Modern Environmentalism
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Modern Environmentalism

An Introduction

David Pepper

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eBook - ePub

Modern Environmentalism

An Introduction

David Pepper

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About This Book

Modern Environmentalism presents a comprehensive introduction to environmentalism, the origins of its main beliefs and ideas, and how these relate to modern environmental ideologies. Providing a historical overview of the development of attitudes to nature and the environment in society, the book examines key environmentalist ideas, influences and movements. Science's role in mediating our view of nature is emphasised throughout. This entirely new account draws on the explosion of writing on socio-environment relations since Pepper's earlier work, The Roots of Modern Environmentalism.

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Chapter 1




‘Diffuse, incoherent, a hotch potch’: these are but some of the epithets often flung at people who call themselves ‘green’. Especially when they talk about what society is and should be like. These beliefs often seem to come from ‘all over the place’. They are a mĂ©lange of ideas associated traditionally with the political right, left and centre, mingled with principles drawn from the science of ecology. Greens themselves may deny incoherence, claiming a distinctiveness based on ‘biocentrism’ (see p.). Or they may argue that a diversity of ideas is anyway a political strength rather than a weakness. However, although there are many positions associated with environmentalism, it is also true that there is a core of beliefs common to most greens—especially radical rather than reformist greens (those who believe that fundamental social change is necessary to create a proper, sustainable, environmentally sound society). Other books (Dobson 1990, Goodin 1992) have described these core beliefs in detail, so it is necessary here only to summarise them.

Inevitably, much of the green world view is about society, since it is concerned about the relationship between (Western) society and nature. It often says that we experience environmental problems because, at root, we have undesirable values about nature. These link with the undesirable way that, individually and in groups, we value and behave towards each other. Hence there is a specifically green critique of existing society and conventional values—what greens are against—together with beliefs about what future society should be like if it is to be sustainable and environmentally benign— what greens are for.

What greens are against

Greens often say that at the heart of the world’s problems of pollution, resource depletion and environmental deterioration are domineering and exploitative attitudes to nature. Western culture is thought to have a particularly pernicious global influence, because Westerners see nature as an instrument to be used for endless material gain (see Table 1.1). We take this perspective partly because we imagine we are separate from nature; a view inherent in our science and technology as it developed from the seventeenth century. This followed Francis Bacon’s creed that by observing nature analytically (splitting it into parts) and reducing everything to its basic components (e.g. biology is a matter of chemistry, which is a matter of physics, which is a matter of mathematics), we can know and manipulate nature’s laws for our own ends (Table 1.1). This gives us tremendous technological power, now used, say greens, for ignoble ends based on an ignoble view of human nature—that it is aggressive, selfish and competitive (Table 1.1). Wasteful consumerism is now the false god against which we measure both individual and social ‘progress’. Our spiritual, emotional, artistic, loving and cooperative sides are neglected for this cold materialism, which overplays the role of rationality, ‘hard facts’ and calculating economic utilitarianism in deciding what is good or bad. We lack any deeper moral standards.

Table 1.1 Green values compared with conventional values

Our over-linear thinking leads to the false conclusion that if something is good, more of it is necessarily better. Hence more complex technology and economic growth are, unwisely, advocated as the way to cure the social and environmental ills which have been side-effects of technological and economic advancement. Indeed the very idea of progress is now equated with the latter rather than with moral or spiritual advancement. By extension, we regard what is technically most complicated, like nuclear power or weapons, as most progressive, notwithstanding how much it destroys or pollutes. So we think we should not reject high technology, even though it often destroys the environment and does not seem to relate to ordinary people.

Greens think that ‘industrial’ society is founded on the too-narrow objective of profit maximisation, encouraging overconsumption. Blindly pursing profit, industries ‘externalise’ their waste by-products to society at large rather than paying to make themselves clean. Given today’s large-scale industrialisation, pollution becomes unacceptably great, while materials recycling and pollution control are limited in the interests of cost cutting and competition (Table 1.1). Resources are treated as limitless, though clearly, greens maintain, they are finite—a fact never appreciated in the short time perspective of conventional economics. Giantism, profit maximisation, division of labour, the production line, mechanisation and deskilling combine to produce uncreative, unfulfilling and alienating work, and drab, uniform living environments. Cities and suburbs are huge and impersonal, while the countryside is dominated by ecologically monotonous agribusiness-produced landscapes that give us poisoned and low-value food and water.

The search to expand markets and command resources and cheap labour has extended the industrial-consumer society across the globe, destroying rainforests and changing climate. The ‘overpopulated’ Third World is polluted and materially and culturally impoverished by this international trade system, which most people still see as essential to ‘development’. It produces a political system dominated by both narrow nationalism and uncontrollable multinational corporations. Each country needs a centralising state to make its economic and political arrangements work. But this state interferes with individual and community rights, inhibiting freedoms, self-determination and self-responsibility and producing undemocratic politics (Table 1.1).

This critique is not new. It is more than just a protest against the immediate effects of a polluted, ‘overpopulated’ world where natural resources are thought to be running out. It is a discontent at the alienation of urban-industrial capitalism and some of its central institutions such as the nuclear family, or hierarchical power relationships. The critique has affinities with most of the dissenting voices that accompanied the rise of modern capitalism, with its political philosophy of laissez-faire liberalism, over the past three hundred years; ranging from Romanticism, traditional conservatism and anarchism to the many varieties of socialism. Its most immediate ancestor is probably the ‘countercultural’ movement of the 1960s, which was intellectually sustained by, among others, ‘neo-Marxists’ concerned with social and spiritual alienation in our society (as distinct from traditional orthodox Marxism’s preoccupation with economic alienation).

What greens stand for

The core green values are ecocentric, that is, they start from concern about non-human nature and the whole ecosystem, rather than from humanist concerns. They invoke, in ‘deep’ ecology, the idea of bioethics. Bioethics say that nature has intrinsic worth, in its own right, regardless of its use value to humans. Humans are therefore morally obliged to respect plants, animals and all nature, which has a right to existence and humane treatment.

This ethic may be linked to the notion of Gaia: the whole earth behaving like a living, self-regulating organism. Though humans depend on the rest of nature, are an intimate part of it, and are not separate from or above it, it follows from both bioethics and Gaia that if humans were removed from the earth, the rest of nature should and could continue to thrive. But our presence has caused an ‘environmental crisis’, threatening large parts of nature including the human population. This crisis requires us to be humble, not arrogant, towards the Earth. We must abide by the laws governing all nature.

Such laws as carrying capacity lay down limits to growth; economic, population and technological. And they tell us that both social and ecological systems derive strength from diversity; sameness (whether in agricultural monocultures, or in uniform Western industrialism spreading to the detriment of local cultures) leads to lack of robustness and a destructive instability.

An anti-urban bias may follow from this, since cities often contravene ecological ‘laws’. This bias may manifest as love, respect and even reverence for countryside and wilderness as the imagined repository of simple and honest values, and reverse feelings towards cities and suburbia as the home of corrupting ‘civilisation’.

And there is a call for holistic thinking, recognising the full implication of our place in the global ecosystem, which is that whatever we do to one part of that system will affect all other parts, eventually reverberating on ourselves. Greenhouse and ozone layer effects are prime examples of this principle.

Social implications

If we are to live ‘in harmony with nature’ then social behaviour and personal morality should observe ecological laws. Indeed, the way that the rest of nature is organised should be a model for human social organisation. To make fewer demands on the planet’s resources we must reject materialism and consumerism and accept population control and low-impact technology based on renewable energy. Economics must henceforth incorporate environmental criteria in measuring value, efficiency and the costs and benefits of development. And all development must be sustainable, that is, it must not reduce environmental and economic options open to future generations. Geographical reorganisation is essential, into small economic, political and social units, comprising self-reliant regions and local communities (Table 1.1), since these are socially and ecologically most rewarding and stable.

Environmental degradation and social injustice are inextricably linked, so present trade, ‘aid’ and debt relationships between North and South, which encourage, for instance, tropical deforestation, must be replaced by more independent development.

As part compensation for lower material standards for the rich, and to improve the lot of the majority, quality of life must be improved. Environmental quality, personal well-being, rewarding relationships, creativity, art and sheer enjoyment—all these are part of quality of life. Economics must make quality of life a large part of the measure of wealth and value. Wealth indicators, like gross national product, should include only socially useful activity (whereas at present even pollution-generating activities are counted as part of ‘productivity’ and so are desirable).

A social wage, paid to everyone, would mean that useful work, e.g. housework, caring for the sick and needy and tending the allotment or garden, would not be economically second-class activities. Manufacture and services should be geared to social needs rather than wants expressed solely through the market. Many wants are anyway ‘artificial’, induced through advertising for the sake of profit. And, since meaningful work is a basic human need, work should be designed wherever possible not to be degrading, boring or alienating, emphasising instead craft and creativity.

Quality of life can also be enhanced through people having control over their own lives in a genuine participatory democracy. Individuals and local communities, rather than the state or large private corporations, should own resources. Individuals must also feel that their views are heard and respected, whether they are ‘expert’ or not, and that they can tangibly influence decision making.

Obviously most of this is unachievable without deep-rooted changes in Western values and social organisation. ‘Feminine’ values—contractive, responsive, cooperative, intuitive, synthesising—should be encouraged, while currently dominant ‘masculine’ values—demanding, aggressive, competitive, rational, analytic—should be de-emphasised. A green society will be less hierarchical and more participatory than present society, and very definitely more communal.

However, individual self-fulfilment is also vital—for respect and love for others, and for nature, must be founded in self-respect. A non-aggressive individualism is a cornerstone of radical green political ideology. Many greens emphatically reject traditional political ideologies and approaches as part of the problem rather than the cure. Instead they adopt the ‘personal is political’ maxim, which says that by changing our personal lifestyles, attitudes and values we make a powerful contribution to general political change. Here, inner-directed philosophies and practices and enlightened education and socialisation are crucial.

Although in the mid-1990s the political popularity of green parties has waned (see Bramwell 1994), none the less green ideas have made progress in the quarter century since the rise of popular environmentalism. From his perspective as someone involved in the alternative technology movement for most of that time, Peter Harper (1990) composed a personal and impressionistic schema of degrees of social acceptability of green ideas (Table 1.2). Readers can judge whether, some years later, any of these ideas have nudged their way further towards the ‘mainstream’ end of the spectrum.


Basic beliefs of deep ecology

The distinctio...

Table of contents