Part 1. Winning the Battle; Losing the War.
So I’m reading a short article about oil pipelines in the Report on Business. It’s banner proclaims “Beyond the protests, pipelines are a solid investment”. Sure, says author David Berman, there may be protests, fears, and discontent about pipeline projects on both sides of the Canada-US border, but investors can chill because markets care not a fig for any of that.
Berman explains that, compared to many other industries (e.g. gold mines and oil sands – great comparison group there !), pipelines are relatively safe. Hell, even “socially conscious investors” are getting in on the act. And this is why, despite all the opposition to projects like Keystone xl and Northern Gateway, share prices for pipeline builders remain strong.
This is remarkable. Environmentalists are having a field day with Enbridge, the aspirational builder of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and pushback against Tory cutbacks to environmental spending crosses demographic, professional, and political boundaries. But the market seems to be saying that it is “all sound and fury”, and that in the end, pipelines will be built. President Obama recently approved the southern leg of Keystone xl, and only sagging prices for natural gas are preventing the Mckenzie Valley natural gas pipeline from moving forward.
But my point is this: if environmentalists are merely an irritant as far as economic indicators go, what do our efforts really mean in terms of the big goal of securing a sustainable future?
Environmentalists, aided by the latest science and sympathetic legislators, have won significant victories for the planet over the last fifty years: the Clean Air Act, DDT bans, whooping cranes, the Great Bear Rain Forest and Haida Gwaii? And yet, David Suzuki declares that the environmental movement has failed; Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have declared that environmentalism is dead.
For David Suzuki, the problem lies in the fact that neither the 1992 earth Summit, nor any of the thousands of conferences held since, has shifted the dominant global paradigm by as much as a centimeter. The paradigm, which can be paraphrased as “capitalism fuelled by exponential economic growth” has actually been resurgent since the late 1970s, and is now so dominant as to be a de-facto global religion.
Schellenberger and Nordhaus’s critique (Schellenberger and Nordhaus 2004)is a little more subtle and americocentric. It is also long (37 pages), but its basic message is this: environmental groups are faced with a slew of wicked 21st Century problems, but are campaigning as though they were still fighting yesterday’s battles over air quality and pollution.
For Suzuki, the answer to the wrong paradigm is to shift the paradigm by “adopting a “biocentric” view that recognizes we are part of and dependent on the web of life that keeps the planet habitable for a demanding animal like us. As I have written elsewhere, biocentrism is a distinct philosophical ethos, perhaps best summed up by Aldo Leopold in “The Land Ethic:
“A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such”.
For Schellenberger and Nordhaus (S & N), it is the organizational paradigm of environmental groups that needs to change: “the (environmental) movement as a whole needs to transcend the moral and intellectual framework that defines modern environmentalism”. S & N think that new institutions, alliances, and ways of thinking are needed. Among other things, they want environmentalists to get out of what they see to be “a single issue mindset” to embrace more creative, socio-political and economic solutions to environmental challenges.
It’s here that S & N get all “American Dreamy” on us. They think that a big part of their solution to the crisis of environmentalism is a new “Apollo Project”:
“aimed at freeing the US from oil and creating millions of good new jobs over 10 years. Our strategy was to create something inspiring. Something that would remind people of the American dream: that we are a can-do people capable of achieving great things when we put our minds to it.”
The focus will be on “big investments into clean energy, transportation and efficiency” and “a coalition of environmental, labor, business, and community allies who share a common vision for the future and a common set of values” (Schellenberger and Nordhaus 2004, p. 26).
So their environmental strategy is really a socio-economic strategy.
Whether or not you agree with this vision, S & N raise one more important issue. Environmental groups focusing on single issues or single examples of development may win all sorts of local victories. But in the meantime, national governments could undermine an entire regulatory framework that supports environmental quality.
It matters little if you save this or that acre of land, or win some law suit against dumping toxic waste in a pond if the entire system of acts and regulations is being gamed in favour of unsustainable development.
Those thoughts were articulated in the bad old Bush years of 2005, long before the Harper Tories even thought about gutting the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act etc. But this is not the only way in which environmentalists can potentially “lose the war” for sustainability.
Gorillas in Rooms
It’s probably safe to say that if Suzuki and S & N were in the same room, there’d be some heated discussions. While the Suzuki Foundation says “solutions are in our nature”, David Suzuki’s recent public statements have all been about values. S & N do not eschew values, but their approach is fundamentally techno-optimistic and economic. A brief glance at the web page of The Breakthrough Institute (the clearinghouse for many of S & N’s ideas) confirms that most of the solutions S & N envisage are technofixes that will be placed firmly in the service of economic growth.
Not that there is anything wrong with technical solutions to environmental problems. We will need a lot of them. Alliances with business and unions – fine, as long as they promote sustainability. But the economic growth part – that may be problematic.
An increasing number of economists are joining old school steady staters like Herman Daly in questioning the feasibility of continued exponential economic growth in a finite world. But I am not aware of any environmental group that is prepared to look into their office corners to acknowledge the 600 pound gorilla that has been there all along.
Because over the last two decades, environmental groups have increasingly forged alliances with businesses in search of “win-win” situations.
Interface Carpets remains the quintessential example of a leading company that revolutionized its operations in the service of sustainability. Under the transformative leadership of Ray Anderson, the company acted alone without any prodding from green NGOs. Alberta Ecotrust bills itself as “a unique partnership between the corporate sector and the environmental community”. At the 2003 World Summit on Sustainable Development, Greenpeace and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) appeared on the same stage to issue a joint declaration on climate change (Anshelm and Hansson 2011). Environmental Defense collaborated with oil companies to develop the Partnership for Climate Action, a consortium aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from company facilities (Anshelm and Hansson 2011).
Winston Churchill famously said that “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. On that basis, collaboration between businesses and ENGOs in service of a common cause could be seen as the mature way forward.
But when does ENGO collaboration with business become co-option or even capitulation in the service of an unsustainable system?
For just as national governments can not conceive of a world without economic growth, public limited companies must always promote the growth of shareholder value. If they’re not growing, they’re stagnating or failing.
So whether they realize it or not, when environmental groups forge partnerships with business, they register their unwritten agreement with policies to promote economic growth and business strategies to promote shareholder value.
In the split, however, when the costs of environmental citizenship exceed its (supposed) benefits, companies will do their best to offload those costs. We have seen this trend in spades since 2008, as governments and corporations worldwide have jettisoned environmental standards in an unseemly scramble to restore global growth.
And, as Anna Sherrod, Director of the Valhallah Wilderness Society has pointed out, “It (cooperation with business) is based on the fact that corporations are always willing to give a little to conservation in order to get a lot”.
But faced with the pervasive influence of business over politics and the economy, perhaps it is little wonder that environmentalists hold their noses and seek common ground with corporations. After all, what choice do they have?
This co-operation as capitulation is made unintentionally explicit by Jonathan Porritt, the dean of U.K. environmentalists. He spends the best part of 12 chapters in “Capitalism as if the World Matters” bemoaning the negative impacts of capitalism on the global environment, only to throw in the towel in the end:
“[capitalism] is all that is on offer at present, and if capitalism needs economic growth, then the only chance for social and environmental sustainability in the coming decades is to make that growth consistent with sustainability rather than conjuring up fanciful visions of how to do without it.” (Porritt 2007, p. 249).
Failure? Or just a blind spot.
Environmentalists should certainly use all the tools available in the quest for sustainability, including ENGO-business partnerships. But they should also be aware of the true nature and motivations of their new best friends. Furthermore, well-intentioned partnerships with business can slide out of control, undermining the very values they are supposed to protect.
When this happens, the environmental movement itself becomes split into cooperators and opponents. Witness Glen Barry’s excoriation of the WWFs certified forest program: “WWF is the world’s largest ancient forest logging apologist…and may be the World’s greatest threat facing endangered ancient forests”.
Closer to home, Tzeporah Berman, architect of the Clayoquot Sound protests and the agreement to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, came in for criticism over her support for run-of-the-river hydro development. More interesting than accusations that she betrayed the environmental movement is the split in priorities it revealed. According to George Hoberg of UBC:
“There’s a new divide, with concern to environment voters, between those more traditional, who are concerned about wilderness preservation and wildlife, and those who are more urgently concerned about climate change“.
Put another way, we may have now reached the stage where “thinking globally” comes at the expense of “degrading locally”. While environmentalists have fought and negotiated over the last 50 years, the size and impacts of the global economy have grown exponentially.
As environmentalists, our possibilities for action and room to act have become proportionally constrained. We may therefore be caught between the rock of which solutions we want to promote versus the hard place of the problems we become part of.
To be continued
Anshelm, J., and A. Hansson. 2011. Climate change and the convergence between ENGOs and buisness: on the loss of utopian energies. Environmental Values 20: 75-94. <http://dx.doi.org/10.3197/096327111X12922350166076>
Porritt, J. 2007. Capitalism as if the world matters, Second edition. Earthscan, London, UK.
Schellenberger, M., and T. Nordhaus. 2004. the death of Environmentalism: Global warming politics ina post-environmental world. 37. <http://www.stonehousestandingcircle.com/sites/default/files/papers/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf> September 2nd, 2012