Photo: Zosia, Easter 2013, Joe Smith
It isn’t possible to mark a birth date for the modern conservation movement and its conjoined twin environmentalism, but the hat feather boycotts of more than a century ago offer as good a date as any. They were driven by concern at the ‘murderous millinery’ that consumed vast quantities of exotic birds. These permitted the enthusiastic displays of wealth that marked the growth of the exploding middle classes at the end of the nineteenth century. Figgis and Co. alone shift 1,580 Condors’ worth of hat in 1911. In the same period the sight, sound and smells of the cars of wealthy motorists led to this ‘luxury apt to becoming a nuisance’ being taxed for the first time. Toad of Toad Hall is an Edwardian environmentalist tract.
The first wave of contemporary environmentalism was marked in the early 1970s by cultural works that explored consumption in everything from children’s books to apocalyptic films. Dr Seuss’ 1971 The Lorax centres on the chopping down of Truffula trees to produce the ‘Thneeds that everyone needs’. Sci fi film Soylent Green is a consumption driven narrative of a rather different kind, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘human resources’.
Across more than a century campaigns and creative works have helped to shape an environmentalism that is organised around concerns with excess, denial and jeopardy. The die was set early. The result is that one of the most significant ethical and political innovations of the last two hundred years has struggled to find an idiom that sits comfortably or authentically with ideas of progress. Progress is a difficult word. But it is so deeply embedded in the way we organize discussions about politics, economics and our own community or individual lives that it is essential that anybody interested in making changes to the way the world is needs to work with it. Put another way, environmentalism needs to talk about the making, getting and maintaining of happy hats as much as ‘murderous millinery’.
Personally I’m much more responsive to any discussion that seeks to bind thinking about environment-human relations into ‘the rest of life’. This might relate to the nature of work, friendship, or how we think and feel about our place in or contribution to the world.
Tolstoy’s parable How Much Land Does a Man Need? helps me in this respect: it explores sufficiency and the good life by reference to its opposite. It notes the Devil’s nimble work in distracting people with the prospect of unearned but also unrewarding gain. An extraordinary promenade theatre work by dreamthinkspeak took me back to Tolstoy’s themes this week. It prompted similar questions for me about work, economy, consumption and personal ambition, though they offered a collective rather than individual human narrative. Environmentalism needs to connect with these everyday and macro concerns if there is to be any significant break in trends in habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions or resource depletion. Regarding this, I’m always puzzled when environmentalists express concern that environmental issues tend to come around fourth in ‘top five/ten concerns’ polling (a pretty consistent position over 25 years or so). Do we really expect people to prioritise abstract, distant or future concerns over issues such as tax, health or security? Rather the research and policy community need to work harder to show how environmental risks and opportunities are embedded within these everyday concerns, whether these concerns belong to the governor of the Bank of England or head of the IMF, or yours or my mum/dad.
Tolstoy plots the unhappy progress of ambitious peasant Pahom as he seeks more land than he could possibly need. On a larger canvas, but in much the same vein the wonderful In the Beginning Was the End walks the audience through a half-century of economic, technological and social development that leaves us in a state of utter atomization and alienation. A route to redemption was signalled by a very humane/human revolution in the customer care centre of the long-tentacled corporation they conjured. No such redemption for Pahom. The answer to Tolstoy’s question: ‘six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.’