Survival of the … Noblest?

Why environmentalism is failing

Since the 1970s, departments of the environment have been created in governments around the world; hundreds of conservation and protection acts have been passed, thousands of hectares of land set aside from development, and dozens of toxic and harmful chemicals banned. Today there are more than a thousand environmental treaties in place, and a seventh of the Earth’s landmass is officially protected in some way.

And still the planet is becoming unfamiliar. The Arctic is currently 20°C warmer than it should be, and the last time atmospheric carbon was over 400 parts per million, humans were not around. A new study predicts that warming will cause a feedback loop of carbon release from soil, equivalent to adding another industrialized country the size of the United States and making all the current treaties to reduce emissions irrelevant. (It is unfortunate, given this arithmetic, that the president-elect has no plans to actually remove the United States from Earth.) Temperature increases of around two degrees should take about 20 years, with warming of four degrees before 2100; if you can’t wait, fish stocks are plunging now as the oceans acidify (although jellyfish are doing well). Most of this will not kill us directly (except some of the jellyfish), but it is all evidence for a spectacular increase in ecological precarity that will, eventually, kill. Climate change will displace billions, and if the current migrant crisis is a precedent for how developed countries plan on handling it, this great migration will be deadly. Food shortages can come later.

Although the exact odds are hard to predict, the survival of hundreds of millions of humans, as well as of countless other creatures (useful, cute, scary), is now in jeopardy because we have destabilized our shared habitat. And yet the majority of environmentalist appeals continue to rely on noble notions that we have a special responsibility as the dominant animal, or because we are the ones who ruined the planet, rather than on this mounting sense of alarm. The longish timescale can only partly explain it; fish stocks are predicted to be basically depleted by 2050, and most people living today will see dangerous climate change in their lifetimes.

Thinking of ourselves as planetary stewards may be a desirable stance or a ridiculous one (or a calming one, since it imagines we are in control), but none of that matters when you have not had water for two days. Biologically, we require a healthy planet, and the recognition of this fact is already driving some activism, like the campaign to add the right to a healthy environment to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet the environmentalist mainstream remains stuck in strategies of incremental change and individual consumer choice, ideas that have failed on a global scale.

It is too late to be nice, but you will not find anything alarmist or demanding in Peter Dauvergne’s bewilderingly reasonable Environmentalism of the Rich:

My point is not that environmentalism of the poor or anti-capitalism or anti-globalization or direct-action environmentalism offer all of the solutions to the escalating sustainability crisis. But I do believe that over the past two decades the pendulum of environmentalism has swung too far toward cooperation … and to make more of a global difference the mainstream of the environmental movement needs to pursue more transformative, ecological, and justice-oriented goals.

This is not to say that environmentalism as a whole has lost all of its power.

This layer cake of equivocation continues for 150 pages that mention all the symptoms of the current predicament, from the growth of eco-­consumerism against the relentless increase in industrial development to radical versus conventional movements within environmentalism; it stops to visit places such as Nauru, strip-mined by empires and now renting itself to Australia as a cage for migrants, and it contemplates the biographies of spectacular environmentalists such as Bruno Manser. Its heart is in the right place, arguing that the environmentalism of the rich—that is, environmentalism that leaves standing the structures of enrichment—has failed us. And it is a book I very much wanted to like, because understanding how any progressive movements attempt cultural change and how, as they engage with the mainstream, they also change are extremely urgent questions. But the book does not ask how environmentalism became gentrified, and so its anecdotes and criticisms, however correct they are, float apart from each other waiting for a story. The book is best on subjects it returns to, such as the roles of huge environmental organizations including WWF and Greenpeace, which increasingly advocate for a green consumerism, and the futility of pursuing environmental goals independent of economic and social justice.

If Coca-Cola promises to become a sustainability leader and also double servings to three billion a day by 2020, and it takes 150–300 litres of water to produce one litre of Coke, there is a problem. And yet WWF has partnered with Coca-Cola on water conservation. From one perspective, engaging with one of the biggest industrial users of water on the planet has great potential, since even small improvements can be scaled up, but such arrangements tend to prevent more radical conclusions, such as the idea that the number of Coca-Cola servings might have to decline.

This kind of engagement has produced a proliferation of eco-certification organizations to perform the rituals of purification that allow unsustainable practices to continue. Greenpeace helped form the Palm Oil Innovation Group, a kind of environmental marketing lobby for “innovative” producers. Fairtrade, the Marine Stewardship Council and the Forest Stewardship Council (launched in 1993 as a collaboration between WWF and Unilever) now certify, Dauvergne estimates, one fifth of global goods as meeting an environmental or social standard. Such organizations may identify better soy, palm oil, pulp and paper, and tuna fish, but they have no interest in keeping the soy and palm unplanted, the trees uncut or the tuna alive.

Dauvergne gently reprimands environmentalists who have pursued incremental rather than radical change, a “creeping moderation” of activism expressed in deals between corporations and non-governmental organizations like the one that sends 0.5 percent of every purchase on to WWF. In this creepy dance, the Nature Conservancy partners with Dow Chemical, Conservation International with ExxonMobil and Monsanto, the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States with McDonald’s.

Greenpeace praises Unilever, Nestlé and Proctor & Gamble as “sustainability leaders.” WWF rents its ecological brand for donations (one million gets you named a “Million Dollar Panda,” just like Coca-Cola) and receives $300,000 annually from sales of products such as EarthChoice paper. In this way, an ostensibly environmental organization comes to gain directly from increased consumption. Dauvergne contrasts this with the intent of WWF’s founding Morges Manifesto of 1961 (although anything brought down from a Swiss mountaintop to save the world ought to be suspect) and 1970s achievements in international conventions, or creations of many wildlife sanctuaries in the 1980s.

“Debt-for-nature” swaps are another classic WWF product that he explains. Since 1984, these contracts have a lending country or bank forgive some portion of national debts (or environmentalist corporations raise funds, buy the debt at a discount and then forgive it) in exchange for various environmental conservation acts by the debtor states; they have created nature conservancies and national environmental endowments in places such as Madagascar, Peru and Colombia, and produced about a billion dollars of funding and debt relief from 1987 to 2010. Apart from the irony of European powers extracting biodiversity protection from the former colonies where they used to strip-mine and trophy hunt, this collateralization of ecological appendages leaves the destructive systems intact. It is similar to government financing schemes for affordable housing in that neither “alternative” strategy challenges the dominant logic—a tree is whatever somebody is willing to pay for it, a home is real estate and not a right.

This critique of mainstream environmentalism would be more effective if it attempted to explain how we got here. For example, whether you are selling environmentalism or Barbie dolls, multi­nationals tend to have managerial cultures in common, and these complementary institutional logics make it easier to partner with mega corporations. And any organization advocating for something as radical as de-growth will struggle for support since its vision of the future would turn the present upside down. That makes a lot of people nervous, and not only the ones on top.

Dauvergne does not pay sufficient attention to the political dimension or its history. Western environmentalism originated in 19th-century nature conservation movements linked to aristocratic pleasures of (owning) the land. It smelled luxurious from the beginning, and it was always a political tool. The first Canadian national park, Banff, was created to support a burgeoning railway tourism industry, and First Nations were banned. The idea that you might live in a place by engaging its ecosystem without claiming dominance over it has never been central to western environmentalism. It is only more recently, as part of a global resurgence in indigenous cultures, that such ideas are being more widely discussed and experimentally applied. A former national park in New Zealand, Te Urewera, was recently given legal status as a person, and although such strategies have potential to transform our relationships with nature, they do not appear in this book.

Any criticism of mainstream environmentalism, but especially one that looks for other ways forward, has to consider the existing ecology of alternatives and antagonists. Opposition to environmentalism in North America, for example, reflects the movement’s history by clustering around poles of “the government can’t tell me what to do” and “jobs are more important,” neither of which are traditional concerns of the upper classes. Recently, Nathaniel Rich wrote on Arlie Russell Hochschild in the New York Review of Books, and I was struck by her metaphor for the political problem. Imagine the American Dream as a long line of people (with the Tea Partiers-Trumpers somewhere in the middle) trudging toward success and dignity just beyond the hill; the decline of blue-collar employment brings the line to a halt, and then, in Rich’s ­paraphrase:

An even greater indignity follows: people begin cutting them in line. Many are those who had long stood behind them—blacks, women, immigrants, even Syrian refugees, all now aided by the federal government. Next an even more astonishing figure jumps ahead of them: a brown pelican … Thanks to environmental protections, it is granted higher social status than, say, an oil rig worker.

Weak mainstream support for radical environmentalism and de-growth—the kind that might have actually nudged our path away from ecological disaster—are explained by the self-interest, frustration and racism that seethe in this image. The rich may believe that they are more open minded, but their ultimate interests—and fundamental fears of impoverishment—are not so different; they just have more to lose and currently monopolize instruments of state power.

Masses in the developed world, the people with the largest ecological footprint on the planet, have seen their real incomes slide with the decline of manufacturing that began in the 1970s (around the same time that environmentalism moved into the mainstream). Consumerism paid for by cheap debt has softened the blow of globalization and the intensifying inequality in the West, and produced an anxiously consuming population. (If everybody on the planet lived like Americans, we would need four Earths.) This precariat is understandably suspicious of ideas that appear to threaten economic stability, and they have not and will not be swayed by noble arguments. So things are going to get a lot worse. One way of understanding the gentrification of environmentalism, and its acceptance of green consumerism, is as a desperate attempt to keep this majority engaged in any part of the movement.

Was environmentalism ever a counterforce to capitalism, or was it always an epiphenomenon of a more fundamental movement, a questioning of exploitation that sees no distinction between the exploitation of natural resources and the exploitation of human beings? Perhaps the fatal error was environmentalism’s division from these larger questions, a shattering into thousands of individual causes, when the real concern should have always been our physical and moral survival.