The Final Pages of “Global Environmental Politics”

“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.”
– Paul Hawken[1]

While the overarching theme of Paul Wapner and Simon Nicholson’s anthology has been the question of how to address the global ecological crisis, the last two sections that I read consecutively—Section 6: “Civil Society” and Section 9: “Political Imagination”—related particularly to the question of how to move forward from here. Now that we have the facts and the stories, what science and local knowledge can each tell us to the best of their abilities, how do we take what we know and truly begin to act upon it?

Global Environmental PoliticsThe relatively short section on Civil Society addresses the roles of non-government organizations (NGOs) and environmental groups, some of which are taking meaningful action and making positive impacts. But too many, as Johann Hari writes in his chapter, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” and as Naomi Klein unpacks in This Changes Everything, have succumbed to the temptation of corporate money and compromise their actions to please their polluting donors. If this is the direction many of the environmental organizations have taken, what hope is there really for making the changes that are required before ecological tipping points are crossed and the damage is essentially irreparable? It is this theme of hope that Paul Hawken addresses in his contribution, originally the commencement address given at University of Portland in 2009. “The most unrealistic person in the world,” Hawken says, “is the cynic, not the dreamer.”[2] The entire book also concludes with a commencement address given at Duke University by the great novelist Barbara Kingsolver. No matter how dire the world situation, a commencement address is always oriented toward hope for the future. For what else can one say to a group of young, newly empowered individuals, ready to contribute their gifts to the world? I sometimes wonder what the impact would be if all ecological literature were written in such a way, addressing it to those who not only have hope for a new future but ultimately whose lives depend on imagining a new course for history.

The power of imagination is the theme that concludes this anthology, with visions of a localized, bioregional economy that respects the unique gifts of each individual landscape as presented by Wendell Berry, to a civilization a millennium in the future constituted by small technological human “islands” surrounded with untouched wilderness described by Roderick Frazier Nash, to a hyper-controlled dystopia told in the fictional, narrative voice of Joanne Harris. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus put forward some well-argued critiques of the “ecotheological elite” and I could certainly recognize myself in some of their criticisms. But their ultimate conclusion that continuing modernized development with more nuclear power, desalinization plants, and genetically modified organisms will provide our “technological salvation” I felt utterly lacked the imaginal leap required. Yes, technology has a role to play in our future—how can it not at this point?—but falling back on those technologies that continue to poison the Earth and exhibit ever more control over other species and ecosystems will not be the ones that will bring about a future in which humans are in a reciprocal, mutually enhancing relationship to the planet. And yes, I recognize my own hypocrisy in writing these words on a computer powered by electricity and made from rare-earth metals, but I also recognize that we are in a time caught between worlds and turning futures, and that every day is a new opportunity to figure out what of the old world we are leaving behind and what of the new world we are creating from what we have been given so far.

Some of the visions presented in this concluding section I felt were hopeful and worth striving for, while some were utterly terrifying, and others a combination of both. What I appreciated was that the authors allowed themselves to dream a radically different world, no matter what it looks liked. As I have said elsewhere, imagination is a great gift to ecology, one whose eternal wellspring we can all draw upon. No single vision will shape the future. Thus we each have the responsibility to drink deeply from the imaginal stream, and live forward those dreams of a thriving future that are bestowed upon us.

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Paul Hawken, “The Power of Environmental Activism” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 191.

[2] Hawken, “The Power of Environmental Activism,” 191.

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