Building the New Environmentalism

Ensia just posted an excerpt from James Gustav Speth’s forthcoming memoir, Angels by the River, that I wish I’d read before my last post on Innovation or Retreatism: What Should Students in Environmental Studies Be Learning (Part 1). In Ensia’s excerpt, titled Building the New Environmentalism, Speth begins by calling for a broadening of what we define as an environmental issue:

Forty-four years after the first Earth Day, we must ask a basic question: What is an environmental issue? Air and water pollution, yes. But what if the right answer is that an environmental issue is anything that determines environmental outcomes? Then the definition becomes something much broader, rooted in defining features of our political economy: an unquestioning societywide commitment to economic growth at any cost; a measure of growth, GDP, that includes everything — the good, the bad and the ugly; the ascendancy of money power and corporate power over people power; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; …social injustice and economic insecurity so vast they empower often false claims that needed measures would slow growth, hurt the economy or cost jobs; economic activity now so enormous that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet.

All of these combine to deliver an ever-growing economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain human and natural communities. That means all of these are environmental issues. Yet very few are addressed by U.S. environmental law, and rarely do they appear on the agendas of mainstream environmental organizations.

Speth goes on to call for “a new environmentalism that seeks a new economy,” adding that “to deliver on the promise of the new economy, we must build a new politics”:

Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.

I happen to agree wholeheartedly with Speth. But having used in my class one of his previous books, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, I also know the limits of Speth’s political economic perspective. After a thorough critique of capitalism, he describes a “new consciousness” and a “new politics” as the seedbeds of transformation. Yet the promises of an emerging new consciousness or new politics have never been fulfilled.

The possibility of transformation to an ecological consciousness captivated me in the 90s as a young university student seeking solutions to the ecological crisis. I was influenced and found cause for optimism in ideas like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere” and Naess’ Ecological Self. The “transformation of consciousness” promises persist today with ideas like Frances Moore Lappe’s EcoMind. Equally captivating, but equally inconsequential, have been “new politics” ideas like Bookchin’s social ecology and Sale’s bioregionalism.

trash sculpture sm

Is the “new politics” Speth seems to be advocating as essential to a new environmentalism any different than the old “new politics” or old “transformations of consciousness?”

I began Innovation or Retreatism with the story of a student who expressed frustration with her environmental studies courses, all of which critique capitalism yet fail to offer alternatives. This fact, according to my student, is made more frustrating given that she and her peers will graduate and have no choice but to find a way to make a living within a capitalist system that they’ve been taught to view as the source of the problem.

How useful are “transformations of consciousness” or “new politics” messages to students or other young people wanting to engage in campaigns to ensure a safe, stable, sustainable and equitable future? In my next post, Innovation or Retreatism: What Should Students in Environmental Studies Be Learning (Part 2), I’ll critique the retreatism that I believe tends to be nurtured by the political economy perspective when employed cynically and then explore an approach to teaching environmental studies intended to inspire innovation through experimentation.

I’ll also be picking up a copy of Speth’s book and hope to be able to report back after reading it that Speth’s “new politics” is not the same old wine in new bottles.

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