Has climate change been the death of environmentalism?

By Tierney Smith

For some the climate change and sustainability movement’s aims have become so far removed from the vision of a world at peace with nature, that traditional environmentalism no longer has a place in the debate.

For them protecting the planet has been replaced by the need to sustain human life in the wake of increasing climatic changes.

Rio+20 offers yet another moment of reflection and debate for the world, but can climate change and the environment be reconciled?

The debate was reignited back in February following an article in Orion Magazine by Paul Kingsnorth – writer and one of the founders of the Dark Mountain project.

It went public again last week as the self confessed “recovering environmentalist” went up against the guys from Earth in Brackets, to debate the true meaning of ‘environmentalism’.

Are we too wrapped up in climate change and carbon that we are neglecting our duty to protect the planet? (© NASA)

For Kingsnorth – the environmentalism he grew up with is long dead. It has been replaced by debates about carbon and climate change and the new industrial revolution.

He is disilluisoned by the current state of the ‘green’ movement. Unable to reconcile his own emotional love of nature with what he calls, modern environmentalism – “in order to promote something called “sustainability” – Kingsnorth made a pledge to “withdraw” from the movement.

Nathan Thanki from Earth in Brackets believes human equity and development can go hand-in-hand with protecting nature. Withdrawing, for Thanki, is not the answer.

Age old debate

It is not a new argument. We see it played out across the world, and in the UK, every time a proposed windfarm is announced, the debate continues.

In one corner those who want clean, renewable energy to help save the country – and the world – from increasingly climate change.

And in the other corner, conservationists like Simon Jenkins, the head of the National Trust, who objects to what this ‘green’ industrialisation may do to the countryside.

Often labelled as nimbies to a large extent these people represent the traditional environmentalists Kingsnorth grieves for.

So here’s the question: how can we reconcile the climate change movement with the traditional meaning of environmentalism?


Kingsnorth writes: “This is no longer mine, that’s all. I can’t make my peace with people who cannibalise the land in the name of saving it. I can’t speak the language of science without a corresponding poetry.

“I can’t speak with a straight face about saving the planet when what I really mean is saving myself from what is coming.”

In response Nathan Thanki from Earth in Brackets wrote: “While I found myself sympathising, and agree broadly with the analysis of many anti-civilisation thinkers – sharing their frustrations with the mainstream environmental movement, with the advance of greenwashed capitalism, with industrial civilisation, even with our species itself – none of those sympathies or shared sentiments could assuage the sheer disappointment I felt reading that article.”

Thanki argues that being concerned with human equality, rights and justice doesn’t mean nature’s value becomes yet another commodity we can price up.

And for him sustainability should not be about preserving industrial civilisation in its current form.

Many of the environmentalists RTCC has spoken to ahead of the Rio+20 Earth Summit share a similar sentiment to Thanki – speaking of a need to protect nature not only as a resource base but as a vital part of the wider planet.

At the same time it is easy for the current “environmental” argument – that which Kingsnorth says is about carbon and climate change – to become bogged down with talk of the green economy, renewable energy and food security.

It quickly becomes a very human-centric argument.

Walking around the conference centres in Durban or Bonn, for example, is difficult to understand the role that nature, the world’s forests and oceans, plays amongst the smart suits and the briefcases.

So where do we go from here?

As the argument spilled out onto Twitter, others waded in with their own thoughts. It became apparent that there is no easy answer…

In some ways it goes back to what should be – and many of us, maybe optimistically, expect to be – at the heart of the Rio+20 debate.

How do we ensure social development while at the same time living within the boundaries set out for us by the planet?

Maybe at this point we should add, without plundering the planet to the very limits possible before its collapse.

For Kingsnorth – and many others too – it appears that finding new machines and mechanisms to fix the problem which he contends has been caused by past machines and mechanisms exposes the fatal flaw.

And with talks of new industrial revolutions, and even new growth ratings put forward for Rio+20 to replace GDP, it could be easy to claim environmentalists have lost touch with the nature they were traditionally championing.

For modern day environmentalists though, leaving the world to feel the full impacts of climate change would be disastrous not only for ourselves but for the animals and plants which we share the planet with.

And there is an argument that the solution must work within the system to succeed.

We talk today of pragmatic environmentalists – unromantic and practical.

They aim to ensure quality of life while trying to eradicate the excesses that much of the Western World indulge in.

The want to use the engineering skills we have for better means than digging for more and more unreachable fossil fuel resources – but to create a clean technology revolution.

Reconciling the debate

How do we reconcile the work being done to combat climate change with work to protect nature?

For those of you who have read the work of the Dark Mountain Project – a growing number both inside and outside the environmental movement – the arguments are compelling.

In an ideal world, while no less focus should be placed on the threat of climate change, much more should be placed upon protecting the natural world around us.

With discussion surrounding Rio+20 aimed at giving nature a prominent place at the table, climate change has not been the death of environmentalism – at least not yet anyway.

Last week Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a call for the role of nature at the conference, including protection of the air, water and forests saying: “Mother Earth has been kind to us. Let humanity reciprocate by respecting her natural boundaries.”

It would appear that more environmentalists are coming back round to Kingsnorth’s way of thinking.

But the debate has moved irreversibly on from the days when he was protesting against road expansion.

Whether Rio+20 will take this debate forward or whether the idea of sustainable development will be swallowed up into the politically charged and somewhat corporate discussions often seen at these conferences is yet to be seen.

But even if it is unlikely that the two sides will ever fully see eye-to-eye – it is a debate definitely worth having.

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