Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is Environmentalism Failing?

Downunder Melbourne Australia’s recent two week long Sustainable Living Festival included this sold old Great Debate: Is Environmentalism Failing.

Five of Australia’s top environmentalists, plus Canadian eco-scientist, David Suzuki, spoke for about ten minutes each. I’m including the entire 85 minute clip below, courtesy of Australia’s ABC network. Further below, I also include some notes. Bear in mind that these are notes and it’s worth your while to watch the entire debate as they are better speakers than I am a summarizer.

First up was Ian Lowe (about 4.5 minutes into the clip), President of the Australian Conservation Foundation who began by reminding the audience that societies only survive if they live within their natural systems, and this is what environmentalism was all about. He argued that though there have been environmental achievements (for example, catalytic converters), the science is clear that we’ve been degrading the environment for the past thirty years and that we’re not living sustainably. He said the two main causes of this degradation are the appalling poverty in the developing world and unsustainable consumption in the richer part of the world. We in the rich parts have to ask ourselves what we’re prepared to give up – we have to live more simply so that others may live.

He acknowledged that the challenge to remove economic growth as a focus of our society was daunting but history tells us that other daunting challenges were overcome when enough people wanted the change badly enough, such as bringing down apartheid in South Africa, bringing down the Berlin Wall, and bringing down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. If our own politicians won’t listen then we have to replace them. He finished by saying that shaping a sustainable future is our duty and nothing less than our responsibility.

Next up was fiery Anna Rose (17:45 min into the clip), co-founder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition who lamented that the environmental movement did not understand power and argued for ways to build power. Environmentalism was positioning itself as a charity that wanted your money not as a movement that needs your voice and power. She said that donations that began with us being harassed in the street are not empowering. Even online tools were being poorly used because the online organization was not translating into offline power. The notion of “click here” shows it’s simply a politics of gesture.

Climate change is not an environmental issue, she said, it’s about our health, survival and our future. Whether environmentalism fails is ultimately up to all of us.

Author Clive Hamilton (31:00) reminded the audience that Big Carbon is ruthless. He summarized some work done in Australia and noted that we urgently need a new environmental radicalism that understands the need to defeat Big Carbon and resists the pressure to conform to the prevailing political structure. This radicalism must be made up of people willing to put bodies on the line because, he concluded, no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.

Senator Christine Milne (43:00), Deputy Leader of the Australian Green Party, said that the concept of environmentalism has been spectacularly successful but the movement itself has failed to capitalize on the numbers of people who have a predisposition toward protecting the environment. She said many people support the idea but don’t have the courage to get involved.

But, she said, though we’ve had a revolution in communication, the democratic process hasn’t changed. Politicians are people who want to keep their seats and we need to make them believe they will lose their seat if they don’t act on our behalf. We need massive public campaigning and people have to say that they will change their vote. Thoreau said that most men lived lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them – now is the time for us to get out and get active again on the streets so that our song is heard.

Philip Sutton (56:00), author and co-founder of Safe Climate Australia summarized some of the political actions that led up to the Kyoto Protocal and beyond. He complained that glaciers were moving faster than our political systems but that the frequency of extreme weather events was causing people to sit up and take notice of the changing climate. He argued for 100 percent cuts in greenhouse gases, growing more plants and burying them to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (reverse mining) and deflecting some solar energy to cool the Earth while we create a safe climate.

He said that during World War II, countries rebuilt their economies at maximum speed and added that we’ll all feel invigorated when we can see that a safe, cooler planet is possible in the near term.

Finally, David Suzuki (1:09:00) spoke and he was clearly reeling from the information and impassioned speeches of the previous speakers. He argued that present environmental efforts were dealing with the symptoms of our destructiveness not the root causes. Our economic system, which disregards the services nature performs for our health and wellbeing and focuses only on financial gains is at the heart of the crisis. We have failed to address the fundamental truth that endless on a finite world is impossible.

He said we need to revise our human-centered position to a biocentric position in order to see how we are interconnected with all other species. He was aghast that we humans are one of 10-30 million species and think nothing about taking over 88% of the globe and leaving only 12% for all other species.

He also cautioned about the enormous power of corporations who we’ve allowed to infiltrate government processes yet who exist only to make money and threaten to remove jobs whenever they see fit. He applauded the book, Merchants of Doubt for exposing the hundreds of millions of dollars that has been spent claiming that climate science is junk science, something that he rightly called criminal activity.

Being green shouldn’t be a political football, he said, nor should environmentalism be a specialty: it’s a way of seeing ourselves in the world. He concluded that our task now is to motivate the motivators to motivate.

So there you have it. Again, the speakers themselves say it much better than my crude paraphrasings so do have a look at the video. Though many of the speakers addressed climate change specifically, many of their arguments also apply to the present crisis in species loss. Is the situation in North America any different from Australia? Is environmentalism failing? Your comments are welcome.

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