Which Way Now?

There is no doubt that the environmental movement has during recent decades been one of the most successful forces for political and social change, particularly in many Western countries. The evidence for this is widespread.

With the momentum of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, some of the most damaging pesticides were phased out. The return of otters and many birds of prey is among the beneficial consequences of this. The disappearance of wildlife in many regions has at least been slowed down through the creation of different kinds of protected area, and about 13% of the Earth’s land surface is now in some form of conservation management (up from about 1% in 1960).

Some of the worst pollution has been cleaned up and both water and air quality have improved. There has been some effective international cooperation in this regard too. The European Union, for example, intervened to cut the emissions causing acid rain. It will take time, but much of the damage caused will eventually be repaired. The same is expected in relation to a truly global challenge – that of stratospheric ozone depletion. Because of global accords set out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of the pollution causing ozone thinning has been eliminated and the ozone layer is now expected to recover to pre-industrial levels by about the 2050s.

Even the biggest issue of all is now on the agenda. In a short time climate change went from being a marginal debate to centre stage. In the UK a clever political campaign led to the world’s first national-level legal framework for science-based cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, and even though the profile of the issue has dropped back somewhat, the campaign that led to this legislation ensures the issue remains located in political decision-making.

Cars and planes are cleaner, most energy-using devices are more efficient, recycling facilities are greatly improved, and sustainable development is more and more on the agenda in company board rooms. Levels of public and political awareness concerning environmental and sustainability issues have also been transformed.

By almost any measure the environmental groups have done a commendable job. On the basis of good science they used the media and public activism to advocate a wide range of positive changes that have made our world immeasurably better. So is the work done? Can we pack up and look back with pride? Of course we can’t, for whilst we have successfully treated some of the symptoms, the underlying condition has grown worse.

Although in many places development has become somewhat cleaner, the demands of humankind on the Earth have steadily and dramatically increased. In little more than a decade our number has gone from 6 to 7 billion, and it is expected to go above 9 billion by the 2050s. It is not, however, in the increase in human numbers that the main challenge is located. More important is our increased per capita demand.

It is projected that by the 2050s there could be some 4 billion of us living what might be regarded as Western-style middle-class lifestyles – about four times the present number! While this perhaps marks a triumph for development, to meet such an increase in demand will require a greater amount of natural resources and energy than that used in the whole of human history up to this point. Anyone familiar with the science on climate change and biodiversity or conversant with the numbers that shape projections on natural resource depletion will know that this spells serious trouble. The impacts of this inexorable increase in demand might be seen in the perfect storm that some see brewing as a result of the mismatch between supply and demand in relation to water, energy and food. The simple fact is that while our demands grow on an ever steeper curve, the Earth’s capacity to meet them is either static or declining.

Under these circumstances, what should environmental advocates do? To date much of what has been achieved has been through science, leading to regulation that in turn shapes better technology. A small number of greens have been able to successfully advocate change on behalf of society as a whole. It has not been hard for most voters to back the policies that have been called for, not least because the new regulations and technologies didn’t really affect comfort or convenience. There were still fridges, cars and consumer goods, and food (until recently at least) remained cheap. The ‘green’ policies and regulations mainly required behavioural change amongst a minority of landed and industrial interests.

The scale and scope of the challenges we face now are not going to be resolved through narrow regulations supporting particular technological improvements or conservation of special places. These will still be needed and will continue to be vital, but given the tsunami of increased demand that lies ahead this approach will not be sufficient. It seems to me that the time for a deeper level of engagement has arrived.

Environmental advocates have of course been talking about this for years. The point has finally arrived, however, at which it is now a viable strategy. One reason is that the problem is now more obvious, in part because of events such as food price spikes, oil depletion and extreme weather, as well as through the many mainstream discussions going on in think tanks, national governments and international agencies, and the conclusions of risk assessments being undertaken by major companies.

When I hear senior executives speaking of the need for a ‘holistic’ approach (and an increasing number of them are saying that), I know something has changed. In a few company boardrooms there is even a discussion as to whether it is realistic to expect unending growth. The fact that David Cameron, the UK prime minister, feels able to talk about happiness as a policy goal further signals the new and interesting territory that is opening.

So, what to do? The first thing perhaps is to see an opportunity to develop new ideas and agendas that connect with society at a broader level than specific policies or technologies. For me there are two priorities: these relate to economic and cultural change (rather than mainly a focus directly on the environmental issues themselves).

The reason massively increased demand is coming is because of a continued focus on historic patterns of economic growth, in turn fuelled by popular culture. People want more and more consumer goods, and they yearn for the comfort and status that these things bring. The more goods and services that enter the market, the better the growth figures will be. That means more jobs and increased tax revenues. This is the narrative that has shaped 60 years of development, but for the first time it seems there might be an opportunity to change it.

Breaking this chain of logic and replacing it with a new one based on ecological and sustainability principles is a tall order, but in my opinion it is where increased emphasis must now be placed. On the economic side lots of great work is already completed. Organisations such as the new economics foundation have for years been putting forward sound economic alternatives, and although most of these have not yet entered the mainstream, they could do if backed with the right kinds of campaign that set out how positive alternatives could take the world beyond the present emphasis on what we call ‘growth’.

When it comes to popular culture, however, we have hardly started. Most of the messages promoted by green advocates have appealed mostly to other greens, with the majority of people at best unmoved. Worse, many have felt alienated and some have reacted with hostility. Changing culture is a big job but it is one that environmental advocates need to look at far more seriously. This will require partnerships with social scientists and the use of the powerful communications tools that created our consumerist culture in the first place.

For there to be successful transform-ations at the level of economics and culture, it will be necessary to take a step further still – and that is into the realm of philosophy and our collective worldview. If we are to navigate the dire ecological straits ahead, then it seems necessary to begin the long job of reconnecting people with the Earth. This theme is explored at length in Harmony, the book authored by HRH The Prince of Wales with help from Ian Skelly and me and published last year.

In that book we describe the ongoing processes that have progressively separated people from Nature, and talk about the ways in which it might be possible to restore a worldview that is more Earth-centred. While we make some big conclusions, some of the steps needed to move on this agenda are practical and can be campaigned for right away. One idea I like is to institute a new GCSE course in Natural History. This learning would take young people into Nature and equip them with a basic knowledge of wildlife and ecology that for many would be the basis of a lifelong interest and passion. (The success of the Transition Towns movement in quickly building momentum shows how good ideas can quickly gain traction in cultural spaces.)

The next chapter in the story of human ecology requires advocates for sustainability to lift their ambitions and seek influence over broader fields. Ecologists, greens, conservationists, environmentalists and sustainability ‘doers’ can be as successful there as they were in the more contained struggles of the past. The frontline has moved – to mainstream economics and culture, and this in turn requires a new planet-based outlook to emerge. To engage effectively here will require new methods and strategies, boldness and confidence. A glance back at the proud track record that has brought us to where we are today should embolden all concerned.


Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer and environmental adviser and a former director of Friends of the Earth.


This article was first published in Resurgence magazine: www.resurgence.org