It was early in the 1970s when the word “environment” became part of the popular consciousness. This is curious because the word itself means “surroundings” and can describe anything from built areas to emotions to the natural world. But late 20th century humans felt the need to label the vast expanse of green and blue “out there” in order to categorize and put it in its proper place. So “environment” slowly began to replace the word “nature” and soon government ministries were created for the “management” of the Earth’s ecosystems.
Of course this wasn’t the first time the green earth and blue oceans that feed us all were conveniently compartmentalized. The classical pioneers of economics originally had a great deal of insight into the role of nature in human business systems. But as the industrial economy grew and more natural ecosystem wealth was greedily accumulated for human needs, much of this insight was lost and in its place the bad habit of thinking of planet Earth as a minor “externality” became common. A popular perception grew that humankind’s numerous activities were quite independent of the Earth’s natural systems. It was as if we were hovering on a self-sustaining platform that could grow without limit.
The evolution of this tragic, ignorant, and ultimately unsustainable relationship has been centuries in the making. Where most tribal people learned their physical limits to growth through centuries of trial and error, industrial man thought he had escaped natural limits by discovering fossil fuels. As a result, he acted in unconscionable ways towards the natural world and the indigenous people that inhabited it. A First Nations chief once told me that his grandmother who had been born on the shores of Vancouver in the 1870s said that the newly-arrived Europeans she called “newcomers” knew very little about the land. At that time Vancouver was still pristine old-growth forests with salmon streams and seashores lined with invertebrates, thanks to careful stewarding by the local aboriginal people for centuries. With their considerably less organic worldview, it took less than a half a century for the Europeans to drastically change the landscape. For them, these rich natural and unique natural assets were largely commodities. They mistook abundance for limitlessness. As a result, they cleared the trees, extracted the fish and other sea life, and sold them off in short order. When they were finished, they moved on to lay waste to other areas, leaving behind garbage and pollution.
The eventual response to this tremendous natural loss was that environment ministries were finally given a place in our governments. All looked well at first—jobs were filled, paper was pushed. But little has changed in 40 years as all over the world we still have a philosophy of resource extraction as a central tenet of economic growth, and today these activities are continually viewed as the path to human wellbeing. Any progress made pales in comparison to a population that is continuing to expand exponentially and a natural world that is steadily degrading.
I am what most imagine as a hard-core environmentalist—someone who will stand up and work for the Earth’s health and needs. I have been reducing, reusing, recycling, composting, and using nondisposable shopping bags for decades. I’ve eaten local and organic food for a third of my life and have been a committed activist for at least half of it. I like to think I have done some positive good, and I can’t imagine a more important job for our time than saving the ecosystems and threatened resident non-human animals of the Earth our home. But I dislike the label “environmentalist”. In our society, someone who is a warrior for the Earth is still not at all respected. Too often you are deemed to be anti-human and unconcerned about the health of the human “economy”. You generally can’t expect to get much respect and certainly not remuneration. For years my views and actions were barely tolerated—most of the time I hesitated to even speak or show them for fear of being ridiculed. “Environmentalists” are somewhat more in vogue these days but I am still yawned out of many conversations. Eyes glaze over as I wax on about “my concerns” and I get the feeling that most people don’t really want to be bored with the details. Some claim I am being too gloomy about the future or too unrealistic if I tell some difficult truths. One mechanism used to try and stop a discussion about unsustainability in its tracks is to ask whether there are “scientific facts” to back up my arguments.
After all these years of doing my bit to “protect the environment” I resent the fact that the title of environmentalist still has such a strong negative connotation for so many and that people think that it is only me who has to do this work. It’s my very definite opinion that saving the planet—whatever it takes—is what everyone should do, all the time! Acting every day in every way with the firm imperative of Earth-caring in mind should not be a separate category—it should be highly integrated into everyday life as it once was by tribal people.
We didn’t always have these false divisions. For the Musqueam First Nation, a people who now live on a small reserve in South Vancouver, the mighty Fraser River which they called stal’ew was what they relied upon for sustenance. The river was truly their lifeblood; their everyday language reflected this and it was enshrined in their spirituality. Incidentally, the number of speakers of this language is now dangerously low and the language is almost as threatened as the natural environment that surrounds the reserve. This is tragic for many reasons, not the least of which is that their language embodied a culture in which nature was both appreciated and respected. When the Europeans first arrived in 1791 the river was a wild ecosystem rich with life that had fed the very healthy Musqueam people for eons. Today it is polluted and towards its mouth, densely lined with large human habitations and industrial facilities that still foul the waters. The Fraser’s resident wild salmon population is not consistently healthy; once prolific oolichan and sturgeon have all but disappeared.
The Musqueam people had no separate word for the environment. They didn’t even have a separate word for wilderness; the whole natural world was their home. Contrast this with our method, which is to consign the environment to a government department that is all too often powerless and ignored. In our society, people still seem to be pretty well free to be irresponsible and do whatever they want until an “environmentalist” or government official objects to them “breaking a rule” if they pollute or destroy an ecosystem. Even when the environmentalists “call the cops” (the government, again) it is quite possible that nothing much will be done, as the government is often both the perpetrator and the police. Is this system, based on requiring so little responsibility on the part of a majority of citizens really working? Do enough people really care to make an “environmental way of life” their second nature?
It’s a real shame but it is our fellow humans who created and maintained this idea of free-for-all consumption with little responsibility for the consequences. We are at present still highly addicted as a large-scale industrial economy based on permanent rapid growth. At this stage in our evolution as humans we surely need to abandon these false gods and take a good look at the stark reality of the world we live in today so some good common sense prevails.
You don’t have to look very far to find countless examples of what is so very wrong on our planet, but there is still a great deal of denial. This has been one of the hottest years in record, yet many are still arguing about whether global climate change is real and if there really are too many people on Earth. We’re still listening to experts tell us the continuation of the Alberta tar sands and their supporting pipelines and oil tankers, building more freeways, and getting the massive population of China to buy more cellphones or conversely buying more cheap Chinese products are the best answers to our economic problems. Other people in the know are assuring us we don’t have to worry our poor little monkey brains—the Earth will be fine—don’t bother with hybrid cars and turning off your air conditioning because that won’t help anyway. Never mind that more people changing their habits voluntarily might actually make our collective work a whole lot easier! Never mind that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” or that if we try to take a free-ride at the expense of the environment, our children will be shackled with ecological debt. But no one wants to burst our bubble, reminding us how hard we might have to work figuring out how to get out of the mess we got ourselves in!
Indeed, in the fullness of time, the Earth will be fine. But a host of plants and animals won’t be and neither will the humans—and that includes future generations to whom we owe a better future. Remember the saying about “borrowing the future from your grandchildren”? For some reason these future kids are not figuring prominently on the present-day search and destroy balance sheet. There’s a good chance that when these children grow up and see what has and hasn’t been done they’ll be raging mad. In fact some already are.
There never has been a better time than the present to open up a discussion on ecological literacy, for a more ecological approach to economics, and to emphasize a respectful moral philosophical discourse on the basic rights and interests of plants, animals, and future generations on this planet. Tribal societies had many of the right ideas—why not study those ancient wisdoms before any more traditional knowledge disappears along with much of the Earth’s biodiversity?
It’s time to truly reform the ministries of the environment and make them ministries for human evolution—and turn much more of government and business attention to caring properly for Mother Earth. Rather than watching another movie or drinking another coffee in a throwaway cup, why not check out an urban forest or watch a bird in a tree or a bee at a flower? Then go and build a real vegetable garden. It’s time to get away from more human fabrications and enter planetary real time. Saving the minds of humans will go a long way towards saving the planet. The wilder parts of the human brain that are currently buried could be uncovered and allowed to flourish and grow. Instead of limiting Earth protection and stewardship to one single, underfunded, and politically non-influential government department and snickering at “environmentalists” (who have worked hard to save us from ourselves for little reward), let’s celebrate human ingenuity and spirit and open ourselves to the idea of saving the planet one person at a time!
Celia Brauer is the cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and works as a volunteer educating the public about the lost natural history of Vancouver, which once had 57 flourishing salmon streams. She is also a member of the Livable Region Coalition.