David Suzuki: The fundamental failure of environmentalism

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      Environmentalism has failed. Over the past 50 years, environmentalists have succeeded in raising awareness, changing logging practices, stopping mega-dams and offshore drilling, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But we were so focused on battling opponents and seeking public support that we failed to realize these battles reflect fundamentally different ways of seeing our place in the world. And it is our deep underlying worldview that determines the way we treat our surroundings.

      We have not, as a species, come to grips with the explosive events that have changed our relationship with the planet. For most of human existence, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers whose impact on nature could be absorbed by the resilience of the biosphere. Even after the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, farming continued to dominate our lives. We cared for nature. People who live close to the land understand that seasons, climate, weather, pollinating insects, and plants are critical to our well-being.

      This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the environmental movement. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which documented the terrible, unanticipated consequences of what had, until then, been considered one of science’s great inventions, DDT. Paul Mueller, who demonstrated the effects of the pesticide, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948. In the economic boom after the Second World War, technology held out the promise of unending innovation, progress, and prosperity. Rachel Carson pointed out that technology has costs.

      Carson’s book appeared when no government had an environment department or ministry. Millions around the world were soon swept up in what we now recognize as the environmental movement. Within 10 years, the United Nations Environment Programme was created and the first global environmental conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden.

      With increasing catastrophes like oil and chemical spills and nuclear accidents, as well as issues such as species extinction, ozone depletion, deforestation, acid rain, and global warming, environmentalists pressed for laws to protect air, water, farmland, and endangered species. Millions of hectares of land were protected as parks and reserves around the world.

      Thirty years later, in 1992, the largest gathering of heads of state in history met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The event was meant to signal that economic activity could not proceed without considering ecological consequences. But, aided by recessions, popped financial bubbles, and tens of millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy neoconservatives to support a cacophony of denial from rightwing pundits and think tanks, environmental protection came to be portrayed as an impediment to economic expansion.

      This emphasis of economy over environment, and indeed, the separation of the two, comes as humanity is undergoing dramatic changes. During the 20th century, our numbers increased fourfold to six billion (now up to seven billion), we moved from rural areas to cities, developed virtually all of the technology we take for granted today, and our consumptive appetite, fed by a global economy, exploded. We have become a new force that is altering the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale.

      In creating dedicated departments, we made the environment another special interest, like education, health, and agriculture. The environment subsumes every aspect of our activities, but we failed to make the point that our lives, health, and livelihoods absolutely depend on the biosphere—air, water, soil, sunlight, and biodiversity. Without them, we sicken and die. This perspective is reflected in spiritual practices that understand that everything is interconnected, as well as traditional societies that revere “Mother Earth” as the source of all that matters in life.

      When we believe the entire world is filled with unlimited “resources” provided for our use, we act accordingly. This “anthropocentric” view envisions the world revolving around us. So we create departments of forests, fisheries and oceans, and environment whose ministers are less concerned with the health and well-being of forests, fish, oceans, or the environment than with resources and the economies that depend on them.

      It’s almost a cliché to refer to a “paradigm shift”, but that is what we need to meet the challenge of the environmental crises our species has created. That means adopting a “biocentric” view that recognizes we are part of and dependent on the web of life that keeps the planet habitable for a demanding animal like us.

      Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      Dumbing Down

      May 2, 2012 at 6:56am

      The real failure of environmentalism is to fully and 100%, back the political arm of the movement - the Green Party. Dr Suzuki himself and others like Tzeporah Berman are guilty of this tragic failure as exemplified by their misguided support of the BC Liberals in the last election. Either by falling hook line and sinker for the neocon spin on green energy or by remaining 'apolitical' so as to not jeopardize funding etc... environmentalism certainly in BC has failed to see that real change can only come about politically and that demands a Green Government.


      May 2, 2012 at 9:38am

      How have they remained apolitical? Both are undergoing an unprecedented smear campaign by the government.

      A Green government would not come about no matter what they said; most of the population is utterly ignorant of the issues and I have no reason to believe there would not be rampant cheating if the draconian laws necessary for meaningful change were made.

      R U Kiddingme

      May 2, 2012 at 9:50am

      @Dumbing Down

      Maybe you're right but I don't think that "environmentalism" is a partisan political manifesto. Environmentalism is a subset of survivalism, the same drive for safety behind seat belts, baby food regulation and hockey helmets. There's no party in Canada that would run on a platform that if you elect us we will poison the earth, increase cancer, and deplete energy. The difference is not ideology but methodology. Some politicians will advocate for more government oversight and regulation, others will argue that the consumer should make a free choice, others will say that there is no point in the western world bankrupting itself to do all of the environmental heavy lifting, and so on.

      I think every approach has merits. What is needed is not a particular way of doing things, a particular platform, but all of these platforms to get top priority. And that is a social drive, a populist movement if you will, that is going to have to push against some highly entrenched social beliefs, which a political party is going to be loathe to do if it is even possible.


      May 2, 2012 at 10:22am

      Environmentalism is a failed word designed to make it fail. Human's are hardware and cults and culture are their software. The software operating system taught to humans is flawed. I call them humans as if I am not one of them, because I am not. I have a much greater software self designed and that is why your readers in general cannot fathom what is happening to their world. The word environmentalist or ism is designed to fail by the same method that all languages use to trick us into controlled behavior, by embedded phonic manipulation. Mentalist, mental, viro, enron, iron, i ron me, talist, talism, no rivne. When the media junkies created the word they didn't like the people who supported the non-movement at the time. This crappy word has harmed the history of the movement once it emerged. It is not a choice. Environment is not separate from the filthy minds that destroy the planet. They are all produces of their moral authority and teachings. It will never be corporations that kill life, it will always be the morals of those humans who run those companies which destroy and they all have no morals like the churches and secular teachers, themselves delusional and lost, who dropped the ball. My companies and ventures never operate on human norms, tey follow their leader, a man whose mental software is superior as attested to by his actions and results - better than the negatives attached to the crooked work environmentalist another trick as bad as trick words like casualty of war or unlawful killing. AND I will not "give" you and the world the correct power word to use to make the movement function healthy and growing, because I get paid to think where others are incapable. BC has benefited 17 billion because of one mans words in media. 24 years ago I worked at the Straight, imagine that.

      Robert Fiske

      May 2, 2012 at 11:06am

      I don't think it's all that useful to say 'Environmentalism Failed'.. Maybe that's a great, irksome or congratulatory tagline to get people to read the article, but the real point to be taken is that we need to rethink the approach to the problem(s).. not just Again, but again and again.

      We are all losing, as the article points out, even those who are fighting to help the other side 'win' are going to be losing out.. but by the time it's obvious enough for them to get it, it'll be that much more too late to stop.

      With our own need to contain economic disasters on a family scale, these global challenges are two or three fires farther away from us than the smouldering piles of bills that even the most dedicated environmentalists have on their kitchen tables. I'm sure it's no excuse, but this ring is in everyone's nose, and it makes the work harder and harder to commit a lot of energy to.. just as it gets more and more critical that we do so, just the same.

      It means being the neighborhood 'do-gooder'.. It means being uncomfortable. It means being seen by some as a freak, and being told to 'get over it'... It also means stepping back and looking at facets of the problem with fresh eyes, with creativity, and with courage, no matter how hopeless it seems.

      They have told us my daughter's school has been a "Failing School".. we all know its BS, and it's both unnecessary and unhelpful to frame it that way. It's now the first Public School in the US to change to Teacher Led, and it's been a great experience.. the teacher morale is high, the parents are engaged. Use language responsibly..


      May 2, 2012 at 12:19pm

      i agree with the points being made here... that in order for environmentalism to succeed, it needs to become less of a fringe identity, and more of a core identity. less of a pillar which supports the table top, and more of the table top itself.

      there must be a way to replace all of the useless toys and gadgets and junk being crammed down our throats with a product that gives back, that enriches the earth and it's inhabitants in some meaningful way.

      that's the paradigm shift that we're looking for.


      May 2, 2012 at 9:04pm

      Suzuki: "The event was meant to signal that economic activity could not proceed without considering ecological consequences. But, aided by recessions, popped financial bubbles, and tens of millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy neoconservatives to support a cacophony of denial from rightwing pundits and think tanks, environmental protection came to be portrayed as an impediment to economic expansion."

      David Suzuki has become a partisan propagandist, who doesn't live the way he preaches. For this, I don't respect him. The way to be good stewards of the Earth is to take care of what we have and not waste resources. How about having fewer gas-guzzling global summits? Technology should make communication fast and easy. The biggest mouths, spouting green rhetoric, are often high-living celebrities who expect the peasants to do without while *they* live like kings.

      Gene Logan

      May 3, 2012 at 2:46pm

      Although the challenges are global, the only way to effect any kind of real change is at the grassroots level. Maybe focusing on grand political change and UN conferences is part of the problem. Instead we need to create healthy sustainable communities. Get to know your neighbours and let it grow from there.

      Ian G62

      May 3, 2012 at 3:28pm

      What David Suzuki is suggesting cannot be achieved within the political structures we have today - that is a right wing/left wing political spectrum. The current political landscape was created from industrialisation and the power struggle of socialism and capitalism - we simply cannot move forward with the environmental agenda until the current political spectrum is replaced. One small yet essential step toward that was proportional representation, it failed and until that first small step is taken, we flounder aimlessly, greens et al.


      May 3, 2012 at 3:51pm

      The environmental movement has long since been hijacked by Socialists and Marxists, the new green is just the old red.