Building an Enduring Environmental Movement

On World Environment Day, State of the World 2013 calls for a new course of action for the environmental movement.


Audubon displays the new car it won from Toyota in a social media popularity contest (image by Toyota)

Fractured, underfunded, and on the defensive, the environmental movement must rethink the way it functions if it hopes to bring about a truly sustainable future. Most environmental groups continue to advocate from a defensive standpoint, many have begun to accept large donations from corporations that undermine their visions and efforts, and the majority of these environmental groups are lacking a holistic approach to the issues they face.

Over the past few decades, environmentalism has become increasingly splintered, with groups focusing on specific niches such as conservation, climate change, and land degradation.

By looking at the issues with such narrow lenses, advocates are failing to fully comprehend the need for a whole-system solution. As a result, the environmental movement has been focused on short-term fixes rather than addressing root causes—namely societal fixation on growth and consumerism—and short-term solutions alone will not bring about a sustainable society.

In the chapter “Building an Enduring Environmental Movement,” in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Erik Assadourian suggests looking to the traditions of missionary religions as a guide for recreating a stronger and more successful environmental movement:

A Deeper Environmentalism. In order to profoundly affect individuals and influence them to change the way they live their lives, environmentalists must create a more comprehensive philosophy—complete with ethics, human’s purpose, cosmology, a theodicy, exemplars, and stories of redemption. In calling for a deeper environmentalism, Assadourian posits that as well as mobilizing short-term political engagement, environmentalists should focus on offering deeper opportunities to engage—from weekly gatherings filled with stories of celebration and hope to frequent opportunities to celebrate, mourn, and collaborate with their communities.

The Potential of Missionary Movements. A large part of religious philosophies’ success has been a powerful, timeless vision supported with beautiful stories and committed advocates—but equally important has been the promise of immediate assistance—the offering of food, clothing, education, livelihoods, medical care, even a community. If the environmental movement were to follow this lead—providing ecocentric social services—ecophilosophies could be spread to much larger numbers, through schools, health clinics and hospitals, homeless shelters, community libraries, community lenders, and other essential institutions.

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Missionaries provide social services, community and philosophical orientation for people around the world, including Kibera. Why haven’t environmental movements learned from and adopted this model? (Image courtesy of Map Kibera)

From Vision to Reality. By building community through social services, environmentalism would broaden its influence and therefore help to change social, cultural, economic, and political norms to recognize humanity’s utter dependence on the planet and shift our relationship to reflect this. These efforts could also seed a new population of pioneers to drive resistance to the modern industrial socioeconomic model and create a workable alternative to this.

The hope is that this bold reboot of environmentalism will help us prevent civilizational collapse by establishing a new set of philosophical, ethical, and cultural norms that bring about a life-sustaining civilization, or what ecophilosopher Joanna Macy has called “the Great Turning.” Or if that is impossible at this late stage, Assadourian writes, it could at least prevent our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren from reinventing our same cultural and economic mistakes—offering them instead an ecocentric philosophy to rebuild civilization on the ashes of our global consumer culture.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013, released in April 2013, addresses how sustainability should be measured, how we can attain it, and how we can prepare if we fall short. The concluding section, of which the above mentioned chapter is part, also includes deeper explorations of how to prepare ourselves for the emergency, examining necessary changes in education, governance, and economics.

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