people why going green is cheaper. I think Environmentalists should re-think their definition of nature, and understand that nature as we like to think of it is dwindling. It’s a philosophical debate as much as it’s a practical one. How do we know we are doing the right thing? What is progress? Environmentalists need to understand that everyone, including them, can learn something from an enemy. Stop butting heads with the system and use it. Like many religions, it’s practice what you preach, and it’s time that we change it from an ‘us vs. them’ situation into an ‘all of us’ situation. We all have different values, so to make progress we need to open dialogue between values. Life is full of paradoxes.

In the end, it saddens me to see that even Environmentalism has become politicized. It’s become a hot topic for politicians to gain votes, it’s no longer about the environment or the improvement of it. If something hasn’t been working we need to take a step back and consider why. The neo-environmentalist movement, even if I don’t fully agree with it, makes us ask “why?” which is the first step to any revolution.

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