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Author: Joe Smith

Environmentalism at 40: middle age spread or new lease of life?

Updated Wednesday, 14th September 2011
Greenpeace’s 40th birthday is a good time to stop and ask where environmentalism is going. The OU's Joe Smith does just that in this thought-provoking article.

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Rainbow Warrior III

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth ’s 40th, and WWF’s 50th birthdays offer a good excuse to ponder where environmentalism is going, and particularly how it thinks about the passing of time.

A couple of years ago I wrote What Do Greens Believe. It proved tough to write, not just because I didn’t know what greens believed: it turned out that they didn’t either. Their relationship with technology, with politics, with business and perhaps above all with the way they think about ‘development’ varies widely, even within individual NGOs. They also play very different games with time. Here I consider two starkly different accounts of progress, technology and politics from people who start out with barely a cigarette paper between their thinking.

The UK’s first Green MP Caroline Lucas and the talented campaigner Andrew Simms have initiated a new home front of making do and mending. They make reference back to the aesthetic and collective spirit of Second World War Britain. Where Caroline and Andrew draw down on the recent rash of austerity-chic and the 1940s blitz spirit of purpose and unity, Mark Lynas’ recent offerings regarding what to do about climate change pick up a very different cultural thread. His reference points are no less nostalgic, but for a more recent past. He is – I think unwittingly – channeling the sharp-suited confidence of a generation that promised moonshots and energy too cheap to meter. Mark’s technophilia follows in Bjorn Lomborg’s footsteps. Mark and Bjorn haven’t always seen eye to eye – the former custard pie’d the latter in a publicity stunt some years back. Both now argue (along with George Monbiot, oh, and George Bush) that a good slice of nuclear power and technology forcing is more likely than anything to deliver ‘solutions’ at a decent pace.

There are substantial hazards in both arguments. The ‘home front’ is a very narrow and located cultural reference. Moreover it is fast losing its resonance as those that experienced it age. I can see why that’s a good reason to try and capture people’s recollections of the time – and that this work also talks to a widespread desire to connect directly with history. But Britain’s wartime past just doesn’t feel like the time or place to build the argument for a global green political economy in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Mark and co’s 60s-inflected technophilia is rooted in the view that climate change mitigation ends justify risky means. It is an argument where scary futures rule out precautionary approaches to unfathomable uncertainties around nuclear power or geo-engineering. It is worth pointing out that it won’t be freelance environment writers who control the outcomes down the line in a society organized around such principles. In the hands of bankers and chancellors this approach would quickly revert to old fashioned concepts such as maximising near term wealth generation over, for example, protecting biodiversity.

I’m certain all the people referenced above have a much more nuanced sense of the political challenge facing us than the blunt summary I offer above. I realise there is plenty more to say, but I think its fair to suggest that both positions are about tactics not strategy. However this betrays environmentalism’s consistent lack of a plausible political route to reshaping the political economy of energy, or for embedding, for example, biodiversity as a value within everyday decision-making.

Environmental NGOs have introduced new ways of thinking politically about time and space, and new ways of thinking about who and what should count. They have laid out clearly the idea that people, animals, plants and places distant in time and space should count in the decisions we make today. But they haven’t made these ideas stick. To achieve this will require more cohesive and shared strategies.

But I also suspect it will need another burst of cultural inventiveness of the sort that first put them on the map. That effort will need to play with memory, time in the present and how people think about the future. But rather than playing rhetorical games with time contemporary environmentalism needs to communicate a vision that is run through with a sense of excitement and anticipation about the near future. In place of nostalgia and future scare stories they need to tell people about a time a few years hence which could be so much better than the all-too-inadequate present.

But hey, enough griping; this is a party. Happy Birthday to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and co. You do look well. But I’m glad to say there are plenty of youngsters present. Here are a few inspiring examples of contemporary environmentalism. At least one or two of them would vigorously disagree with each other, but that’ll keep things lively.


An expanded version of this blog post, and what I find exciting about these projects and institutions, can be found at

Joe Smith is the director of Creative Climate, a diary project recording how people understand and respond to environmental change over the next few years. Visit our Creative Climate pages



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