Another watershed for environmentalism

4th May 2010

Another watershed for environmentalism

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It's time to be bold about the promises of a better future, says Mark Everard.

Much has been written about the industrialised world's historic conception of nature as a boundless resource, to be exploited without consequence.

Significant pollution incidents across all environmental media, fishery collapses and loss of charismatic species, highlighted by an increasingly pervasive media since the 1960s, provided a series of shocks that mobilised public opinion, boosted environmental awareness and created momentum for policy change.

Sequential watersheds

From this first watershed of basic recognition of the vulnerability of the natural world to our industrial habits, we have crossed subsequent thresholds.

Significant amongst these is increasing appreciation of the susceptibility of our comfortable lifestyles to the changes we are wreaking upon the ecosystems that underpin them, and how disproportionate use of resources by the privileged minority of the world is compromising the well-being of impoverished and vulnerable communities within and across nations and continents.

The term ‘environment' originated in 1827, derived from the French ‘environs' meaning ‘surroundings', but it took us over one-and-a-half centuries to appreciate how intimately interdependent we are with those ‘surroundings'.

Deepening appreciation of what the integration of economy, ecology and society actually implies, allied with the emergence of ‘ecosystem services' and other tools promoting systemic awareness, leaves us today at a new watershed. We stand on the brink of truly systemic consciousness of how our decisions and actions inevitably affect everyone else, worldwide and including future generations, through the agency of the environment that binds and supports us all.

Stepping forward

However, we have yet to witness the profound transition in use and sharing of energy, materials, time and money implied by this awareness, and to see a redistribution of hope and opportunity between sectors of local, national and global society.

Without such practical transition in collective and concerted action, our hopes for a safe and prosperous future can only recede whilst the security of all of humanity is further eroded by a changing climate, burgeoning population, unravelling ecosystems, and unrest inevitably fomented by injustices.

Nicholas Stern's 2006 report on the economics of climate change1 made the point, eloquently and forcefully, about how proactive and prompt change need not be excessively costly.

Indeed, such choices contain many opportunities, whilst the consequences of continued inaction are vastly more costly. This is amplified by the conclusions of the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment2 about the prognosis for human well-being if we do not attend urgently to declining ecosystem conditions.

Yet inaction, often reinforced by vested interests or fear of the unknown, is a powerful form of action. As we stand at this watershed, it is our wisdom and leadership in making appropriate choices, or else our habitual action or inaction, that will determine what sort of future we invest or inflict upon ourselves and those to follow.

We undoubtedly now have the awareness, technology, and media focus to monitor our declining opportunities. However, the ‘watershed moment' hinges on our decisions right now to act boldly upon the choices confronting us, changing course with foresight or living with the regret of hindsight.

Loosening our grip

But change is a scary thing, and for powerful evolutionary reasons. It can trigger a visceral survival instinct as deep as that which compelled us to cling onto the branches in our arboreal prehistory.

Still encoded deep in our psyche is the fear of letting go of the familiar. Regardless of the rationality of many choices, resistance to change comes from a more primordial place. The unknown is inherently fearful, despite recognition that the future is inherently unknowable.

So change is never easy, whether that be leaving home, changing jobs or bank accounts, saying a final goodbye to a well-loved pet or relative or, for that matter, hearing that our familiar way of life needs to be revised to secure a decent future.

Trouble is, regardless of the rationality of changing to secure a better future, our basic survival programming operates on tree-clinging immediacy. So you can forget all about your promises of ‘jam tomorrow', as I dare not let go of my familiar branch today!

Tapping into the fea

Media personalities and vested industrial interests alike are quick to exploit that innate fear, highlighting what we might lose and not what we might gain.

The modern world is paradoxical. Prime time television, funded by our licences, promotes loud-mouthed motoring enthusiasts in demonising environmentalists both collectively and personally, as ill-informed killjoys.

No rational argument, nor the kind of ‘balance' that broadcasting standards insist upon if anyone dares mention the overwhelming evidence and consensus around climate change. And the hacked emails around the ‘Climategate' saga in the run-up to the UN summit in Copenhagen further betray the way some sectors of business and media latch onto, or arguably sponsor, the muddying of what has become a very clear and well-corroborated message.

These gross but daily illustrations of the power of denial, and many more like them, polarise opinion and frame any alternative as a denial of rights.

The overriding importance, it seems, is not to safeguard our children from a dystopian future, but to protect their right to drive a Ferrari!

The power of denial taps into the fear of what we might lose - from fast cars to artificially cheap flights, energy bills and food - rather than the opportunities secured or opened up through new technology choices.

And this, of course, builds upon and is compounded by long-standing ‘big business' patronage of political parties to assure favourable policies, with ‘appropriate' civic hours to follow.

What's the message?

Alas, these illustrations are more fact than caricature. The sad truth is that sectors of the media and vested business interests quite openly transmit muddied or reactionary messages into the public mind on an hourly basis.

But we have also to confess to some of our own sins of omission. In gearing ourselves up to push the public mind over former watersheds, our language as environmentalists has perhaps been more concerned with the sky falling than about the clear blue vistas beneath it. In short, our established rhetoric has been biased towards the dystopia of inaction rather than the positive options presented by alternative directions.

Getting back to that ‘hindbrain instinct', so effectively tapped by motoring journalists, advertisers, the vested economic interests they serve and the wider media, is our message clear?

If we are telling people that they must let go of the branch to fall from a withering forest, we offer them no sense of the fertile plains beneath.

Can we blame them then for not releasing their tight grip in their droves, producing a shift in democratic will and a mandate for positive change? Is it then any surprise that the public is confused, and that a hunger for a more secure future is not expressed more forcefully?

Jumping from the trees

Environmentalism begins and ends with people like you, me, our families, those we shop and drink with, and those who watch motoring programmes on television. As instigators, victims, actors, investors, beneficiaries and/or lambs to the slaughter, it is our collective will that defines what issues we get concerned about, get prioritised for political attention, and how these in turn shape the course of society's onward development. Without that collective will, we can expect no change. Any true leader will have an uphill struggle on their hands.

If we are to encourage society to make the informed, bold and ultimately self-beneficial choices that the science clearly suggests then we have to change our language to one of opportunity. It is not, ultimately, about what we might lose today, but what we will lose tomorrow.

It is about getting people to reach out for those branches that offer the security of better products and lifestyles, more comfortable and less risky futures, lower or less volatile bills resulting from less energy and physical resource wastage, more dependable return on investment from more foresighted businesses and technology options, base-lined not in some illusory ‘steady state' future but acknowledging that change is rapid and all around us.

(Notwithstanding the horrible conflation of analogies of jumping out of trees to leaping over watersheds!)

Time for us environmentalists too to let go of the comfortable old branch of telling tales of doom and gloom. Instead, we need to be bold, visionary and graphic about the promise and opportunities of a better future, telling the positive stories that demonstrate to people the benefits that they will not want to let slip from their grasp. Let's big up today's jam and the things that enable it to be tomorrow's jam too!

And, in this endeavour to retell our story about what lies over the watershed, we have abundant lessons to pick up from the way that shiny new cars are portrayed today!

1 Stern, N (2006), Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, HM Treasury, London

2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), Ecosystems & Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington DC


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