This post is the second in a series. Read part one at Learning from the Opposition, Part 1.
So far we’ve covered two of the main sources of opposition to meaningful action on climate change: the corporation and the state. Although it can be tempting to take this analysis and blame greedy CEOs or corrupt politicians, the problem runs deeper than having the wrong personalities in power. Regardless of who sits in the boardroom or sleeps at 24 Sussex Drive, corporations and governments will always do what is necessary to keep global capitalism functioning—unless they’re compelled to do otherwise.
Our political leaders and captains of industry will only recognize the social and ecological limits of economic growth if the environmental movement makes them impossible to ignore.
While scientists can be muzzled and the facts on climate change can be obscured by industry PR campaigns, mass movements are not easily dismissed. The key question is how to increase the size and strength of the environmental movement. In the hopes of contributing to a movement growth strategy, it’s worth looking at some common criticisms of environmentalists to see what’s standing in the way of bigger numbers.
The best place to gauge popular discontent with any progressive social or political cause is the online comments section of a conservative newspaper like the National Post. For anyone who has spent time drifting through the arguments that accumulate there, the charges leveled against environmentalists will be familiar: they’re hysterical doomsayers, deluded idealists and insufferable elitists.
Granted, these criticisms tend to rely on slander over substance. But behind the insults are some recurring themes that reflect genuine political discontents worth paying attention to. Below are four categories reflecting some of the most common complaints against the environmental movement, and a few thoughts on how to overcome them.
Perhaps the most common accusation is that environmentalists are prophets of doom on endless repeat. Each new threat to the rainforest, each new discovery of a pollutant in the water supply, or each new set of projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is announced as a clear sign of the impending total collapse of planetary life support systems.
The problem is that no matter how true these warnings are, the apocalypse has yet to arrive. Particularly for Canadians in urban areas who are insulated from the impacts of pollution, environmental degradation and climate change, few of the dire predictions lead to any perceptible changes. The continuation of normal life works like a daily rebuttal to the threat of catastrophe.
This in turn causes greens to rely on a kind of I-told-you-so strategy: eventually the world truly will become unsuitable for human habitation, and then we’ll have been proven right. But smug satisfaction is cold comfort on a warming planet.
The trick here is that climate change is every bit as urgent as it’s made out to be. The task then is to find a way to articulate that urgency in a way that drives people to action rather than apathy. The facts about what kind of world we’re facing after a 2-degree average temperature increase should not be glossed over or made more palatable. Instead, they should be presented in a way that avoids pointing fingers and builds solidarity across social divisions.
Another obstacle preventing the growth of the environmental movement is the perception that environmentalists are urban snobs who don’t understand where the gas in their cars comes from. This particular trope is a familiar import from our neighbours to the South, where the culture wars have come to function as a stand-in for genuine politics. Democrats are said to be latte-sipping devotees of fine dining, while Republicans work hard, watch NASCAR and repent on Sundays.
The cultural contours are similar in Canada. Too often the social vision of the environmental movement rests on an easy demonization of those who fall outside of the typical environmentalist constituency of highly educated urbanites. The blame for carbon emissions gets placed on suburban commuters or workers in resource industries, while downtown paper pushers in air-conditioned offices imagine themselves to have already gone green.
Rather than a personal issue of modifying a few consumption habits, climate change needs to be seen as a systemic problem to be solved collectively. That means articulating a politics that speaks to people in logging towns and office towers alike, while recognizing that we’re all implicated in a social and economic order that runs on fossil fuels.
Another unflattering picture of environmentalists is that of the idealist in despair who sees the human species as a cancer spreading across the Earth and destroying everything in its path. This view is usually accompanied by a kind of soft nihilistic longing for the destruction of urban civilization and a return to something more like a subsistence lifestyle.
This perspective rests on a strange foundation that imagines nature without humans existing in a perfect state of finely tuned equilibrium. It sees technology, the development of agriculture and the construction of cities as crass violations of the natural order. But aside from gnashing our teeth and cursing our fate, it offers little guidance on how to respond to the climate crisis.
A more useful response to environmental degradation locates the problem not with humans per se, but rather with an economic system that reduces the natural world to commodities in the pursuit of profit. By championing a vision of economic organization that responds to human needs rather than the dictates of private profitability, the environmental movement stands a better chance of appealing to those who don’t see the human condition as an affront to nature.
Finally, the last complaint on the list is directed at those who advocate for voluntary reductions in personal consumption as the way forward. As the cliché has it, this call tends to broadcast most loudly from those with expensive phones, sleek hybrids and a taste for local organic delicacies.
For those living in the gentrified districts of major urban centers, such tasteful restraint in consumption habits is relatively attainable—provided one can afford it. But for low-income families, reduced consumption is just another way of saying not getting enough to eat.
Without a clear understanding of inequality and differential access to consumer goods and social services, this kind of degrowth politics can sound an awful lot like austerity—that is, cuts imposed on those who can least afford them. The environmental movement is at its best when it calls not only for reductions in consumption, but also the redistribution of wealth and power with the aim of creating a green and just society.