In Parts 1 and 2, I dealt with the problem of defining The New Economy, and its relationship to the question of “sustainability”. These themes are all linked to social, environmental and economic questions that will determine how we, as a society, will deal with the developing problem of Climate Change and make the transition away from fossil energy sources.
In this framework, while forthcoming columns will discuss Climate Change and energy issues, there remains a last initial topic to discuss: “environmentalism”. While the words and concepts of “sustainability”, and “The New Economy” elicit initial interest and enthusiasm in the public, they also arouse delayed suspicion and reticence, because “The New Economy” is a “green” economy and therefore formally linked to “environmentalism.” Regrettably, while most people genuinely care about the environment, the politics of environmentalism have largely succeeded in alienating the public’s good will.1
If we are going to make the transition to The New Economy, the role of environmentalism needs to be clarified, and probably re-defined.
Environmentalism was originally conceived as an off-shoot of the conservation movement. It has failed to evolve in the last 20 years, and is considered by many young and progressive environmentalists to have outlasted its purpose.2 Traditional protest-oriented environmentalism, does not meet the needs of a generally deteriorating and increasingly complex environmental situation.
The strength of the early environmental movement (1960- 1980) lay in its origin in the works of environmental scientists such as Rachel Carson. Its weakness lies in the mis-use of science for political purposes. The dilution of science in politics has grown as environmental representatives have moved away from being scientists to political advocates. Sunshine Coast environmentalism, is best described as “Zombie environmentalism.” Much like Krugman’s “Zombie economics” which is the revival of discredited economic ideas by right-wing commentators, zombie environmentalism has remained locked in a time-warp, electing nominally progressive politicians who promote out-dated “green agendas” that actually constitute a barrier to progressive environmental realities.
The Many Deaths of Zombie Environmentalism
Speaking as a supporter of Climate Change science, nothing illustrates better the danger that “environmentalism” poses for the environment than the recent “Climategate” scandal, which has brought to light systemic problems at the IPCC and its outdated excessively bureaucratic structure.3 Most of the media-scandal centres on 2 pieces of information, one of which, the projected melting of the Himalayan glaciers in 2035 was information provided by the environmental advocacy group WWF. Although several reviewing scientists pointed out that this information was flawed and should not be included in the final report, it was included “to sex-up the information,” not by researchers, but by the working group responsible for communicating information to the public, by “communication specialists.”
However well-intentioned it seemed, this information was typical of the kind often found in reports written by environmental advocacy groups. It was second or third hand, and tendentious – intended to make a sensational point to advocate for a political cause. It was not factual. It was not science.
The point here is that this seemingly “strong progressive” argument has been a major setback for both climate research science and the environment.
This is “zombie environmentalism” at its best. It does not focus on real deliberative science, but hyped fear.
Zombie environmentalism plays on the power of 3 self-contradictory social forces: “no”, “elitism” and “upper middle-class desires.” These three forces have kept environmentalism from actually engaging the public imagination, even though the general public will is on side. That is the nub of the problem – real conservation of old growth or endangered species - is not just about passing legislation top-down. Such legislation can be undone by the next government. It is about convincing real people to make long-term lasting changes. And that has been a failure for the last two decades.
This phenomenon was well documented by Schellenberger and Nordhaus in 2004 and continues to be confirmed by others.4 Contrary to its constructed warm and fuzzy democratic and socially-oriented image – organized environmentalism is as democratic as the corporate structures it has wrapped itself in, and even rails against. As in any corporation, environmental corporations are top-down structures in which a few corporate heads enforce ideological orthodoxy. These are mainstream official voices, who have become irrelevant to the general public, even within the environmental movement, and now stand as obstacles to a Green or New Economy.
The focus of these groups is not on what can be done to adapt to the inevitable realities of growth and change, but on what can be done to stop them. The basic approach is: “Say “NO” to...,” preferably with self-righteous condescendence. It is really “BANANAS” (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, Stupid”).
This approach has even caused many otherwise normally vigilant environmental organizations to miss the boat on Climate Change 5. Being structurally and intellectually opposed to change has made the environmental movement ill-equipped to deal with the reality of Climate Change and the social and technological challenges it poses. It is not just the physical contradiction of burning carbon to travel to far-flung places to protest the burning of carbon that jars, it is the failure to connect with real people and inevitable environmental change, all the while exploiting fearsome aspects Climate Change for political advantage.
Michael Maniates, who teaches environmental studies in New York, wrote a landmark article in 2007. These simple 1000 words articulate the reasons why the environmental movement has become counter-productive. The greatest environmental problem is ‘green elitism”.
“...when Americans ask, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ we’re treated like children by environmental elites and political leaders too timid to call forth the best in us....” 6
Zombie environmentalism is a white upper middle class phenomenon in North America and Europe. Ironically, this is the social and demographic class with the highest consumer index, and therefore, the group most responsible for Climate Change. The elitism is the product of a guilty conscience that cultivates the virtuous irresponsibility of the not-in-my-backyard mentality. It is escapism, such as we have recently seen advocated by prominent coastal self-proclaimed zombie environmentalists in the closing of the Pender Harbour landfill, against the wishes of ordinary citizens who want to assume responsibility.
Real-green, really being environmentally committed, involves being aware of economic consequences, adapting to change and endorsing responsibilities. One of the major proponents of the re-vitalized environmental movement has been the young afro-American lawyer, Van Jones, who was an early advisor of President Obama, forced out by Republicans and conservative Democrats. Disillusioned at the impotence and betrayal of mainstream environmentalism – Nordhaus, Schellenberger, Van Jones and other young environmentalists founded the Apollo Alliance – a merging of blue collar and green interests for impoverished black neighbourhoods in Los Angeles.
Jones understands that responsible environmentalism cannot simply preach the “No” doctrine. It cannot be an exclusive social club. It must create jobs and opportunity and respond to ordinary peoples’ concerns – not close business and employment – but rather create and foster green entrepreneurship. Practical economic responses to growing environmental/people problems are at the centre of Jones’ and the new revitalised environmentalist response. And the New Economy starts with the philosophy of ethical recycling:
For the sake of brevity let me quote Jones:
It used to be that the greener you were, the further you were from ordinary Americans. Green was all about yoga mats, Birkenstock sandals, tofu and individual lifestyle choices that often separated greens from average Americans When you redefine green in the way Jones does, you come closer to ordinary Americans’ concerns....
“In a real green economy – said Jones - you don’t have throwaway resources – you don’t have throwaway species, you don’t have throwaway neighbourhoods and you don’t have throwaway kids either .... I have not met a white person who would not support this kind of approach if they thought it could work.”7
The point is, it can work. We’ve seen it work successfully on the Sunshine Coast, if zombie environmentalism at SCRD does not work to kill the seed that challenges its authority.
Zombie environmentalism has failed to respond to the fundamental social and environmental challenge that waste poses for Climate Change and The New Economy. Seemingly, “garbage” does not have sufficient inspirational appeal for the upper middle class that produces of it. For zombies, it is best put in blue boxes and hauled to someone else’s landfill, somewhere out of sight in Sechelt, Mexico, China or India.
This highlights the profound disconnect and vacuousness of mainstream environmental claims. While rallying to the appeal of Climate Change as a “green issue” zombie environmentalism fails to understand the profound links that exist between parties that promote curbside recycling and Climate Change denial.
Let me be perfectly clear: if one promotes curbside one also supports parties that are also actively engaged in the climate denial industry supported by the coal and oil industry. Not only is the denial industry demonstrably linked to the same corporate interests that promoted Big Tobacco and denied medical risks, and Big Oil8, it is also linked to the waste industry’s denial of “resource recovery” and of Climate Change.
Large international consulting firms, such as AECOM and METTS, which handle international contracts for the waste industry have a vested interest in hard energy-intensive engineering technology that supports intensive natural resource extraction. They advocate for the endlessness of resources, status quo consumption and subcontract for the oil, gas and coal industries. Their business interests have ideological and financial links to Climate Change Denial. A quick visit to the METTS website (www.metts.com.au) will take you to at least two incidental papers that deny the reality of both “Zero Waste” and Climate Change 9 – and that is just openers.
Zombie Environmentalism at the SCRD
When one supports the massive fossil-fuel-intensive infrastructure needed for a curbside throwaway waste disposal system, and thereby supports Climate Change denial, how can one claim to be environmental, green or progressive?
That is in effect, the position of the majority of SCRD Area Directors and SCRD staff who have advocated curbside disposal, and the closure of the Pender landfill site, at the expense of responsible resource recovery, and against popular demand and petition.
Setting aside the conflicts of interest generated by staff`s involvement in the landfill business, the positions advocated by Chairman Shugar and Mayor Janyk spell out a blatant disregard, characteristic of zombie environmentalist elitism, for the stated wishes of ordinary people, The New Economy, and the environment,
The Chair outlined her position in her column “Zero Waste” in The Local. Appropriately it was written during Black History Month and on Nelson Mandela’s anniversary. She claims to support Zero Waste, - ironically by encouraging more waste. She assures us that this is a long journey, something “We can’t get there in a single step”, just as most white upper middle class politicians in America and South Africa, saw black equality rights, as something that had to be gradual or incremental, something impossible in a single step.
Well, given the many efforts made by SCRD to block the development of Resource Recovery Parks, it does not seem we are headed towards Zero Waste. The journey may be very long, given the direction given.
Black history tells us that black rights came about because black people did not allow white politicians to make commonsense a long journey. Change came, not because white upper middle class politicians granted it, but because black people organized, got uppity, maybe even hostile, and demanded it. The lesson is: “Don’t ask, don’t get.”10
It is not the business of government to grant, but of people to assert and defend.
Shugar proposes we continue to promote resources as throwaways, that we continue to pretend we are green, just as white liberals who enjoyed the Black Minstrel show pretended they were really progressive because they liked blacks, but did little to change their social condition.
Forget the Birkenstock costume party. There is no need to wait to be progressive. Commonsense is now, and if you are not part of the solution, you are the problem.
1. Michael Maniates (November 22, 2007). “Going Green? Easy Doesn’t Do It” The Washington Post.
2. Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (2004). The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post environmental World; (2007). Break Through: Why We Can`t Leave Saving The Planet to Environmentalists. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 285 pages
3. As most members of the scientific community, I consider this setback to be a “blessing in disguise” because the IPCC was set up in the mid 1908’s, prior to the e-revolution. It is very hierarchical, as such, lends itself to abuses of authority and power. IPCC re-organization will de-bureaucratize the structure and democratize the flow of information.
4. Schellenberger and Nordgaus (2004); (2007); http://www.thebreakthrough.org/
5. Thomas L. Friedman (2009). Hot, Flat and Crowded. Douglas and McIntyre, p. 150.
6. Maniates (2007).
7. Jones in Friedman
8. Jeffrey Sachs (19 February 2010). `Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain. The Guardian.
9. Michael C. Clarke. (2003) “The Ethics of Kyoto”, and (2004) “A Rejoinder to Dr. Paul Connett, Greenpeace: The Zero Waste Dream” www.metts.com.au .
10 Marcia Dyson (February 22, 2010) “Lessons from Black History: Don’t Ask, Don’t Get.” Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/marcia-dyson) .