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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The Individual and the Collective in “Global Environmental Politics”

How does one begin to take action on behalf of the ecological crisis once one has awakened to its existence? This is the question addressed in the eighth section of Global Environmental Politics, titled “Thinking Strategically.” The editors selected essays to illustrate two different approaches, one at the level of individual lifestyle change, the other at the level of large-scale systemic change. The essays argue from different perspectives, some saying that the individual actions of planting a tree or riding a bicycle will not effect the level of change needed to address the problem, while others argue that by relying on the larger political, economic, and social systems to shift without making individual changes is what “helped get us into this mess in the first place,”[1] as Michael Pollan puts it. Yet by putting together both sets of essays and perspectives, this section of the book points to what I also feel is also an optimal approach: individual and systemic changes must be enacted simultaneously.

Global Environmental PoliticsMichael Pollan concludes his short essay entitled “Why Bother?” by encouraging each person reading this to start their own garden or to participate in a community agricultural plot. Knowing how to grow one’s own food is a skill that may indeed prove essential in the future, and the immediate benefits are innumerable, from being able to connect with soil and plants, to using one’s body for meaningful work, to sharing produce and tools with neighbors and friends, thus potentially inspiring others to do the same.

A few months ago I moved to Berkeley where I now live in a little cottage. I have been dreaming of ways to lighten my personal footprint, while at the same time educating myself on how to help instigate systemic change as well. This weekend we will finally be putting in garden beds out behind our cottage, getting fresh compost from the city of Berkeley, and starting our own little garden. Even if individual changes do not have as far-reaching an impact as we might wish, they at least empower individuals to know that there is something we each can do, while at the same time nourishing the community ties needed to make real changes at a higher level.

Work Cited

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

[1] Michael Pollan, “Why Bother?” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 291.

The Heart of “Global Environmental Politics”

The seventh section of Global Environmental Politics felt to me to be the most important part of this book: “Race, Class, and Geopolitical Difference.” In five concise chapters the oxymoronic ideal of “sustainable growth” and the insanity of basing the well-being of a nation on the numbers of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) were debunked, and environmental colonialism and racism were brought forward as the darkest shadows of the global economic and social systems. Without addressing ecological justice issues humanity cannot change our destructive impact on Earth’s systems—ecology and justice are inseparably intertwined.

Global Environmental PoliticsHerman Daly lays out in plain terms how the delusional myth of economic growth is simply not possible on a finite planet, whether we label it sustainable or not. This perspective ties in with Jonathan Rowe’s explanation of GDP, and how this worshipped number counts as positive the most destructive aspects of society. He writes,

Cooking at home, talking with kids, walking instead of driving, involve less expenditure of money than do their commercial counterparts. Solid marriages involve less expenditure for counseling and divorce. Thus they are threats to the economy as portrayed in the GDP. By that standard, the best kids are the ones that eat the most junk food and exercise the least, because they will run up the biggest medical bills for obesity and diabetes.[1]

Is it any wonder that the human relationship with the Earth’s ecosystems is broken when our own society is so fractured by a misplacement of values? How can we continue to appeal to the economy as the highest good when it is destroying the very fabric of relationship between humans and within ecosystems?

The latter half of the book’s seventh section portrays the blatant injustice done upon the populations of the global South in the distribution of the costs and accountability for climate change and pollution. Colonialism is as much alive today as it was under the British Empire, but it is disguised by other names and economic ideologies that allow egregious injustices to be perpetrated upon the world’s poor. The final chapter by Robert Bullard, “Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement,” shows not only how internationally toxic waste is foisted upon those with no political power to protect themselves, but even how the U.S. is a microcosm of this international situation as pollutants are outsourced to minority communities that lack the political voice to speak in their own defense. What shocked me most was how consciously this location of toxic materials is chosen by those in power, whether the majority white zoning boards and planning commissions or top officials in the World Bank. Bullard concludes by saying,

The crux of the problem is that the mainstream environmental movement has not sufficiently addressed the fact that social inequality and imbalances of social power are at the heart of environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution, and even overpopulation. The environmental crisis can simply not be solved effectively without social justice.[2]

As a white person living in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, one of the wealthiest locations on the planet, I can feel my tremendous privilege and social position as I read these words. I have to ask myself—stripped of naive idealism—what real power do I have to make changes on behalf of social justice that are in responsible allyship, that do not perpetuate the systemic injustice that stratifies this world? Simply put, as one individual, how can I help?

Work Cited

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

[1] Jonathan Rowe, “Who is an Economy For?: Rethinking gdp,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 222.

[2] Robert Bullard, “Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 245.

Further Musings on “Global Environmental Politics”

The discussion in the fifth section of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s book is entirely on the economic system and its impact and influence on the global environment. The section is titled simply “Economy,” but really it should be titled “Capitalism” for that is the only economic system that is actually addressed. The three chapters of the section present gradations from greening the industrial growth economy to addressing the hard truth that capitalism and human greed are the heart of the problem. While reading Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister’s chapter on “The Promise of Corporate Environmentalism” I found myself feeling the hollowness of those promises. Big brand corporations making non-binding commitments of vague outcomes such as “delivering sustainable growth” and “performance without compromising sustainability”[1] in order to preserve their image, while still increasing the total destructive impact upon the planet, actually seems like a greater hindrance to the cause because it obscures where the real problems lie: in a model of trade that depends on exponential growth, exploitation, and limitless greed.

Global Environmental PoliticsPaul Krugman’s chapter, “Environmental Economics 101: Overcoming Market Failures” addresses more realistically the ways in which the free market cannot address global ecological issues such as climate change. Yet ultimately his solutions also return to the altar of capitalism, simply relying on regulations and taxes to mitigate the crisis. An economic solution inherently calculates all loss in terms of monetary value alone, something that cannot account for the great suffering climate change will unleash—indeed, it has already begun—upon humans, animal and plant species, and entire ecosystems.

Finally, Naomi Klein’s piece, “Capitalism vs. Climate” dared to question the ideology of capitalism itself. In reading her portrayal of the climate change deniers of the conservative right in the US—who go to great lengths to prove global warming is a hoax, at times even sending death threats to climate scientists—I could not help but be curious at the psychology behind such actions. Clearly fear is a powerful motivator, but fear of what? Is it really fear of dismantling the capitalist system? Fear of freedoms being taken away? Or is there also a deep-seated existential fear of climate change itself? Allowing oneself to feel the true losses climate change will wreak across the globe—to a greater or lesser extent no matter what action is taken—is not central to the ideologies of right or left. What does fear of these losses blind us to? And what, on the opposite end of the spectrum, do they awaken in us?

Work Cited

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

[1] Peter Dauverge & Jane Lister, “The Promise of Corporate Environmentalism,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 157.

Continuing Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics”

The fourth section of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s anthology deals with the international state system, and its ability, or lack thereof, to deal with global ecological issues, particularly climate change and mass species loss. The section opens with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, drafted in 1992. I was both struck that this document was drafted over twenty years ago, and found myself questioning the validity of many of the principles in face of the reality of the ecological problems before us. For example, the continued emphasis on sustainable development made me question whether sustainability is really the emphasis, or is it rather a mere “green-washing” of development as usual? What would happen if the term were reversed, and instead we created “developmental sustainability,” or some other means of prioritizing resilience over exponential growth? Overall, the declaration does not examine the underlying assumption that the economic growth model is the only way forward, or consider that it may inherently have a dire ecological cost.

Global Environmental PoliticsMoving forward to the next chapter by Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne, entitled “Brief History of International Environmental Cooperation,” I was repeatedly discouraged by the numerous ecologically-oriented political gatherings that have been held over the last fifty or so years that have had relatively minimal impact compared to the scale of the ecological issues we face globally. Why has so much effort been put into agreements if very few of them are legally binding? Why are there seemingly no immediate social consequences when agreed upon goals are not met by various countries? Is there a way to make international state agreements more effective and binding or, like the ecological crises themselves, must they be both borderless and bioregional in order make a real impact?

Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics”

Upon reading the first three sections of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s new anthology on the current state of the planet, I was struck by how succinct and compelling each of the short articles were that comprise the book. The volume is clearly made for a classroom setting, and I felt the content was accessible to a wide range of readers. What was particularly striking though was the continual interweaving of both hope and despair carried by the various authors’ voices. For example, Alex Steffen’s chapter “Humanity’s Potential,” while not naïvely optimistic, still gave me the sense that if we lose ourselves to pessimism we will actually be in a worse situation than if we engaged the crisis with some sense of hope. Hope is not certainty of outcome; I feel hope is something deeper, perhaps more akin to faith.

Global Environmental PoliticsOn the other hand, Stephen Meyer’s essay “End of the Wild” carries within it a true and necessary sense of mourning of the inevitable extinction of species accelerating on the planet due to the activities of our own singularly prolific species. Meyer makes the distinction that while there is nothing we can do to save the loss of the wild this is no reason to not do anything. He concludes:

The end of the wild does not mean a barren world. There will be plenty of life. It will just be different: much less diverse, much less exotic, far more predictable, and—given the dominance of weedy species—probably far more annoying. We have lost the wild. Perhaps in 5 to 10 million years it will return.[1]

His final note is clearly one of despair and grief, deep emotions we must allow ourselves to feel if we are to engage with this crisis in any realistic way.

The book opens with two essays that both address the name of the new geologic epoch into which humanity has ushered the planet: the Anthropocene. Elizabeth Kolbert and Charles Mann both speak to the meaning and uses of this term: whether to use it ironically or seriously, what the impact of naming the epoch might be, when one might date the beginning of the Anthropocene—whether from the invention of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, or even further into the future when the effects of climate change are absolutely undeniable. The question that continued to arise for me in relation to the term Anthropocene is, will it awaken humanity to the fact we have become a force of planet Earth as powerful as the geologic and hydrologic cycles and that we must take responsibility for this power, or will it reinforce the anthropocentric hubris that led us to this crisis in the first place?

Work Cited

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

[1] Stephen Meyer, “End of the Wild,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 57.