The “environmental movement” came on the scene much too late to enact the full range of changes it was after.
I believe it was poorly defined, much too doomsday in tone and substance, unapologetically academic and extremely polarizing.
However, in its defence, there were few alternatives in the early 1960s.
North America and much of the industrialized world were fast on the slippery slope toward chemical and industrial suicide, logging practices were nothing short of rape and pillage, and individual health was only of moderate concern.
Even though much has changed since then, the core of the movement has not.
This fact had led some to suggest (Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaux, Adam Werbach and Bill McKibben for starters) that environmentalism is dead.
I believe perhaps the issue is deeper still: the movement, for all its hype, was on life support (pardon the pun) since its beginning.
The “worldly- scholarly” approach to environmentalism managed of its own volition to negate much of the nuts and bolts of what was possible within one’s own local “community ecology.”
Sensing this, early activists felt they had to constantly remind us to “think globally, act locally.”
I am of the opinion this not-so-subtle reminder was necessary because the movement early on insisted — for purely academic reasons — on removing from the mix its one hope for success: people.
In the late 1970s, when the environmental movement began to prostitute itself as a social movement and when technology began to hoodwink the consumer into believing it was openly in bed with the movement, something went strangely haywire.
What we got was a 20th-century economic disease in which both conservation policy and corporate politics infected the other with substandard regimes and inferior products.
In the end, the health of the patient continued to deteriorate and the chances for a full recovery were not good.
What we were left with was a stagnating economy ill equipped to produce what we needed and a planet with a very high fever.
The first sign that something was dreadfully wrong was that both ecology and technology lost, for a time, their own language.
For whatever reason, when ecology (the sensible core of environmentalism) began to drift away from becoming a promising science toward becoming a proactive social movement it failed on both accounts.
What it did manage to do was become uncompromisingly elitist, narrow in scope and therefore shallow in vision and ultraconservative in its own liberalism.
For all practical purposes and driven by its own immature zeal, ecology as an eco-social movement began to pull apart and affect what it always maintained could only be dealt with as a whole.
It attempted to study natural systems as if humans were only periphery. It attempted to influence economic systems, according to Shellenberger and Nordhaux, by telling people, “what they can’t have and can’t be without ever telling people what they can have and can be.”
By the start of the 21st century the new environmental mantra became ecological integrity — ecology without humans — and it sounded like this:
“An ecosystem has integrity when it is deemed characteristic for its natural region, including the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes.”
While this definition may do wonders for core studies and baselines, grids and graphs, it does little for progressive social change, value-based economics and overall community health and vitality.
But not all “ecological enterprise” was eager to buy the lingo.
The Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks, which initially insisted on hobbling ecology with such a narrow definition of ecological integrity, was also quick to realize its practical limitations:
“But if we can set aside self-interest in favour of the larger interest — whether that is defined in ecological, social, or even spiritual values — and care as much about whose who follow us as we do about our immediate gratification, what may seem impractical or unrealistic today, may well be possible tomorrow.
“National parks will flourish only where pragmatism is tempered by boldness of vision.”
What is troubling to me — and eventually to ecology per se — is that the panel only travelled half the circle. What was crucial to the equation and still remains to be said is, national parks will flourish only where boldness of vision is tempered by pragmatism.
The initial half measure has hamstrung both our national parks and their adjacent communities.
This oversight has left us believing, wrongly in my opinion, that natural systems are somehow not subject to notions of practicality and that human communities are incapable of bold visions.
Neither notion could be further from the truth.
Neither entity — our natural areas nor our communities — are capable of going it alone.
But if we are led to believe that landscapes, bio-regions, and eco-regions are healthier if they include humans as visitors only, we won’t see our local environment for what it really is: a coherent community shaped by protected areas, small-scale technologies, family businesses and progressive politics.
Homegrown environmentalism is non-specialized, practical, visionary, egalitarian and it deals with multiple issues by employing multiple solutions.
This sort of community-based thinking grounded in human possibility will give us something new.
According to Bill McKibben “it won’t be environmentalism anymore. It will be something much more important.”