Can 'Environmentalism' Ever Really Hope to Tackle Climate Change?


Photo credit: Señor Codo via Fotopedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

The environmental movement, as most people long understood it, was a broad coalition of individuals, advocacy groups, activists, and others who continually work to address conservation issues and to preserve natural resources; to make sure the environment was given due consideration in business and policy discussions. Inspired by oil spills and out-of-control pollution, the environmental movement was the catalyst for creating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, among many others. It has played a vital role in keeping our air breathable, our rivers and lakes clean, our most cherished lands undeveloped. But is even this movement, which counts millions of people among its supporters and has in recent years been reinvigorated, capable of taking on the biggest, most insurmountable challenge of them all? Grist's Dave Roberts thinks not:

Environmentalism has a well-defined socioeconomic niche in American life. There are distinct cultural markers; familiar tropes and debates; particular groups designated to lobby for change and economic interests accustomed to fighting it; conventional methods of litigation, regulation, and legislation. Environmental issues take a very specific shape.

The thing is, that shape doesn't fit climate change. Climate change -- or rather, the larger problem of which climate change is a symptom -- isn't like the issues that American environmentalism evolved to address. The solutions that American environmental politics are capable of producing are not commensurate with the scale and scope of the challenge climate change represents. A clear understanding of that challenge renders comically absurd the notion that it can or should be the province of a niche progressive interest group. It's just too big for that.

Roberts points out that American environmentalism evolved to tackle bad actors: negligent companies, politicians proposing polluter-friendly policy, etc. And he argues that such a movement is ill-equipped to face the vast challenge presented by climate change -- a challenge that will require a major transition from the way that America's industry is currently organized. Such an undertaking -- which eventually requires weaning the nation from fossil fuel dependence, increasing nationwide energy efficiency, deploying massive amounts of clean energy sources, etc -- is simply beyond the scope of any 'movement'. Instead:
What needs to happen is for concern over earth's biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement -- and movement politics, as handed down from the '60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes.
I think Roberts is right: the 'environmental' movement and all of its power to produce demonstrations and to lobby Congress simply cannot inspire the scale of change necessary -- it will be an entirely different beast that successfully confronts climate change; one that's far more pervasive.

But I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter -- does anyone think that the environmental movement can indeed muster the change necessary to adapt our society to global warming?

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