The Changing Face of Environmentalism


The postings of this week surely look like a hodgepodge of various issues. I talked about energy, green politics, rewilding, and the land hunger of agriculture – a pretty diverse set of topics. And yet there is a recurring theme in this week’s blog, and one that deserves a concluding discussion. In one way or another, they all show the changing face of environmentalism.

This may not sound terribly exciting in a time when change is everywhere. But then, environmentalism as we know it was not about change. It was about certainties. Environmentalists offered clear rights and wrongs, and they did not come with an expiration date. DDT is evil. Whales go extinct. Global warming is for real. Hear the truth, and change your life.

Of course, it was not an easy case to make. Environmentalism relied on painstaking research: for instance, the case for global warming rests on meticulous field research, cutting-edge computer modeling, and years of discussions among stellar scientists. But environmentalism is not just about pinpointing a problem but also about finding solutions, and here things have been getting increasingly fuzzy recently. The answers that we used to give look out of date.

This blog has offered some fresh perspectives, but I will be the first to admit that they come with their own kind of risks. I have argued against nuclear power on economic grounds. But what if some clever engineers come up with a cost-efficient reactor? I have suggested that the new generation now at the helm of the German Greens could aim for a new start. But that may fall through with voters. And what if neophytes wreck havoc to George Monbiot’s model wilderness? And these are just some of the potential contestations.

So why not stick to the classic ways of doing things? Because they no longer do. The fear of radioactive contamination has not stopped Britain’s nuclear renaissance. Established organizations, for all their money and manpower, look increasingly fragile. A century of nature reserves all over the world has not stopped the decline of biological diversity. And when it comes to the land, we do not even have a good grasp of what stewardship means.

To be sure, existing efforts are not useless. They have changed ways of thinking and modes of behavior. But as all things human, environmentalism is facing the law of diminishing returns. In order to keep environmentalism vibrant in the twenty-first century, we need to think in new, unorthodox ways.

And we probably need new sources of inspiration. Birmingham hired me recently as a Reader in Environmental Humanities – probably the first UK academic with that kind of job title. I leave it to your discretion whether you call that a nascent discipline or a one-man crusade. In any case, my hope is that scholars from the humanities will enter environmental debates in growing numbers, and that they want more than a new room in the house of environmental research – they want to rethink the house from bottom to top. In my own academic work, I show that many environmental debates have a history, and how things look different if we take that history into account. Good solutions build on traditions, values, worldviews – things that scholars from the humanities like to dissect.

The environmental humanities are entering an academic field that already looks rather crowded, with most scholars coming from the natural sciences and engineering. But then, we are not aiming for a hostile takeover. Ecologists know that diversity tends to foster stability. That may hold true for academia as well.

Frank Uekotter

Further useful links:

Changing The Face Of Environmentalism Ronald J. Rychlak

The Changing Face Of Environmentalism Patti Goldman

Beyond Gang Green Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank

The New Green is Brown Matt Chapman

The Changing Face of Conservation: Commodification, Privatisation and the Free Market Sharon Beder

The Face of Authoritarian Environmentalism

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