The New Environmentalism?

Tomorrow I’m contributing to a debate on ‘the new environmentalism’ at the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican. It has had me dusting down a book I wrote for Granta in 2006 ‘What Do Greens Believe’. General argument within is: ‘very diverse movement that has had a huge influence but lost its responsiveness, its appetite for cultural innovation and is not sufficiently self-critical’. I don’t think there is a ‘new environmentalism’ as such – just more prominence for some of its strands including techno-optimism. But I can’t really argue with a word of Wangari Maathai’s speech at her Nobel prize investiture (though personally I’m made a bit queasy by the badging the non-human natural world as having a gender).

‘It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process. In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.’

Wangari Maathai (2004) Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway, accessed on 9/11/05

Is there anyone on the planet that has spent any time thinking about it that would now deny that the economy depends on ecology – that we are part of a ‘larger family of life’? The promotion of that simple but vital insight is a great achievement of environmentalism new and old. But we clearly haven’t connected that consciousness to everyday life, business or politics to anything like the degree required.  Although ‘we’re all environmentalists now’ (OK I exaggerate) we haven’t clarified these ideas in politics or ethics to the extent that is likely to leave us and those generations that follow us safe and happy. Two (I think mutually supportive) directions to take for environmentalism today: 1. spend a great deal more time with the subject of political economy, and make sure that politics does far more to reward good things like satisfying work and innovation and taxes bad things like resource depletion and pollution 2. go out and enchant people with the idea of a happy, rewarding daily life lived to the full IN and WITH the natural world. Less talk of threats to distant places in space or time and more talk of how to make every place good to be in.

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