Toward a New Environmentalism

Oregon DOT/CC BY 2.0

Back in 2010, I responded to the anti-environmentalist, anti-techno-optimist Dark Mountain Movement with a somewhat glib post entitled Disasterbation Turns You Blind.

I stand by many of the assertions in that post.

But I can also publicly state that they don't hold a candle to Business Green editor James Murray's latest lengthy missive entitled Building a New Environmentalism (PDF).

The Odds Are Stacked Against Us
Also inspired by a gut reaction against the ideas behind projects like Dark Mountain, Murray takes strong issue with Dark Mountain founder Paul Kingsnorth's critique of what he calls "neo-environmentalists" who are "unashamedly pro-business" and ascribe to a failed "Wellsian techno-optimism". Contrary to Kingsnorth's charges, says Murray, these neo-environmentalists (or New Environmentalists as Murray prefers) have no illusions about the scale of the challenge we face:

"Most of the people I would characterise as New Environmentalists are actually deeply vexed about their continued optimism, clinging to it as much in hope as expectation. We are not blinding ourselves to the reality of the environmental threats we all face, it is just that we choose to tackle them in the knowledge that the odds are stacked against us rather than succumb to a sense of resignation that would fully guarantee a staggeringly tough future for civilisation and condemn billions of people to continuing poverty and near perpetual crisis."

Pro-Business, Not Pro-Business-As-Usual
And while New Environmentalists may see bringing business—and even big business—on board as imperative to the movement's success, Murray argues that this does not equate to being pro-business-as-usual. Rather Murray, and environmentalists like him (I would include myself in this category) see opportunities to use innovation in business to advance traditional old-school environmental concerns like radically reducing consumption. The dramatic rise of collaborative consumption is just one example of potentially game-changing shifts in how businesses choose to operate.

Rethinking GDP, Putting a Price on Nature
We can't, however, push a realistic environmental agenda without tackling the downsides of a business-centric economy. And here too, says Murray, New Environmentalists have more in common with traditional greens than either side may imagine. Rethinking GDP is absolutely central, says Murray, to realigning our economy to work within the constraints of our natural system. And while the deep ecologists may bristle at attempts to put monetary value on our natural capital, Murray argues that there is no reason that this should be incompatible with a more high-minded or spiritual approach:

Public art, buildings, and architecture all have an economic value attached to them alongside regulations to ensure they are protected and a societal understanding that they are “priceless”. Why should environmental services
not also have an economic value, which will inevitably be staggeringly high, alongside regulatory protection and a full understanding of their spiritual value? New Environmentalists care just as deeply about the natural world as any hair shirted eco-warrior, it is just that we care enough to try and find a better way of protecting it.

Murray concludes his piece by suggesting we need a New Environmental Manifesto, and he argues that above all else, greens must begin to build a consistent, coherent message that can shape the broader mainstream narrative.

It's not that projects like Dark Mountain don't have extremely valid criticisms of the status quo. In fact, says Murray, there are many areas where the deep green crowd and the New Environmentalists share a similar worldview. It's just that the chosen response of those who believe catastrophic collapse is inevitable—to withdraw, prepare for the worst, and presumably to feel vindicated when the worst happens—is morally questionable when the stakes are so high.

Thank you to James Murray for a coherent, thought-provoking piece. (And thank you to the Dark Mountain crowd for inspiring it.)

Tags: Activism | Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Economics