Although the warnings of impending environmental catastrophe were hotly contended a few years ago (most tellingly by high-paid corporate lobby groups), few people now deny that many of the essential natural systems that sustain all life on Earth are threatened by human activity.
Among countless other horrors, vast expanses of richly biodiverse Amazon rainforest have been decimated to make way for crops planted for biofuel and livestock feed, use of non-renewable energy resources is at an all time high, the world’s oceans are fast being depleted of fish, global food supply is threatened by overzealous promotion of unsafe and inefficient genetically modified wheat, maize, rice and other staples and the atmosphere itself is thick with pollutants, affecting the climactic stability of our entire planet.
Even if we ignore the fact that some ecologists are calling this unfolding event and its consequences the Sixth Great Extinction Crisis, the effects on humans alone are alarming: global political instability and conflict, displacement, famine, loss of basic income, an increase in exploitation of the poor in developing countries and a rapidly increasing gap between the rich and the poor are just a handful of the direct and indirect effects of the short-sighted Industrial Revolution mindset that seeks to endlessly exploit the whole of nature for human benefit without recognising the complete unsustainability of this approach.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the next 20 years might offer humanity both its greatest opportunity and its greatest threat. How we choose to respond, as a global community, to these and other pressing issues, will have immense consequences for our shared future and the lives we are able to lead on this planet.
Concerningly however, it seems as though the Great Green Revolution, our defining moment of global solidarity, currently amounts to little more than ineffective posturing.
The problemIs this our fault as consumers? We all, save for the most callous amongst us, care about these issues, we all want to do something to stop global warming and we’ve all tried hard to make at least some of the trendy changes we’re told will make a difference: we’ve installed low wattage lightbulbs in our homes, we buy less plastic bags, we try to eat ‘organic’ if we can afford it and some of us have even sought out fuel efficient cars.
Should we then feel guilty when we’re told that none of these measures will have any noticable impact, even if every last one of us drove a Prius and had a solar geyser?
The problem is threefold: first, spectacularly greedy business interests have seen a new gap in the market to exploit and have attached all sorts of green rhetoric, aka ‘greenwash’ to their products and PR; second, most of the spokespeople for green ‘activism’ are married to the idea that market forces alone will suffice to save us, strengthening the drive of the green marketeers and illegitimating any more radical actions; third, some of our habits are so deeply entrenched that few have actually realised that they can and should be changed. All these factors combine to give us an entirely false sense of how we can really make a difference.
So what can we do if we are serious about living ethically and reversing the tide of ecological devastation? The environmental movement has several different answers to this question.
Light green environmentalismSo-called ‘light green environmentalists’ (‘LG’s’ for short) see protection of the environment as a personal consumer responsibility and ask us to simply make ethical, responsible choices about how we live.
For instance, given the fact that the global livestock industry is the single largest cause of human-made global warming (bigger even than the entire global transport industry according to the 2006 United Nations report, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’) the LG’s insist that we should eat either very little meat or no meat at all as a vegetarian or (even better) vegan diet uses as little as 1/20th of the natural resources a standard meat-based Western diet does. In fact, changing to a vegan diet is probably the single most responsible consumer commitment an individual can make to saving the environment and will make much more of a dent in the average ecological footprint than almost anything else currently on the cards.
LG’s also advise us to use our consumer power to boycott companies (or even nations, like China) that are damaging our environment by not buying from them and instead trying to support local and eco-friendly industries wherever possible.
Bright green environmentalism
Going one step further than the LG’s, BG’s recognise that what we consume is important but also attempt to tackle the problem from the other end. BG’s ask the important question of how we produce what is consumed; they thus tend to be enthusiastic about things like renewable energy, hybrid cars, nanotechnology and other ‘small footprint’ technologies. Some BG’s have even proposed a novel, if somewhat hare-brained solution to the old ‘methane belching cow’ problem: a machine that is connected to cattle and captures their methane emissions for use as clean energy!
In essence, BG’s assert that through new technologies and sustainable living practices we can stem or even reverse the tide of ecological devastation.
Dark green environmentalism
Like the LG’s, the DG’s believe that we should consume in an ethical, responsible way and, like the BG’s, they believe that innovation in the way we produce is crucial, but they take both of these positions one step further by questioning why consumerism has so fully permeated our lives and our values.
DG’s believe that environmental problems are caused not just by what we buy and how it is made, but also by how we live and function as a society. They see the dominant political and economic ideology of globalised industrial capitalism as fundamentally flawed in that it promotes shallow and unsustainable values based on greed, mindless consumerism, alienation from nature and rampant exploitation of resources. Not content to leave the analysis there, DG’s go on to state that the basis of all this is an illogical emphasis on perpetual growth at the expense of all else. They call this drive ‘growth mania’ and advocate in its place an egalitarian, anarchist society with a more nuanced value system irreducible to capital, pursuing development and refinement of ideas and technologies in place of growth for its own sake.Distinct from both LG’s and BG’s, DG’s encourage social activism, protest and radical direct action; in fact some DG’s, like the philosopher and activist Dr Steve Best and the writer and ecologist Derrick Jensen, eloquently defend the necessity for acting in a revolutionary manner even if this means participating in illegal activities like sabotaging logging operations (like the Earth Liberation Front) or sinking whaling ships (like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society). While these might seem like extremist tactics, Dr Best’s recent anthology, ‘Igniting a Revolution’ legitimates their use admirably, comparing the environmental struggle to historical justice movements and noting that revolutionary direct action has always been employed where more reformist ‘light green’ measures have failed.
Even darker green environmentalism!
At the most extreme end of the DG spectrum are what can best be termed ‘primitivists’, people who work towards the complete abolition of industrial society, including even agriculture. On the surface this looks like a somewhat fanatical, almost escapist approach to the problems we face as a technologically advanced society but, while hardly any of us would like to go back to living in caveman times, it is worth pausing for a moment to ask the question of exactly what we want and what makes us truly happy before we dismiss the idea of living more simply as absurd right off the bat.
After all, psychologists are telling us that for all our flashy gadgets and cheap sweatshop clothes we’re no happier now than we were several decades ago and are in fact becoming more anxious, more self-absorbed and less capable of meaningful and fulfilling interpersonal relationships. Few of us enjoy the mundane and often meaningless slog of the 5 day work week, the long and congested daily commute in our empty 5 seater cars, the mad rush to spend our hard-earned pennies on shiny but ultimately unsatisfying trinkets… instead, we enjoy, almost every single one of us, leisurely time spent with family and friends, long walks through green expanse where we can marvel at the majesty and complexity of the natural world and simple time spent engaging our creative impulses not as a means to some fiscal end but as an entirely satisfying ends in itself.
So, even though we have sent camera equipment to Mars and now know enough about the quantum world to build a simple computer in a glass of water, even though we have almost perfected the artificial eye and the bionic heart, even though we can buy (if the unequal distribution of the world’s resources is biased in our favour) high-definition televisions, 160GB mp3 players and phones that recognise spoken commands, perhaps we have forgotten, in our mad rush towards some fictitious goal post, how to ask some very simple questions.
What is an individual human life? What could living consist in? How do we define ourselves as a species and how do we measure our worth? Is this really the best it could be? Are we really acting in the interests of ourselves and the planet? What is the value, intrinsic or otherwise, of other species? What is it that drives all of us to act in such facile and self-destructive ways and can this be changed? How?
Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us are brave enough to confront these questions honestly and with all of our being, the very changes in living brought about in answering them will suffice to save us, along with all the other life on earth that we have dis-empowered and claimed dominion over. Until then, the old adage is surely true: our reach exceeds our grasp.