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Getting real about the green future

This is the text of the talk I gave at Uncivilisation, the first Dark Mountain festival, in Llangollen, Wales, in May 2010


Here is a thought experiment. Imagine that, in the next few weeks, our new coalition government announces a revolutionary environmental transport policy. The policy is this: build a lot more motorways. The government announces that it will build motorways all over the UK, mirroring the existing motorway network, which is increasingly congested and polluting. But there will be two crucial differences from your standard road building programme.

One will be that, thanks to a vast national tree-planting programme, the construction of the motorways will be carbon neutral – possibly even carbon positive. The other is that these motorways will be reserved only for drivers of clean, electric cars. In this way, the government hopes to provide a rapid and effective incentive for drivers to switch to ‘sustainable’ driving, without bucking the market.

Obviously there will be a few drawbacks: the loss of some nature reserves, old hillforts, watermeadows and the like. But this is no time for nimbyism, we are told: there is a global emergency to be tackled, and we need to tackle it whilst promoting economic growth – sustainably, of course.

My question is this: if this were to happen, how would environmentalists react? What would you expect to hear from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Green Party and their fellow travelers? I suspect that there might be an agonised debate, but that many mainstream greens would plump to support this bold new policy, which allowed for green growth, sustainable development and pragmatic policy-making.

There was a time, maybe thirty or forty years ago now, when being green was simple. You were against whaling and cutting down forests and polluting the air and the seas. You thought humanity should stop doing these things, for its own sake and for the sake of the other-than-human world. You thought it was simply wrong, and you wanted to stop it. You campaigned to make that happen, and sometimes you succeeded. and there were some real successes – there still are – which are worth feeling joyful about.

But as time went by, it became clear that all of these struggles were happening within the context of something bigger: the human machine, the growth economy, our expanding civilization. More people, demanding more stuff. Victories won were swallowed up by the accelerating pace of destruction, which was not called destruction but was called development. It became clear that greens were fire-fighting; that the real problem was systemic.

At this point, things got complicated.

These days, being green is much harder. It is also much more popular. These days, you can’t listen to a politician or look at a corporate website or read the label on a packet of biscuits without being bombarded with propaganda about saving the planet. Climate change is on the front pages every day, everyone, from supermarkets to oil companies, claims to want to be ‘sustainable’. Saving the world has become big business; the only business that makes sense.

On the surface, environmentalism has been successful in a way its founders could only have dreamed of. Except that I don’t think they would have dreamed of this. Because you don’t have to look very deep to see that this surface popularity disguises a hollowing out of the green movement’s heart. Its fleeting and shallow popularity has left it soulless and unmoored. Environmentalism has been Tony Blaired.

There are two reasons why environmentalism is dying a very public death.

1. It is failing in everything. On all measures, everything is getting worse. Forty years of very public environmentalism has failed to prevent the forests being felled, the oceans being emptied, the climate being changed, the soil being blown away on the wind. We are living through the sixth mass extinction. within our lifetime we could see the end of coral reefs and a massive reduction in the biodiversity of the earth. The machine that is doing this – the human economy – is speeding up, not slowing down. Individual battles are won by greens every day, but the onrush of the machine makes them seem like drops in the ocean. In short, it’s not working.

2. It has forgotten what it is for. Here’s a quote I came across recently on the well-read US green website Treehugger. As he explains the urgent need for environmentalists to adopt yet another new strategy of some kind, the writer issues this telling declaration:

the success of environmentalism will be judged on whether we managed to halt, and even reverse, the threats that environmental destruction and resource depletion pose to our way of life and, possibly, our survival

Repeat that to yourself, and reflect on it. The purpose of environmentalism is no longer anything as naïve as saving the actual environment. Now it is about ‘threats to our way of life.’

environmentalism’s need to sell itself to the populace of an affluent, post-industrial society, used to getting what it wants, has forced it to gloss over some uncomfortable truths.

Environmentlalism should start – used to start – with the asking of a simple question: what is best for the rich web of life on Earth? How do we live in order that this should be maintained? But almost unnoticed, that question has been, subtly, gradually, replaced by another: how can we maintain our lifestyles, whilst doing as little damage to ‘the environment’ as possible?

These are two very different questions, and they give us two very different answers; lead us into two very different worlds. What we call environmentalism today might be better referred to as human survivalism; a scrabble, in an age of contraction and decline, to keep our illusions afloat.

This explains the current mainstream green approach: focus on the technology. Because nothing else will change; we can’t imagine a world without superhighways and superstores, let alone campaign for one. we need to be ‘realistic.’ this is how we find ourselves in a world in which environmentalists have become developers: shilling for the large-scale rolling out of turbines, wave machines, giant mirrors and the rest, all of which will give us the energy we ‘need’ to avoid having to change anything very much at all.

I don’t think this is deliberate. A lot of greens would be shocked to hear that they were doing it. Neither do I think it is necessarily surprising. Our generation is coming to terms with the fact that the very foundations of our culture and civilisation are more fragile than we were led to believe. We can see the likely peaking of our fuel supplies, of our water supplies, even of our food – but above all of our comfort. We see that the bubble could burst. Of course we want to stop it happening. We pretend that this desire is altruistic, or green, but it is in fact understandably selfish. We’re scared. And it’s ok to be scared.

It seems to me that environmentalism as we have known it is going through a possibly terminal phase; or at the last, a great transformation. We cannot engineer our way out of the limits we are pushing in all areas. We do not face an engineering crisis. We face something with deeper roots, which needs deeper exploration.

To explain this a little, let me offer two thoughts about what environmentalism might become after it has got real; after the denial has cracked

The first thought is about depth, and about connection. The reason ‘eco- pragmatism’ is failing is that it asks the wrong questions. The problems we face are not technological or scientific; they are cultural; even existential. They have deep roots. The ecological crisis is at root a human cultural crisis. Our culture thrives on competition for material and ego success. It creates wonders of science, technology and art, but it eats the world to do it. Above all, it leaves us in a bubble; excised from the rest of nature.

In case that all sound a bit airy-fairy, here’s the view of a scientist on the same matter:

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe ... We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.

That’s Albert Einstein. Here’s the same thing, from a poet:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; We must unhmanize our views a little, and become confident As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

That’s Robinson Jeffers. Here’s a painter, with words of his own:

When we speak of Nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of Nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.

That’s Henri Matisse. What we have here is the same idea, expressed in different words through different disciplines: the idea of connection. The idea that there is no such thing as nature, no such thing as an ‘environment’ external to us. There is only the world, of which we are part, and to understand it, our first task is to see that we’re not at its centre.

This is perhaps better understood as a deep green, or ecocentric viewpoint, and it’s been almost entirely lost as we have responded to the ecological crisis we have created in the only way we know how: inventing machines to fix it. But unless we unravel this myth of our separation from this mythical thing called ‘nature’, then however many wave machines we build, we will keep on hacking away the branch from under us.

My second thought is also about connections, but at a more basic level. I look around me at the greens I know and see most of them staring at illuminated screens in cities, writing emails or policy papers about sustainability. I have spent far too much of my time doing similar things. We have all spent too long aping the dominant culture, and as a result we have become as deracinated as that culture.

This is a terrible bind, because it means that the unthinking assumptions of that culture are repeated in today’s cosmopolitan environmentalist thinking. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard campaigners from big green NGOs slagging off local people who dare to oppose their grand schemes. From fishermen trying to make a living to local people fighting to stop landscapes being desecrated by vast ‘renewable’ power stations on wild or rural land, I’ve heard far too many greens talk of their opponents of ‘nimbies’ who are ‘standing in the way of progress.’ the irony of greens using the kind of language which was designed specifically to discredit green ideas seems lost on them.

We need to replace this kind of thinking with a vernacular environmentalism which comes first and foremost from an appreciation of ordinary, small places. We need to get out of the house more, turn the phone and the email off, immerse ourselves in the complexities of our local world, which is in essence our whole world. environmentalism without an environment is just a theory. It becomes easy to co-opt, as it has been co-opted, by forces of despair posing as forces of hope.