Environmentalism is the most important and necessary movement of our time.
Historical patterns of economic development and resource overuse have stressed natural systems well beyond their rate of recovery. Given the increasing and justified anxiety that we feel over environmental problems, it is sometimes difficult to see a positive future for our economic and social structures, and especially for capitalism and the free market. However, it is possible to reconcile those structures with positive environmental change, though the transition will not be fast or easy, and will require co-operation and sacrifice from many people including those who hold the economic power in our society.
One encouraging argument is that the root cause of resource overuse is psychological rather than economic. In well-developed “Northern” countries, many if not most citizens value material acquisition more than they do natural beauty or health or community. This valuation is often unconscious, and is actively encouraged by aggressive and ubiquitous advertising that encourages resource waste and overuse. Many of us are addicted to the comfort, stimulus and status that material acquisition brings, and like most addictions, this one is unconscious, unhealthy, and self-perpetuating. Capitalist firms pander to this addiction, offering an endless variety of products that offer some form of lasting happiness, but that inevitably fail to deliver and leave us wanting more. A self-perpetuating cycle of desire and disappointment results, and all manner of resources fall into this black hole of overconsumption and waste, while we suffer from debt, overwork, morbid obesity, and worst of all, chronic dissatisfaction.
The solution to this aspect of the problem is a change in the way our minds work. Our addiction to resource use must be broken, and not through repression or self-denial, but through the adoption of a positive alternative. If we shift our awareness and appreciation from material acquisition to softer but more lasting values like good health, natural beauty, community interaction, and artistic or thoughtful creativity, the drive to consume will dramatically lessen and so will our resource use. This positive change is possible under any economic system, and although advertising and inertia act against it, it is gradually happening all over the world.
Citizens of developed countries hold power over more than their own resource use. Through participation in the democratic process, formation into NGOs, and the economic support of environmentally conscious firms, citizens can greatly encourage the move toward sustainability. They also play direct roles as political decision-makers and corporate managers. For positive environmental change to occur, it is essential that Northern citizens know about, care about and act upon our environmental problems. Knowledge is the result of environmental education, and this education can occur both in the mainstream media (which must be rescued from vested interests) and in our formal education system. Caring often comes from learning about the extent and magnitude of our problems, and is often inspired by a personal experience of the beauty and intricacy of Earth’s natural systems. Action should be encouraged and informed by education, and helped along by a rejection of the fallacy that one person cannot make a difference.
In the “Southern”, underdeveloped regions of the world, the story is somewhat different. Most people there struggle daily against sickness and poverty, and are justifiably more concerned with meeting their basic needs than those of the Earth. Most individuals lack the education to see the ecological results of their actions, lack the luxury of an environmental ethic or aesthetic appreciation of nature, and lack the power to act upon their (relatively very small) impact on the global environment. The responsibility of Northern people is therefore twofold: to reduce our own overconsumption, and to help the less fortunate meet their basic needs while providing environmental education. Economic development is essential so that basic needs are met; but if per capita resource use even approaches Northern levels (as it is in China), the results could be disastrous. It must be made clear that a shift to a more moderate lifestyle is the best option, not only for the poor and not only for the Earth, but also for the wealthy, obese, and chronically dissatisfied people of the North.
A leveling of global economic status is necessary, and certain practical steps will have to be made in order to achieve it. For one thing, Southern resource bases must be used more efficiently and less for the benefit of Northern people. Value added products ought to be produced more often, and skilled workers and educators attracted to these regions by natural beauty or by the international provision of financial incentives. The conditional loans of the IMF and WTO, which ease restrictions on Northern ownership of Southern resources, must be stopped. These create an export-based economy where the real profit heads North and the real cost, in terms of human rights and environmental degradation, is borne by the peoples of the South. These exports create an economic dependence on the production of superfluous goods for Northern consumption, working against the development of regional skill and resource bases. The argument that work in a sweatshop is better than no work at all is a short-sighted one, ignoring the possibilities for long-lasting economic development, as well as our responsibility to help those less fortunate than us.
Economic development is necessary not only in the South, but also in the North. There it must provide for basic needs and thus enable environmental concern, but here it must focus on improving the quality of our economic development, rather than the quantity of our economic growth. Research into alternate power sources, market reform including tradable carbon permits and pollution taxes, and more sustainable agriculture and land use practices such as smart growth and organic agriculture are all positive steps. Knowledge of the means of environmental protection is progressing very well, and even without a change in first world consciousness or a transformation of third world economic conditions, much progress can be made.
Positive environmental change is far from impossible under our current economic and social structures, and though it may be a slow and difficult transition, movement towards it is accelerating. Moderation of our Northern consumption, combined with economic aid and environmental education in the South, will go a very long way towards improving the condition of our environment. Although an ideal solution is impossible in the real world, it is important to realize that any positive step, no matter how small, is an important and helpful one. There is hope for our culture, and if we know enough, care enough, and act enough, the beauty and utility of the natural world can be preserved and enjoyed for centuries to come.
This essay is ©2004 from bluescreenlife.com.
The Sierra Club
Sierra Legal Defense Fund
Keep hope alive.