Environmentalism: Movement, Philosophy, Ethic, or What?


Image credit: ReGeneration & The Change Creation/Not For Sale

OK—I've argued that environmentalism is not a religion. It is based on an observable scientific fact—that the Earth's carrying capacity is limited, and that unless humans learn to live within that carrying capacity, our species is in for big trouble. But if it's not a religion, what is it? Somehow, as shown in comments on my post about science, evidence and the importance of action, the term 'movement' keeps landing me in trouble. And on reflection, that's not without good reason. You see movement implies a relatively unified body of people, with a clear set of goals and demands. It implies we are organized, and we are coordinated. It's the kind of talk that leads folks to characterize us all as religious or political zealots, lends ammunition to those who believe in a vast global conspiracy of Marxist scientists, or gives fodder for ridiculous characterizations of Al Gore as our 'guru'. (He made a good, but by no means perfect, movie. And I'm not ready to start worshiping at his alter just yet.)

Environmentalists are anything but unified. Environmentalism is, dare I say it, a broad (metaphorical) church, a big tent, whatever you want to call it. Beyond accepting that man is reliant on the Earth and its systems, and that looking after it is in our own self interest, it's hard to get environmentalists to agree on anything at all.

From those who advocate for nuclear power to folks putting their money on gigantic wind turbines; from people who believe in buy nothing day, to those who think low carbon consumerism is the next big thing—environmentalists are often more likely to disagree than agree. And while environmentalism itself may not be a religion, there are plenty who take religious inspiration for their creation care—be it rooted in Christian, Islamic, Hindu, or Pagan theology. And we atheists are well represented too.

Even the tired old cliche that environmentalists all hail from the political left is a little hard to swallow these days—with Wal Mart's Lee Scott talking about rethinking the way we consume, and T Boone Pickens investing in wind, Exxon backtracking on man made climate change, and plenty of Republicans talking green, the argument is rarely whether we should care for the environment anymore, just how we should go about doing it.

And given the nature of recent debates on TreeHugger, this post will inevitably attract comments from those who do not believe in the idea of man made climate change. So let me say this—even believing in global warming is not a pre-requesite to being an environmentalist. After all, even without the very real, very pressing danger of global climate change, we'd still do well to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and learn to use our resources wisely. (The rest of us may need to move on without you on this one though, comrades—the stakes are too high to wait until we all agree.)

So if we are not even a movement, what are we? I'd say we are the human family—and if you are a human being interested in survival of the species, then you are, whether you recognize it or not, an environmentalist. Once we accept that fact, we should start to move beyond shouting matches and empty insults, and start looking at the challenges we face, and how we go about fixing them. That process will inevitably mean we need to build movements, and grow existing ones, if we are going to get the kind of policy decisions that shape a sane and sustainable relationship with the world around us. But these movements will be part of environmentalism, they will not define it.

Caring for our one and only planet is too important to be put in a box, however big.

Tags: Activism | Carbon Footprint | United States

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