Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Death of Environmentalism

Excuse me for being slow, but I just got the new ‘Conflict Resolution’ issue of Adbusters and picked up on the debate that’s been raging in the US and on the Net since last autumn regarding ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ an 12,000 word essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a pair of strategists and organizers who've worked with a number of environmental groups over the last decade.

According to the excellent Grist: ‘As if the title were not provocative enough, the authors added injury to insult by releasing the paper at an October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, a group with lots of hands on lots of purse strings.

The paper - based on interviews with 25 leaders in the mainstream environmental movement (nearly all of them, like S&N, white men) - argues that environmentalism is ill-equipped to face the massive global challenges of our day, particularly climate change.

The movement has become a relic and a failure, the authors say, coasting on decades-old successes, bereft of new ideas, made fat and complacent by easy funding, narrowly defining "environmental" problems, and relying almost exclusively on short-sighted technical solutions. Mainstream green organizations' varied legislative and legal victories -- and their cumulative membership rolls of some 10 million-plus - don't cut it for S&N. These achievements, they claim, take place against the backdrop of a broader failure to offer the American people an expansive, inspiring, values-based vision. They conclude that the environmental movement should meet its re-maker, as it were, and give way to a more cohesive, coordinated, and ambitious progressive movement.’

Reading this debate made me think again about the recent sad loss of Bob Hunter, one of the original Greenpeace pioneers who did so much to create the values, myths and media savvy that drove Greenpeace to become, for a period, the largest and most effective protest group on the planet.

I served my time with Greenpeace, as Editorial Director of Greenpeace Books, their international publishing operation, as the main author/editor of the official history of the organisation and later as a creative consultant, in the period when the digital revolution was beginning to bite and the focus, drive and energy of the organisation was being drawn into internal disputes and questioning of its role and direction, following the resignation of the late, great chair of Greenpeace David McTaggart.

Around this time, I was interviewed by Canadian author Stephen Dale for his book: ‘McLuhan's Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media’ (1996) [ISBN: 1-896357-04-0]. Chapter 8 of the book, ‘Mass Media and Mass Action: The Challenge of a New Environmentalism’ reported my views as follows:

‘The 1992 meetings in Rio represented the marriage of the environment and the development movement and the realisation that you can’t save the trees without saving the people. Now these concerns remain to be translated into a powerful new form of politics and action and lifestyle that will address the problems on a sufficient scale and in a sufficient way.

‘My feeling is that the awareness is there in people’s heads and the world is changing because of this. I believe that there are new industrial revolutions underway and that new forms of politics will emerge. Since politics begins with language you have to find the form of the language first, and that language is both verbal and increasingly multimedia.’

I claimed at the time that Greenpeace ‘had lost sight of the early concepts promulgated by Bob Hunter, that the mass media should be used as a conduit of ‘mind bombs’: influential, sometimes archetypal images that can cut through the hypnotic drone of the day-to-day babbling to reach people at a deeper emotional level. It’s the force of impact that counts and the key is the search for that kind of intensity.

‘Greenpeace elevated climate change to the number one issue and were then unable to communicate it in a meaningful way…When people are having a hard time economically, just trying to survive, the message that ‘over the next fifty years the weather might deteriorate’ just doesn’t strike home. This means that you have to find new forms to communicate these ideas to provide context.’

Obviously things have moved on since that time. Climate change is firmly established in people’s minds but we don’t yet have the will, focus, energy to make the Big Change. To that extent I agree with the Death of Environmentalism. Political and social ideas must evolve to cope with changing circumstances and the environmental movement often appears to be competing to deliver the gloomiest message. This must change to a movement, whatever its name, that starts delivering bright solutions and optimism in the face of a world that, if you believe the mass media, is quickly degrading. Fear is the enemy.

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