Features | Diversifying environmentalism

Rethinking what it means to be sustainable

The concept of sustainability is held up by three major pillars, which are social, environmental, and economic. ‘Mainstream’ environmental movements have sought to adapt in a way that intersects these three pillars. However, studies are increasingly showing the lack of diversity within environmental sectors and related mainstream movements. This homogeneity in environmental movements limits not only their accessibility, but also their effects. Issues related to the environment tend to have disproportionate effects on those who face economic or social oppression. For example, changes in water distribution may asymmetrically affect someone in vulnerable areas, more dependent on land and agriculture than a city dweller in Canada. Food insecurity caused by climate change affects those who already experience poverty more significantly. Those living in poverty will be much more vulnerable to detrimental environmental factors such as poor water quality, polluted air, and hazardous waste – all of which are exacerbated by climate change. The first step in rethinking sustainability is understanding our own place and privilege in the movement, as well as being aware of the different ways in which others might experience environmental change.

Positioning ourselves within the movement

Mainstream environmental movements are commonly assumed to be paired with anti-oppressive movements that seek to combat ongoing colonialism; however, part of the problem lies with how colonial privileges have sustained themselves in the movements without being opposed. Sierra Club and Earth Justice, for example, only recently started working toward more diversification of their projects. One way colonial legacies can be seen is in the way we view land as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold. When settlers introduced the system of private property in Canada, many Indigenous cultures did not believe that pieces of land could be owned by individuals – a struggle that Indigenous cultures worldwide are still facing. “Land is a fictitious commodity,” Nicolas Kosoy, an economics professor at McGill, told The Daily. “A commodity is something we build for trade; we need to re-assess this. We cannot continue expanding the commodity front.”

Aldo Leopold, an American environmentalist who was an important figure in the field of environmental ethics, wrote a highly influential book in 1949 called A Sand County Almanac. In an essay from the book called “The Land Ethic,” Leopold argues that humans need to have mutual respect for the earth, and that the concept of community needs to be expanded to include humans, animals, plants, as well as abiotic elements. He also explains that while the economic privileges of land have been recognized, the obligations that humans have toward the land have not.

Currently, these views persist in the way that mainstream environmentalists may view themselves as defenders of the land. Although biodiversity and maintaining ecosystems is a deep concern, some of the theory on environmentalism has been motivated by emotional currents that have been expressed in romantic attitudes toward nature. Environmental romanticism developed in the late 18th century, and still provides an objectified view of nature as something ‘pure’ and unaffected by humans. Romanticism doesn’t value the environment for its own sake, but rather as a projection of human desires and cultural values, which may stem from believing that humans have ownership over it. This is problematic, because the disconnectedness doesn’t allow for humans to have a sustainable role within nature.

“Environmental movements continue to be underpinned by colonial relationships to land, and are not without guilt of perpetuating those relationships in their work,” wrote Claire Stewart-Kanigan, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs, in an email to The Daily. Stewart-Kanigan noted that romanticism is not only seen in the perceived relationship with the land, but with regard to other cultures as well. Mainstream environmentalist movements have often been criticised as romanticizing and appropriating Indigenous knowledge to serve the movement’s goals, while neglecting to rectify fundamental problems of colonialism – such as returning land to Indigenous peoples instead of seeking to ‘protect’ it.

Examples such as these also depict one of the root problems that plague environmentalist movements: the issue of privileged people speaking over those who are directly affected by environmental issues. In fact, many of the most effective cases of environmental resistance have been through direct local action, because community development and collective efforts have a greater effectiveness in creating appropriate solutions.

One example is the Green Belt Movement that was founded by Wangari Maathai, a professor at the University of Nairobi. Along with other local women, Maathai planted trees in rural Kenya to confront the gendered poverty, deforestation, and erosion that was destroying the land. It was successful because it involved the action and participation of local members, and it took a holistic approach, combining environmental conservation and community-building. Her actions are also seen as part of the ecofeminist movement, which connects feminism and environmentalism by linking the oppression of women to the exploitation of nature.

In order to make a significant impact through environmental movements, we need to think more critically about our position and not erase the diversity of experiences that people have when facing environmental issues. Environmental destruction is driven by the need to control people and spaces – we cannot repeat those same actions in order to reduce it.

“Environmental movements continue to be underpinned by colonial relationships to land, and are not without guilt of perpetuating those relationships in their work.”

The privilege of choice

Ethics have a role not only in social and ecological sustainability, but also within the economics as well. Furthermore, despite usually being thought of in monetary terms only, economics need to be understood as having inherent values and responsibilities as well. One issue where the intersection of values and data can be seen is within the ‘green consumption’ or ‘ethical consumption’ strategies, where consumers are mindful of the environmental impact of what they consume. Looking at alternative consumption simplistically, we can conclude that it is more eco-friendly; however, having the privilege to alter one’s consumption is complicated with the recognition of race and class privileges. Often, green consumption includes switching products or finding another supplier, though this might result in higher monetary costs. It is, therefore, an option only available to people who are able to pay.

“Unfortunately, certain forms of consumption, such as buying local, driving a hybrid, or even voluntary simplicity, are often conferred moral weight, despite the fact that the ability to make such choices relies on the systemic unearned privileges that go with being white and middle-class,” writes Gregory Mengel, a social justice educator, in his editorial on privilege in the environmental movement published on the Pachanama Alliance website.
Environmental strategies, such as alternative food choices, have implicit social impacts, since much of these values and choices are culturally very specific. Strategies such as green consumption, although better for the environment, depict only a limited spectrum of what one can do for environmental activism. Being an ecologically-mindful citizen shouldn’t have to equate with good consumption. These strategies are not inclusive or diverse, and don’t acknowledge the inequality of the capitalist economy and its inherent structures of privilege.

Kosoy outlined some of the societal and environmental costs of our economic system. “We tend to see economic processes as ever-growing, but ecological processes have […] feedback loops that maintain [their] check and balances within,” he said. He also noted that the social and environmental costs of this come in many different dimensions. There are many consequences of economic ‘growth’: from ecological impacts, such as climate change, to social impacts, such as poverty.

Currently, by neglecting ecological limits, we are putting the capacity of systems to evolve at risk. Not only are we eroding environmental resources, but we are also eroding our cultural diversity via assimilation, which in a way is eroding humanity’s evolutionary capacity to respond to sudden shocks. Evolutionary mechanisms seen in nature function through diversity, because in the multitude of different responses to environmental stress, communities can find a way to adapt to the changes. By homogenizing society, or by acknowledging only one perspective, we are reducing the diversity of options at the societal level, and are therefore destroying the resilience of our society and our ecosystems.

Kosoy also pointed out that the problem is the idea that businesses believe that they can have a ‘triple bottom line,’ aiming to win socially, economically, and environmentally. However, if you maximize one dimension you cannot maximize any other. “We can’t optimize [or] maximize three dimensions at the same time, that is a mathematical impossibility,” said Kosoy. “There are obvious trade-offs that nobody makes explicit.”

“Many environmental issues are rooted in the poor understanding of the greater consequences of manufacturing and consumption trends, and so the solution lies in mobilizing people,” said Lily Minkova, a member of MyVision, a social business club at McGill. She commented that the immense environmental degradation of the last century is overwhelming, which may even paralyze people into non-action or into willful ignorance. However, instead of focusing on the guilt of each person’s ecological footprint, social business focuses on the empowerment of people, inspiring them to change, which in turn can inspire change on a greater scale.

Shona Watt is the owner of a social business in Montreal called TinyHomestead, which runs workshops on ecological and sustainable living. Last year, at the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill’s (PGSS) Green Drinks event, she gave a talk on whether capitalist companies, who value the pursuit of profits over the environment, can ever be sustainable. During that talk, Watt brought up that many companies have an incentive to do ‘good’ and be sustainable, because it increases customer satisfaction, but that it is ultimately another strategy for making money. Buisnesses in a capitalist system are inherently in conflict with sustainability, and we need to address when we play the role of the consumer and try, at the same time, to participate in ethical consumption.

Environmental destruction is driven by the need to control people and spaces – we cannot repeat those same actions in order to reduce it.

Moving past the status quo

In the process of reaching a higher level of sustainability, the overarching challenge is reconciling our ‘infinite aspirations’ on our finite planet. “We’re at a race between our environmental potency and our self-awareness,” said Andrew Revkin, a New York Times journalist, in his recent talk at McGill entitled “Charting a Good Path in the Age of Us.” Revkin proposed that the human population can be compared to bacteria on a petri dish smeared with agar. The bacteria grow until they receive feedback from the waste and there isn’t enough food, and then the population stops growing. “You’d think we’d be smarter than that,” said Revkin.

For decades, scientists have been saying that we as humanity are heading toward the “edge to the petri dish” – our planetary limits. They have attempted to quantify the planet’s biophysical limitations that place restrictions on our resources. This resulted in a list of nine planetary boundaries, as outlined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which are: stratospheric ozone depletion, loss of biosphere integrity, chemical pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, fresh water consumption, land system change, nitrogen/phosphorus flows to bodies of water, and atmospheric aerosol loading. 28 internationally-renowned scientists have made it clear that humans can thrive only within the boundaries of these criteria, and that crossing these boundaries could result in irreversible detrimental environmental changes. Unfortunately, our situation is already fairly severe: we’ve crossed four of these nine boundaries already.

All of these issues are backed by years, if not decades, worth of scientific research; however, it doesn’t seem to be inspiring much progress. Revkin pointed out that the biggest enemy of climate change is inertia. Humans have a tendency to prefer sticking with the status quo, even when it is clearly irrational.

Maintaining the status quo is a very easy task. The desire to uphold the status quo not only strongly affects our interests, but also our lifestyles, which determine the way we approach and combat climate change. Environmental movements should overcome their status quo, and be actively involved in making diverse, ecologically-conscious decisions. Mainstream environmental movements need to be aware of how the strategies of combatting climate change, such as the previously mentioned ‘green consumption,’ may at times end in results that are limited to certain cultures, and exclusonary to those that are not seen as part of the globalized mainstream. There are societies on this planet that have lived sustainably for millennia, and they should not be ignored for the sake of capitalist thought.

In 2003, a paper called “Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience” in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment highlighted that it is not the biodiversity or the number of species in an ecosystem that we need to focus on, but rather the response diversity to environmental distress. The response diversity is what ultimately leads to resilience. Similarly, Revkin noted that we can use the same concepts in society when trying to combat climate change. Having multiple responses to the same threat is the key.

However, diversifying the movement is not merely taking peripheral actions to include people of colour and people who do not associate with the standard, white middleclass in the West within the mainstream environmental movement. It is a matter of putting lasting investment into standing in true solidarity with those who are oppressed and whose voices may not be heard. When engaging with the environment and ecology, the concept of the collective has unfathomable importance. Scientifically, one can see the interconnected, delicate systems within nature that all have effects on one another. It is important to place ourselves in those systems as well and understand everyone’s role within it. In fact, many movements are already taking this approach.

In parts of South America, buen vivir is a social philosophy that is taking hold as a starting point for new perspectives, in direct opposition to Western capitalist thought. Loosely translated from Spanish as “good living,” buen vivir describes a way of doing things as a community, in a state of coexistence with other humans as well as nature. Building on its Andean, Indigenous past, it rejects the notion of ‘natural capital,’ which gives monetary values to environmental goods such as water and forests. It also rejects the notion of ‘human capital,’ where essentially people are reduced to their economic value. This type of movement calls for a significant overhaul of the capitalist modes of production we have today – especially with regards to primary production.

Other examples of social movements in response to environmental issues include transition towns and the idea of ‘degrowth,’ where less is more. Transition towns are community-oriented projects that are appearing in diverse communities all over the world. People attempt to build ecological resilience through local initiatives that transition away from high levels of energy consumption and carbon emissions. The goal is to find happiness through collective and non-consumptive means. Degrowth is built on the idea of reducing consumption drastically and going ‘back to basics.’ It is opposed to the idea of economic ‘growth,’ and the mainstream idea of sustainable development. Conceiving development as a type of growth is incompatible with, and unsustainable in a world that is already environmentally stressed. Neither of the movements are completely inclusive either, however, as they are directed to people who can actually participate in ‘degrowth’ due to their excessive prior ‘growth,’ or who have the financial means to start up a transition town.

Diversity in sustainability needs to do more than simply reaching out – the idea of community needs to be understood in its broadest sense. In order to create the space to act in solidarity and as a collective, we need to recognize our own position and decolonize our understandings and presumptions, within what we consider to be the mainstream environmental movement. Many of the systems that we currently have in place are completely at odds with the biophysical boundaries of the planet, yet many cultures have already developed systems that live comfortably within them. Environmentalist movements shouldn’t assimilate and erase marginalized voices, but rather integrate diversity and actively participate in reciprocity as well.


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