Time for a New Environmentalism

Greens can learn a lot from the successes of missionary religious movements

Since the early years of the environmental movement, some voices within the movement have pointed out that fighting power plants, dams, deforestation, mining, and roads is a game of defense, one that can never be won. As the late environmentalist Peter Berg used to say, such fights are “like running a battlefield aid station in a war against a killing machine that operates just beyond reach, and that shifts its ground after each seeming defeat.” In the 30 years since Berg uttered those words, this reality has only gotten worse. The killing machine has grown in size and power; meanwhile the environmental movement has mostly failed to evolve its tactics to go on the offensive.

Soup Kitchenphoto by Gary Lerude, on FlickrEnvironmentalists also need to provide people with real, tangible assistance, just like the
Christian soup kitchens and food pantries across the United States or the Islamic
madrassas across Southeast Asia.

It is time (long past time, in fact) to create a deeper environmentalism – one that can provide a vision of a sustainable future in which human well-being is achieved while restoring Earth’s biocapacity. This will mean an environmental movement that crafts a multi-century strategy, not just annual campaign goals; that doesn’t go hat-in-hand every year to foundations and affluent individuals whose wealth is derived from the very system that needs to be torn down; that builds community and fellowship among its supporters. We need a movement that can take some lessons from the most successful movements in history: missionary religious philosophical movements.

Missionary religions have rooted themselves across a variety of geographies, eras, and cultures, and today have billions of adherents. Religious philosophies offers something fundamental that the environmental movement has so far failed to provide: a way to understand the world and humans’ place in it, as well as how to behave in that world. Just as important, religious movements build committed communities of adherents – celebrating together, mourning together, sharing with and helping each other – and draw their resources and power directly from these communities.

Why haven’t environmentalists done the same? We need to create and then communicate ecophilosophies that offer humanity an ethical code to live by. We need to provide an explanation of suffering (theodicy in religious terms). And we must be able to tell a story that offers individuals a clear and unequivocal purpose – one as simple as “it is humanity’s role to care for and now heal the Earth of which we are part and on which we so utterly depend.”

And then we need missionaries to spread these ecophilosophies. Organizations to set up social services to help those in need and convert them to a new way of thinking and living. Activists to go door-to-door like Mormon youth and convert people for the planet. (Canvassing operations built just to extract campaign contributions don’t count.) We need to build community gathering places where fellowship for Earth roots and flourishes, and develop ways to cultivate the artistic expression and political action of those within these communities.

Environmentalists also need to provide people with real, tangible assistance, just like the Christian soup kitchens and food pantries across the United States or the Islamic madrassas across Southeast Asia. Where, for example, are the ecoclinics that help those who can’t afford basic medicine? Imagine ecoclinics that give obese diabetes patients the insulin they need in exchange for several hours of working in the ecoclinic community garden or preparing healthy, sustainable food in the ecoclinic cafeteria. During the time spent working in the ecoclinic, the patient would start to understand how the consumer culture and the toxic food he’s been eating is at the root of his suffering. As he heals and becomes healthy once again, he will apply those teachings to other parts of his life, consuming less stuff (and owing less debt), helping other sick and stressed individuals change their way of life, and spreading this more sustainable, more satisfying way of life to friends and family.

Nearly half of the 250 schools in the Nairobi slum of Kibera are religious schools, teaching one brand of Christianity or another. Why isn’t there even one environmentalist school? Ecophilosophical teachings could be reinforced in every aspect of an ecoschool – from what is taught in the classroom (ecology, ethics, activism, and permaculture along with basic math and literacy) to what is offered in the lunchroom and on the playground. Some students would walk away just with knowledge, including a better understanding of our dependence on Earth and perhaps a basic livelihood and trade skills – skills that will only grow more valuable in a post-consumer future. But others would walk away with a deep commitment to this way of thinking, and perhaps even become missionaries of that ecological philosophy, starting new schools or other social services that could improve people’s lives while spreading a way of thinking and living that could compete with the seductive consumerist philosophy dominant today.

There’s no shortage of need for such eco-missions – in developing countries, sure, but also in the overdeveloped, inequitable United States. With our failing day care system, the United States is a natural place for creating eco-day cares that truly care for children and teach them a deeper relationship with peers, elders, and the planet. Or consider the payday loan stores that plague America’s poor. Why not a non-profit equivalent that in the process of lending offers basic financial literacy and helps people extricate themselves from both the debt trap and the destructive consumer culture? The faster we facilitate a transition to a degrowth, post-consumer future, the better off people and the planet will be.

But truthfully, it might already be too late for a gentle transition to a sustainable civilization. We’ve already committed ourselves to a nasty, brutish future – with at least 2 degrees Celsius of climate change baked into the coming centuries. Given that the world’s governments are busy divvying up the Arctic instead of writing a climate change treaty, and that fossil fuel companies have trillions of dollars of reserves already earmarked and ready to extract (including new sources of shale gas and tar sands), it would take a miracle for us to keep climate change under catastrophic levels of 3, 4, even 6 degrees.

Miracles probably don’t have a space in ecophilosophies like they do in monotheistic missionary religious philosophies. Neither will ecophilosophies promise the kind of salvation that the world’s two most successful missionary religions – Christianity and Islam – offer with their visions of an eternal paradise in heaven. But I believe that environmentalists can offer something almost as attractive: physical salvation (or at least a higher chance of survival), here in this world. We can help prepare those who listen for the turbulent times ahead. Basic skills – cooking, gardening, foraging, sewing, carpentry – will become far more valuable in the radically local and disrupted future we’ll live through, and teaching these to adherents might mean the difference between life and death. Creating ecophilosophical groups today that can prepare their members for that transition now while also mobilizing their members politically (just as religious groups mobilize their adherents to act politically as part of their service) will be much more effective than running one defensive campaign after the next.

If we work now to spread new ecological philosophies, when the dark age that we’ve likely set upon ourselves concludes centuries from now, and a new civilization starts to flourish around the poles of the planet, we might have a cultural orientation that is no longer obsessed with growth, but understands humanity’s utter dependence on the planet for our ability to survive and thrive. So that instead of once again creating a civilization that grows until it collapses, we can truly bring about a just, equitable, and sustainable civilization that so many of us long for.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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