The Green Movement at 50: What next?

The modern age of environmentalism is about half a century old. During that time awareness has grown, our knowledge of the challenges has increased while important practical progress has been made, for example in reducing some kinds of pollution and in the establishment of protected areas. We are, however, still very far from reconciling the demands of people with what our planet can sustainably provide.

The consequences of the imbalance between people and nature are seen in changes to the Earth’s climate, the mass extinction of animals and plants that is gathering momentum and in the depletion of key resources, including wild fish stocks, freshwater and soils. And these environmental pressures are not static.  They are escalating, as our population grows and as countries continue their quest for more economic growth.

If we are to avoid the worst consequences of these trends then there is no doubt that rather more rapid progress will be needed than that achieved to date, but where should we focus our effort? What might be the priority areas for action over the next half century?

It strikes me that the main challenges at hand are not primarily in relation to good information, better technology or sound policy ideas. These things are of course vital, but all those things are already available. We know how to make clean power, to save resources and nurture biodiversity. We know how to regulate pollution and to prevent damage to ecosystems, if we want to. The fact that we have these capabilities is not enough.

If we are to move the debate on in a decisive way it needs to be reframed. We need to move on from ‘doing the right thing’, to talking about managing risks and promoting resilience.

To see caring for the Earth’s natural systems as some kind of ethical choice is to completely misunderstand the crisis we are in. This challenge is about the future of human societies, not some optional charitable endeavor that we can leave to philanthropic generosity and do-gooders. Embedding a narrative that moves us on from protecting nature from people to protecting nature for people is an essential part of this reframing. We are in a period of consequences, and the world needs to know that healthy nature is not some optional nicety but a set of essential material assets.

If such a narrative is to gain practical effect then looking after nature must urgently be seen as not only an environmental challenge, but also an economic one. So long as we continue to travel in two directions at once, promoting environmental goals on the one hand while on the other directly contradicting that with measures to achieve more economic growth, the longer we will fail to make real progress.

When it comes to economics and ecology there is plenty of good thinking already done. For example, in different kinds of economic measures to replace crude measures of GDP with more realistic measures of success and failure, ecological tax reforms to shift the burden from income to pollution, payments for ecosystem services, the redirection of subsidies and in how to mobilise finance to expand clean industries.

The transformation we must make in economics could be rich in jobs and bring many other social benefits, from better health to more equality. It does, however, require political backing. This is where popular culture becomes important.

In many countries the consumerist culture that has taken hold is very much a partner of the GDP- growth model. The two go together, with consumption in the former actively promoted to increase expansion in the latter. To this extent it is hard to change economic ideas without also changing the popular culture that shapes those very same economic assumptions. This is not easy. Consumerism is for many of us an attractive cultural space to inhabit. It plays to our default settings, and to our innate tendencies to promote status, self-expression and short-term comfort.

Shifting popular culture will require more than simply telling people they are wrong to want consumer goods. That hasn’t worked so far, and it probably won’t work in future either. A different and more sophisticated approach is required, perhaps led by fashion gurus and other non-environmental opinion-formers.

Unfortunately there is more. No matter how compelling the narrative, in my opinion neither economics nor culture will change until there is a different philosophical context shaping our collective worldview.

In most countries today there is a worldview that sees technology, and not nature, as our preferred partner in the task of improving people’s lives. For most of us nature is irrelevant. Worse still the natural environment is sometimes presented as a drag on development, and inconvenient deadweight that slows down the long journey of human progress. So long as this worldview remains even partly intact then culture change and reforms to align economic ideas with ecological capacities are, I fear, almost impossible to achieve.

Altering societies’ worldviews is a massive job, but it is not impossible. The way we look at the world is not a given, it is shaped, and it can be moved in more ecological directions, as well as self-destructive ones. Countries could introduce natural history studies as part of their national educational programmes. Nature could be designed into the heart of cities, to bring trees, birds, running water and green areas into the daily lives of urban dwellers. By rebuilding the connections that have for many of us been lost, it would be possible to restore the meaning that enabled many pre-industrial societies to live in nature, not outside it.

It is also vital to change the cast of actors. The private sector companies who touch billions of people every day must be at the heart of the solutions we adopt. And to help with that process business schools need to get on top of these issues. So must mainstream economists, psychologists, educationalists and engineers.

All this needs to be presented as a positive agenda that is about gain. It needs to be an inclusive process that encourages everyone with a contribution to make to be part of the solution. It needs to be a programme that is not about whether we ‘go back to nature’, or pursue progress based on ever more technology and growth, it is a question of painting a compelling picture of a bright human future founded on an ecological economy, and in turn a different relationship with the natural systems that sustain us and everything else.

The next fifty years will be among the most momentous on Earth for millions of years. It will be the period during which we either recognize the problem we have, and solve it, or enter a period of ecological upheaval that will bring with it profound economic and social dislocations.

There is no simple top-down ‘solution’. Even if governments say some of the right things at the Earth Summit in Brazil this month, there is no way to achieve durable progress without strong bottom-up activity. Governments can’t on their own do what is needed, neither can the ‘green movement’ or the private sector. Everyone working together, however, well that is a different matter.
First published by The Independent, Friday 15th June 2012