Time to re-boot: Towards a new environmentalism

In the build-up to the IUCN Congress, a landmark event for conservation, Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia argues that the environmental community needs to re-think its approach.

Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia

"Faith in ‘business as usual’ to deliver the changes needed owes more to the hopes of those favoured by the current status quo (and fearful of the costs of any change of direction) than to a coherent analysis".

This quote from a 2008 IUCN Report was directed at those responsible for making policy decisions. It is time we also directed these words to ourselves - how we define environmentalism, what we are about and how we hope to achieve positive change.

Stalling or building on success?

The success of the environmental movement is undoubted. Awareness of environmental issues is high. Environmental concerns have started to become embedded in everyday parlance, values and social norms. Investment in alternative energy and species and ecosystem conservation has reached a scale that was unimaginable in the mid-1970s. The last quarter of the 20th century truly represented the golden age of conservation. Surely we should be able to build on that success. As we go through 2012, why does it feel like we might be stalling rather than moving forward with confidence?

There is no doubt that we have seen setbacks. The ink is not yet dry on the UN climate change convention signed in Durban but, since the Copenhagen fiasco, progress achieved in climate negotiations has been, at best, disappointing, at worst disastrous. Neither have we made the progress we had hoped for in other areas of conservation. We are living through difficult economic times. As a result, budgets have been slashed and conservation and environmental issues have been marginalized. They are seen as a potential further drag on growth prospects and money spent on conservation efforts can be re-directed to what are seen as investments with greater economic productivity.

Gaining the initiative

The easy way out is to complain and blame the failure of progress on "short sighted politicians" who do not have the courage to make the changes that need to be made. This would be a self-serving abrogation of our responsibilities. If our message is not resonating, the first place to look is in the mirror. How can we re-think what we are about and be more effective at putting ourselves at the centre of the political debate? How can we regain the initiative?

The world has changed and continued success depends on our ability to change with it; to learn how to be effective in the new, fast moving, unstructured, freewheeling, post-modern world of the 21st century. The challenge for the environmental movement is to find ways to connect with, and remain relevant to, an urban, cyber-linked society that is disconnected from the natural world. People for whom conservation issues risk being seen as peripheral or downright damaging as economies become more strained, jobs more difficult to come by and social exclusion a reality.

A new sustainable environmentalism

What I am proposing are the elements of a new environmentalism - one that can be successful in today’s world – and maybe sustainable in tomorrow’s.

1. Create a vision of a positive and tangible future: The first and most difficult task is to turn our attention away from continuously bombarding people with messages of doom and gloom and to set about the much tougher task of creating a vision of the sort of future that we are offering people. A future that can credibly promise that which people care about - jobs, security, social cohesion, improving living standards.

2. From activism to environmentalism: We are surrounded by environmental activists - people who see the world exclusively through the lens of environmental issues. This perspective is all too easily dismissed as the rantings of single-issue lobbyists. What we need is a new type of environmentalist - one that can work to incorporate environmental concerns into the real political, social and economic world. In other words, we need to stop looking at society through the lens of the environment and learn how to look at the environment through the lens of our societies.

3. Results before ideology: If we are to achieve results, we must leave zealotry and ideology behind. A small but vocal few still put ideology before results. Some may object to the globalized capitalist system - but it's the system we have and, if time is as short as we claim, then we have to learn to work with it and take advantage of all it has to offer.

4. Offer solutions not problems: It’s not productive to tilt at windmills. Many argue that the increasing human population and the pursuit of economic growth are both incompatible with a sustainable future. Yet nobody has come up with practical, effective, credible and socially-acceptable alternatives. A no-growth economy is a zero sum game where, except in some utopian fantasy, resources will inevitably be seized by the powerful from the powerless. Let us focus our efforts and our rhetoric on those areas where we can offer credible and practicable long- and short-term solutions. We have many of those areas available and we don't need to be distracted by that about which we can complain but for which we have no answer.

5. Learn to work with others: Many in the environmental movement understand that the issues are so substantial and the routes to improvement so complex, costly and wide-ranging that we cannot achieve our aims without working closely with industry in all its forms. From resource extracting companies to the global financing companies that we will need to fund the necessary investments; from corporations that create the goods we all consume to those who have a deep understanding of people's behaviours and how to influence them. Without wholesale engagement with the business world we cannot achieve our aims - and a number of environmental organizations are already leading the way.

6. There is no conservation - only development: “Conservation” has, sadly, come to be associated with people who try to hold things back; those who look to the past more than they look to the future. The reality is that starting from where we are today, we can only go forward. Having a biodiversity hotspot supported as such by eco-tourism is not just conservation it is development. It represents a conscious choice to develop that area in one particular way. All our “conservation” choices are (sustainable?) development choices and will be more productive if viewed and approached that way.

7. Earning our living: Governments are indebted and in dire financial trouble. Huge private wealth is not being created in the way it used to be a few short years ago. Environmental issues are too important to have to rely on charity, philanthropy and government handouts of taxpayers' money. If the environment is truly as valuable as we make it out to be then it should be a powerful economic force. It should generate wealth in its own right. It can be an “industry” that employs people and contributes to economic and other well-being. We talk about "the green economy" but too often it is an empty phrase used as an excuse for arguing for more subsidies, more taxpayer money, more giveaways from the wealthy. Sustainability can stand on its own two feet and contribute to vibrant, growing economies. A number of environmental organizations are already being successful in earning their living directly by bringing tangible value to people and organizations. We need more to follow their lead.

8. Focus on People Not "Nature": Finally, environmentalism is about people - not about nature.
But that's a previous story that you can read here.

Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia, a member of IUCN's Commission on Education and Communication, is an artist, author and independent scholar on conservation issues. He is President of WOLFoundation.org
Joe's Intersections website

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