|The "growth" curve.|
Just seven years after that song was released, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. With the publication of that book the modern environmental movement was spawned. Within two decades the environmental movement was global and large. A number of international environmental organisations arose, notably Greenpeace and Friends Of the Earth (FOE). Books were being published almost monthly it seemed, along with environmental journals and magazines.
The movement began with a desire to protect and preserve animals, birds, fish, and other non-human species. The desire to protect and preserve extended not just to living creatures but also to natural ecosystems: forests, rivers, lakes, mountain tops, and “wilderness” areas.
It wasn’t long before the environmental movement became a vocal critic of the systems that were exploiting and damaging the environment. Books such as Limits to Growth, The Population Bomb, Small Is Beautiful, and a plethora of others clearly articulated the systemic mechanisms that were causing environmental destruction. In 1982 William Catton stated the basic problem up front, right on the cover of his classic, Overshoot.1 “Overshoot” he wrote, is “growth beyond an areas carrying capacity.” Catton was not one to mince his words. On the first page of his opening chapter, he claimed that “Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future.” Furthermore, the subtitle of his book was: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (my emphasis.) This was no tinkering with systems.
Indeed, the environmental movement began as a movement critical of our myths of: progress, growth, the superiority of humans (anthropocentrism,) and our faith in technology. The environmental movement introduced the concept of zero growth: zero population growth, zero energy growth, and zero economic growth. This was developing into a radical movement.
The environmental movement of the 1960s through to the 1980s concerned itself with a number of issues: deforestation, the damming of rivers, the plight of ocean creatures (e.g. Save the Whales,) air and water pollution, nuclear proliferation and the storage of nuclear waste. It was this last issue that brought the environmental and peace movements together. In the Pacific, the issue of Indigenous rights was also to the forefront and the three movements merged into the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement.
Then, towards the end of the 20th century a new concern emerged. Initially known as global warming this challenge began to be noticed by those with environmental concerns. However, things were to change.
Leap forward forty years. Where is this environmental movement today? Were Pete Seeger to write another verse to his classic song, he might ask, Where have all the environmentalists gone?
Oh, individual environmentalists are still with us. But an environmental movement is very difficult to find. It is hidden away behind the movement that claims to be its descendent – the climate change movement.
Caveat lector (Reader beware)
These next paragraphs may upset some readers, they may even get me labelled as a traitor. Indeed, it is with some sadness that I write this.2 However, we can no longer keep thinking that the climate change movement of today is an environmental movement – it is not. The solutions it offers and promotes are those of an anthropocentric movement. In other words, it is a movement that seeks to find ways to perpetuate human life, without changing our lifestyles and the systems that have contributed to the problems that beset us. Permit me, at least briefly, to outline some of the reasons for writing this, seemingly treasonous statement.
Perhaps the shift was a tactical one. To get the message out there, the nascent climate change movement had to couch its message in a way that suggested to citizens that climate change would harm human existence and undo the comforts of human (especially westernised) life. If so, it came to be a tactical error.
Like any movement, this new movement looked around and analysed what was going on. The planet was warming, the climate was changing. What was causing this, the movement rightly asked. The answer was obvious: Rising CO2 in the atmosphere. The next question became: Why is this rising? The answer: Humans are burning fossil fuels that emit CO2 into the atmosphere, thus causing the planet to warm, and that in turn leads to climate change. All very logical, and all backed with scientific evidence. So far, so good.
The enquiry then recognised that fossil fuels are burnt for energy production (including the production of electricity.) So, what to do about this? The solution seemed to be obvious. We had to reduce CO2 emissions, and that meant we had to shift from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy.
And, therein was the fateful error. The climate change movement assumed, as a given, that we must find alternatives to our energy sources. There were little, if any, other solutions proposed. There was no talk of reducing our dependence upon energy. There was no talk of zero growth in our energy supply. We simply had to swap one form of energy for another.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, like many “good ideas of the time” this one, too, had adverse outcomes.
So it was that the climate change movement offered “renewable, alternative, and green” energy sources as the solution to climate change and the increasing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
We can now look back over the past 10, 20, 30, even 40 years and find that “renewable” energy sources have not made any dent in either the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, nor in how much energy we use. There has been no replacement of fossil fuels by renewables. Renewable energy sources have simply been added on top of energy derived from fossil fuels. Not surprising really, especially as renewables have become cheaper. Stanley Jevons in the 19th century noticed our human propensity to use more of something once it became more efficient to use it. Nowadays, this trait of humans is named after him – the Jevons Paradox. It could almost be argued (although I am reluctant to do so) that the increased use of renewables has increased our use of fossil fuels.
Before continuing further, it is worth pointing out a couple of unfortunate misuses of words. First, let’s be clear: “Renewables” are not renewable. They are simply re-buildable. The materials used to construct solar panels, wind turbines, dams, and even nuclear power stations require materials dug from the earth. Second, energy and electricity are not synonymous terms. Electricity is a form of energy. And, when it comes to “renewable energy” it is electricity that is being generated – and electricity is only about 20% of total energy in almost every country on the planet. (Hence, to claim that Germany, for example, has managed 100% renewable energy production at any one time is a falsification of the true picture. 100% electricity production is not 100% energy production – far from it.)
This blog has only begun to touch on the question of Where have all the environmentalists gone? Next week’s blog will explore more in depth the reasons for claiming that the climate change movement is no longer an environmental movement. Indeed, I have (reluctantly) come to the conclusion that the climate change movement is exacerbating environmental problems, and is an impediment to the drastic structural and systemic changes that we need to make.
The climate change movement has not failed because of its opposition to fossil fuels (that is to be applauded.) It has failed because it is offering the wrong solutions, including solutions that are doing environmental harm.
Before I finish, and before I get to next week’s blog, I wish to add this rider. This blog should in no way be read as endorsing the continued burning and reliance upon fossil fuels. Our use of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have undoubtedly been one of the most tragic uses of the earth’s resources that humans have ever invented.
1. William R. Catton, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1882
2. My involvement with the environmental movement began in the early 1970s. It was a movement I was passionate about. So, it is sad to see a movement that seemed able to rigorously critique the growth-fetishism and the socio-economic systems of society become a movement that is more determined to save humans in the lifestyles we have become accustomed to than it is to preserve the environment.