The fundamental failure of environmentalism | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: The fundamental failure of environmentalism

With increasing catastrophes like oil and chemical spills environmentalists pressed for laws to protect air, water, farmland, and endangered species. (Credit: marinephotobank via Flickr)

By David Suzuki

Environmentalism has failed. Over the past 50 years, environmentalists have succeeded in raising awareness, changing logging practices, stopping mega-dams and offshore drilling, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But we were so focused on battling opponents and seeking public support that we failed to realize these battles reflect fundamentally different ways of seeing our place in the world. And it is our deep underlying worldview that determines the way we treat our surroundings.

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We have not, as a species, come to grips with the explosive events that have changed our relationship with the planet. For most of human existence, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers whose impact on nature could be absorbed by the resilience of the biosphere. Even after the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, farming continued to dominate our lives. We cared for nature. People who live close to the land understand that seasons, climate, weather, pollinating insects, and plants are critical to our well-being.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the environmental movement. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which documented the terrible, unanticipated consequences of what had, until then, been considered one of science's great inventions, DDT. Paul Mueller, who demonstrated the effects of the pesticide, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948. In the economic boom after the Second World War, technology held out the promise of unending innovation, progress, and prosperity. Rachel Carson pointed out that technology has costs.

Carson's book appeared when no government had an environment department or ministry. Millions around the world were soon swept up in what we now recognize as the environmental movement. Within 10 years, the United Nations Environment Programme was created and the first global environmental conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden.

With increasing catastrophes like oil and chemical spills and nuclear accidents, as well as issues such as species extinction, ozone depletion, deforestation, acid rain, and global warming, environmentalists pressed for laws to protect air, water, farmland, and endangered species. Millions of hectares of land were protected as parks and reserves around the world.

Thirty years later, in 1992, the largest gathering of heads of state in history met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The event was meant to signal that economic activity could not proceed without considering ecological consequences. But, aided by recessions, popped financial bubbles, and tens of millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy neoconservatives to support a cacophony of denial from rightwing pundits and think tanks, environmental protection came to be portrayed as an impediment to economic expansion.

This emphasis of economy over environment, and indeed, the separation of the two, comes as humanity is undergoing dramatic changes. During the 20th century, our numbers increased fourfold to six billion (now up to seven billion), we moved from rural areas to cities, developed virtually all of the technology we take for granted today, and our consumptive appetite, fed by a global economy, exploded. We have become a new force that is altering the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale.

In creating dedicated departments, we made the environment another special interest, like education, health, and agriculture. The environment subsumes every aspect of our activities, but we failed to make the point that our lives, health, and livelihoods absolutely depend on the biosphere — air, water, soil, sunlight, and biodiversity. Without them, we sicken and die. This perspective is reflected in spiritual practices that understand that everything is interconnected, as well as traditional societies that revere "Mother Earth" as the source of all that matters in life.

When we believe the entire world is filled with unlimited "resources" provided for our use, we act accordingly. This "anthropocentric" view envisions the world revolving around us. So we create departments of forests, fisheries and oceans, and environment whose ministers are less concerned with the health and well-being of forests, fish, oceans, or the environment than with resources and the economies that depend on them.

It's almost a cliché to refer to a "paradigm shift", but that is what we need to meet the challenge of the environmental crises our species has created. That means 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.

May 3, 2012
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2012/05/the-fundamental-failure-of-environmentalism/

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22 Comments

Mar 03, 2014
9:40 AM

Institutional environmentalism evolved from the hunters’ godwish for control and security from the vagaries of ecosystem morality. Civilization developed by increasing rate of entropy production by its conversion processes —for material or spiritual purposes. And now the solution to civilization’s increasing rate of entropy production is exploding its rate of entropy production? Institutional speak masks human system enhancement with environmental protection, as shaman speak masked hunting to extinction with merging of souls. There is no such thing as “environmental protection” by living systems which exist by working against the environment (as source of convertible energy and sink of entropy by same conversions). Life stresses being and environment. The idea that the environment can be protected by doing even more work against it is absolute nonsense!
But i do believe that the load on the living world by human society at whatever level can be reduced, and will be reduced — but not by the design of human institutions at whatever level.

Nov 19, 2013
6:38 PM

I read your Maclean’s Magazine interview, today (Nov 18,2013) It is sad. You were right when you said we have to heed the flashing warning signs! The Bible has warned us of such anti-environmental days ahead, for reasons that have become more and more obvious. That should not mean we should adopt a “biocentric” view, but that we should adopt a Theocentric view, as this is our Creator’s earth, and he has made us all stewards of it. Only when we accept that, the environmental tides will shift in our favour.

“Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground.” ~ Christina Rossetti (Psalm 24), from “A Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets”

Nov 16, 2013
11:47 PM

After reading Dr. Suzuki’s article I am a changed man. I don’t know if it was just his words or the fact that the song “Man in the mirror” was playing in the background, but whatever the reason I had an epiphany.

I have always prided myself on how much I could earn and how much I could consume. I now see the error of my ways. No longer will I go to the grocery store solely to buy 20 or 30 empty plastic bags which I would then carry home in yet another plastic bag. Never again will I harass store clerks, asking them to find me produce grown as far away as possible. From now on, when I am ready to go somewhere I will start my Range Rover then, rather than leaving it idling in the garage so it will be nice and warm, or cool as the case may be, when I want to go. I was thinking of getting a new 72” LED television as my current set is only 60” and LCD. Thanks to Dr. Suzuki opening my eyes, I am going to stick with the set I have

Feb 04, 2013
7:13 AM

So what’s the problem? Isn’t this just evolution taking its natural course —Darwin’s survival of the fittest? In a world which increasingly doesn’t believe in the God of Abraham —particularly in First World countries, what you see is what you get. Back when Dr. S and I were kids, I was taught in school that in about 10,000 years the moon would come crashing into the earth. Surely, if everything is interconnected in the universe, another civilization will take over somewhere else? So, if that’s all there is, “then let’s keep dancing”…but if that’s not all there is, then let’s start praying… because man is powerless to really keep the world together.

Oct 19, 2012
2:22 PM

Thank you, David, for this thoughtful article, and all your good work over the years. While I agree with the facts of this article, I disagree that environmentalists have failed.

First, it's not the environmental movement that is failing, but society as a whole. If environmentalists ever 'save the world', that would be quite an achievement. But in the meanwhile, I'm not sure it's helpful to say things like "environmentalism has failed".

Second, nobody knows the future for sure, not even the brightest of scientists. Despite all the science …it ain't over 'till it's over. Each of us should keep doing what we're called to. Yes, re-examine our approach, as Dr Suzuki suggests – but not despair, give up, nor engage in all-or-nothing thinking.

Third, we all need to stop blaming and start leading. The left blames the right, the rich blame the poor, the young blame the old, citizens blame the government, the government blames the voters. Each of us needs to take personal responsibility for making real change in our homes and communities, as best we can.

I've seen other leaders write similar articles late in life. Perhaps feeling burned out and that they don't have much more to give, they start to sound hopeless and cynical. But there's an old saying: "if you don't have anything good to say…". If you're no longer inspired …maybe it's time to hand over the soapbox to those who are.

Each of us working on issues from climate change to organic farming, should keep on doing whatever we feel called to. But each of us is merely one person out of seven billion. It's self defeating to expect oneself to save the world. It takes some humility to work on such big issues.

What we need most of all is to keep our chins up in these challenging times, and to learn about proactive, effective leadership from other sectors. Because as Howard Thurman said, "what the world needs is people who have come alive."

May 14, 2012
6:48 AM

It is a slippery slope we are riding. There are many who get the concept of the whole but few willing to practice what is truly required to stop our descent. We contribute to worthwhile causes without realizing they can conflict with each other. How to do we reconcile the concept of feeding the masses with over population? How do we go forward with scientific advancements, particularly in the areas of health, without having to harvest natural resources to accomplish our human needs? How do we stay connected, and in effect educate the masses, via — phones, cells, internet, TV without erecting towers and launching satellites into the atmosphere? Which part of our existence and lifestyle do we stripe away to achieve what we radically need to, in what has become an increasingly short time frame? How do I keep my children as safe and as healthy as I can keep them, while considering the world as a whole, knowing all the time that they are a part of that whole, an integral part, deeply connected and reliant on a healthy planet? Which generation will so freely give up everything they have to stop themselves — us — from falling into an abyss they cannot see. What is the guarantee that if I give up everything I have for myself, my children and grandchildren that the person next to me will do the same, with the same amount of conviction and trust? How do you answer questions so complex, when you can barely get people to agree on the simplest of things?

If you look at cancer its ability to succeed in killing the "host" it resides in, is its ability to entrench itself so deeply, to intertwine, send tendrils around and through other living tissue and effect the very systems necessary for the "host" to operate effectively. If you think of cancer as cells that have forgotten that they are part of the whole and then decide to grow and excel for their own purpose without any consideration as to how they are effecting other cells and the whole then you have some idea as to how different parts of humanity effect the Earth. You also get how we have dealt with the environment, as if it was under attack by a specific cancer effecting a specific part of the whole. We treated each part separately and then don't understand why the patient eventually dies. The environmental movement has failed in this regards as much as all the cancer research and treatments have — we are more aware, more concerned, pour more money and donations into research, build hospitals (or preserve land) but we aren't saving the planet anymore than we are saving cancer patients (death rates have not change — you may live a few years more though). For cancer patients to survive they have to radically change their lifestyles long before the first cell decides to go askew but they won't — we still smoke, drink, eat terribly, suck in car fumes and vocs, etc. We can't even get people to change their lifestyles to benefit their very own existence, so what an insurmountable battle to get them to change for the their own existence as humans on this small finite planet.

And all this from an optimist.

(Really glad to see the responses that are here, I don't feel so alone in the agony of hoping that we can make changes and that there is always hope) .

I HATE YOU ALL PLANT KILLERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

May 07, 2012
7:53 AM

In my darker moments, I am convinced that collectively we will not take the actions needed to really address these problems until we have experienced some very nasty consequences — and then it will be too late to solve them. We are headed for ecological overshoot — eventually we will reach equilibrium again, but only after we have experienced the inevitable collapse. In my less dark moments, I am hopeful that collectively we will recognize the need for a paradigm shift in time to at least soften the fall.

May 07, 2012
6:01 AM

L'environnementalisme sera un échec tant et aussi longtemps que les environnementalistes ne seront pas au pouvoir. Or, le gouvernement Harper et la façon qu'ils gouvernent peut être une grande source d'inspiration pour tous les environmentalistes. Depuis qu'ils sont denenus majoritaires, ils changent les lois à leur guise et font selon le bon vouloir de leurs amis les pétrolières et chefs d'entreprises en éliminant tous les irritants qui les empêchaient de faire de bonnes affaires. Est-ce vraiment pour celà que les canadiens avaient voté pour eux? Sûrement pas… Il faut donc que les environnementalistes prennent le pouvoir afin de faire exactement comme le gouvernement Harper et fassent le ménage dans nos politiques et lois puisqu'il semble bien qu'une fois qu'on est majoritaire on peut faire à peu près ce qu'on veut. David Suzuki comme premier ministre ou ministre de l'environnement… je ne serais pas surpris qu'un sondage auprès de la population canadienne (incluant le Québec) le hisserait dans le haut des intentions de vote — le NPD pourrait être une excellente plateforme pour Monsieur Suzuki car Mulcair est un fervent défenseur de l'environnement et il l'a prouvé lorsqu'il était ministre de l'environnement au Québec de 2003 à 2006. Faut tout simplement pas se décourager!

May 05, 2012
2:28 PM

I'm sure your message was as hard for you to deliver as it was for us to hear, David. That you have kept fighting in the face of incredible odds over the years is what needs to be remembered here. And, just as I will not give up the battle in my own small corner, despite those odds, I just know that you will not, either! Thanks for the courage and wisdom you have already shown and for that which so many of us will be counting on in the time ahead. www.PathsLessTravelled.com

May 05, 2012
9:47 AM

It is a slippery slope we are riding. There are many who get the concept of the whole but few willing to practice what is truly required to stop our descent. We contribute to worthwhile causes without realizing they can conflict with each other. How to do we reconcile the concept of feeding the masses with over population? How do we go forward with scientific advancements, particularly in the areas of health, without having to harvest natural resources to accomplish our human needs? How do we stay connected, and in effect educate the masses, via — phones, cells, internet, TV without erecting towers and launching satellites into the atmosphere? Which part of our existence and lifestyle do we stripe away to achieve what we radically need to, in what has become an increasingly short time frame? How do I keep my children as safe and as healthy as I can keep them, while considering the world as a whole, knowing all the time that they are a part of that whole, an integral part, deeply connected and reliant on a healthy planet? Which generation will so freely give up everything they have to stop themselves — us — from falling into an abyss they cannot see. What is the guarantee that if I give up everything I have for myself, my children and grandchildren that the person next to me will do the same, with the same amount of conviction and trust? How do you answer questions so complex, when you can barely get people to agree on the simplest of things?

If you look at cancer its ability to succeed in killing the "host" it resides in, is its ability to entrench itself so deeply, to intertwine, send tendrils around and through other living tissue and effect the very systems necessary for the "host" to operate effectively. If you think of cancer as cells that have forgotten that they are part of the whole and then decide to grow and excel for their own purpose without any consideration as to how they are effecting other cells and the whole then you have some idea as to how different parts of humanity effect the Earth. You also get how we have dealt with the environment, as if it was under attack by a specific cancer effecting a specific part of the whole. We treated each part separately and then don't understand why the patient eventually dies. The environmental movement has failed in this regards as much as all the cancer research and treatments have — we are more aware, more concerned, pour more money and donations into research, build hospitals (or preserve land) but we aren't saving the planet anymore than we are saving cancer patients (death rates have not change — you may live a few years more though). For cancer patients to survive they have to radically change their lifestyles long before the first cell decides to go askew but they won't — we still smoke, drink, eat terribly, suck in car fumes and vocs, etc. We can't even get people to change their lifestyles to benefit their very own existence, so what an insurmountable battle to get them to change for the their own existence as humans on this small finite planet.

And all this from an optimist.

(Really glad to see the responses that are here, I don't feel so alone in the agony of hoping that we can make changes and that there is always hope)

May 05, 2012
7:08 AM

David — I read your words with sadness. I can fully understand your conclusion. The most surprising part is, that you have maintained your hope and optimism for as long as you have, despite events which would turn the strongest of us into cynics. It is the depth of ignorance I see all around me that makes me the saddest of all — kids growing up in a culture of me-me-me, being showered with more and more battery-operated, plastic toys and seemingly less and less environmental wisdom.

May 04, 2012
8:48 PM

Congratulations David Suzuki you have nailed it. Our over specialised society is unable to see the problem we have created is a holistic one and requires the "consilliance" (professor E O Wilson)of knowledge to be apreciative of the challenges that beset us as a species. Perhaps ecologists are the better prepared people to accept a new way of thinking

May 04, 2012
4:13 PM

It is not environmentalism that is failing: it is our democratic process and our resulting governments. The democratic process can be successful only with a well-informed electorate, and with a fair system of representation, both of which are lacking at present in North America. If our democratic process and governments were interested in and successful at promoting and safeguarding the best long-term interests of our society, there should be no need for an environmental movement — as it is, our existing political systems guarantee that environmentalism cannot fully succeed.

May 04, 2012
10:53 AM

It's hard to hear the discouragement in David Suzuki's words. But, as he said, we are all interconnected, and we can use the discouragement of a leader in Canadian conservation to act and work harder as private citizens. As individuals, we need to step up when those who have been advocating for us and for this planet feel weary.

It's also hard to understand how much power lies in our decisions when we come home and switch on a light, toss something in the trash and forget about it, swipe a card to fill up our shopping bags and go to the internet, TV or movie theatre and abandon our true natures. We are all living like teenagers who don't understand the consequences of their actions and living off of their billionaire parents and we are all making choices like parents who know no better than their teenagers and who do not know themselves.

I will tell you how I have come to be vegan, stop shopping, leave Starbucks when I don't have my own cup, meditate and get rid of cable and internet at home. I experienced devastating loss and my heart was wrenched open so I could both give and receive on a deeper level. We need to lead with our hearts now, let our hearts inform our mind, our choices. There is tremendous strength, resiliency and determination when we come together in heart. I love this planet, I love this life, I love animals, I love plants and I love my light and conscious and dark and unconscious brothers and sisters alike. Make your choice to SUPPORT local, green and sustainable products and services, to ALIGN with (and DONATE to if you can) groups that promote sustainability and MEDITATE to deepen your awareness and open your consciousness. Do it from a place of LOVE and no-one and nothing can get in your way.

May 04, 2012
10:02 AM

When I ponder the anthropocentric world view, I begin to think of the film The Matrix. The economy as it exists today, reminds me of the structure that provides a simulated reality of a comfortable world that exists to serve humanity whilst parasitically harvesting all our energy for it's own survival.

I don't know that a red pill exists that is strong enough, to allow all of us to see reality, let alone choose to live sensibly in it.

Right now there is an urgent need to find ways to use the paradoxes within the existing paradigm to help us all see the merit in a biocentric paradigm.

I think this can be done. There are ways to create a fulfilling, comfortable and sustainable lifestyle that is less dependent on economic interconnectedness and more dependent on interconnectedness with the biosphere and the community. The trick is to show individuals how they can improve their prospects for a better life by doing so.

In todays economy, debt rules our lives. A young family must accept a mountain of enslaving debt for their ticket to the dream world, just as the parasitic structure extracted energy in exchange for the simulation of comforts in The Matrix. This debt diminishes individual freedom by forcing us to live within the confines of a box defined by others. With debt approaching and in some cases exceeding the ability to pay, society is desperately in need of solutions to the high cost of a decent life. This is the Achilles heel of the current paradigm.

I think it's possible to provide means to a freer yet more satisfying and comfortable life by showing individuals how they can actually amplify their own productivity by using the inexpensive things we can borrow from nature without harming her, coupled with carefully selected technology the past 200 years have provided. Empowering people to amplify their own productivity this way is attractive because it can reduce their crushing longterm debt while being kind to nature.

This seems to me a feasible yet simpler path to a more sustainable future and one that would be difficult to object to on any grounds.

May 04, 2012
9:32 AM

Yes, environmentalism, as a meaningful movement, has failed and will continue to fail, unless and until those who appreciate its vital importance and those who fill the membership of the many environmentally oriented organizations around the world become one organized and focused group. The real failure, here, is the failure of environmentalists and environmental oriented entities to join in a single effort and organization that could wield direct and unprecedented political influence. If that kind of solidarity and organization does not occur, failure will continue to be the mantra of all our effort and expense to cleanse and protect the planet. And if it could and did occur, the political clout would likely be huge.

In the U. S. alone, the number of environmental organizations fighting for specific causes and competing with other such organizations for members and money, are many. The result is a muddled confusion of different efforts and limited resources applied to the lopsided fight against the corporations with their huge bankrolls, a losing bet, if ever there was one.

But, if these organizations and the individuals who support them were to unite as a single organization primarily intent on becoming a meaningful political force, the impact on the politics of the nation would be huge. Let me be clear. I'm speaking of the creation of a new political party, created and promoted by these organization and their membership. Only the raw and direct power of a political party genuinely representing environmental interests in Washington and the otjer seats of power will make a real difference, for it's not, as you know, the irresponsible corporations who are the weak link. It's our corrupt politicans who are allowing the corporations to degrade the world we depend on for our very lives. It's our respective governments, and that's where things must change.

You say that will negatively affect the tax exempt status of thes organizations? So what? The status quo with regard to environemtnal organizations is a disaster, not because they are wrongly intended but because they will never win the fight as they now exist and operate. never.

You want the U. S. or Canada or the rest of the world to respohnsibly addres climate change and/or other big environmental problems? if so, you've got to have your own policial parties right in the middle of the so called sausage making. The very clear lesson of decades of hard, honest work by environmentalists and their organizations is that to continue to depending on the existing political parties, parties that have been corrupted beyond redemption by big money, is only a recipe for that failure you speak of.

May 04, 2012
7:43 AM

It seems hopeless to me today, that we can make any impact, but I would like an easy way to share this blog with my facebook friends. May be some of them are feeling more hopeful. I wish I could offer effective help. How can we possibly get through to the powers that be that we must do something now?

May 04, 2012
6:26 AM

That was really beautiful, thank you. You're so right. We must go deeper and understand our complete unity with the environment. Only then will we truly love and care for creation, and act according to what is best for everything.

May 04, 2012
4:47 AM

David — Your article was well written and thought out. Your point about government resource departments caring less (or not) about the health and well being of the actual resources they are supposed to manage but more on their economic value hit a nerve with me — you're spot on… Our politicians and society need a wake up call. You'd think they'd have it by now with all of the world's environmental problems, but hell no! Money rules over the environment. How sad and pathetic. Anyway, David, you're a brilliant man and flying on the side of the angels — and I thank you very much for all that you do. (if only you were our Prime Minister!) :-)

May 03, 2012
10:27 PM

Dear Dr. David Suzuki,

I am horrified to think our environmental movement is a failure, but I understand your reasoning! Four decades ago, you saw the future we were making for ourselves and tried to warn us, but corporations had other plans. They made sure most of what you had to say got drowned out with information overload. You, Dr. Suzuki, were one against many. CEO's were competing for global resources and their friends in high finance were printing money! The odds were on their side!

I hope you can at least take consolation in the fact that you were right. I honestly believe that if YOU had been listened to, BC forests and fishing grounds would be self-sustaining. You tried to tell us all over and over in all kinds of clever ways that our environment was our economy and if we couldn't link the two, we would destroy both.

Here is a bit of history I found that may help explain how some men lost their path and then proceeded to lead the rest of us in the wrong direction.

I hope now you can get political!

Love and awe, Lora Bruncke

The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe

Christianity has left a legacy “that fosters sexism, racism, intolerance, and the desecration of the natural environment”. It has attempted to control, contain, and confine spirituality. As a result, western societies have alienated people from each other and from the sacred or divine. Powerful adult male experiences were favored while female and children’s needs are ignored. The Church has a history of persecuting, ridiculing, and excommunicating anyone who questions any of their doctrines. The Church took over Europe when the Holy Roman Empire collapsed. They then systematically wiped out education, technology, science, medicine, history, art and commerce and preached fear of hell and war against evil. It created an enemy, then rallied the masses to rise up against it. These targets were women, Jews, gypsies, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and even cats, which allowed rats and mice to flourish and introduce the Black Death. Once they had sacrificed millions of wise women, herbal knowledge was lost, and the Church took over as the ‘medical men’, and western medicine was born. It has taken decades for women to get into their profession and soon they will see the errors they have been taught, I hope and pray.

May 03, 2012
9:08 PM

Isn't strange that our politicians will go to great lengths to slash deficits and meet budget commitments but remain completely delusional regarding our own biological limits. Economic prosperity gained by oil exploration and use is an antiquated ideology that is no longer a long term solution.Public perception that cheap oil is attainable is fading when 7B people are all wanting it. It is not logical to continue this ridiculous idea that oil will continue to be our economic saviour. Renewable energy is our only way out of this economic and environmental crisis. The answers are right in front of us. It is irrelevant what big oil or politicians do or don't do about it. Change is coming. Nature will determine who will be on the right side of history. The question we should be asking ourselves is 'what side are we on?'

May 03, 2012
3:00 PM

Yes we need a basic mindset change. Far too many engage primarily in win/lose, competitive interactions. Some say that is just the way evolution made us, but evolution's basic pattern includes another major driver. That driver is cooperation or win/win.

If we stay with competitive as our basic behavior motivator we are in for very hard times, if we can somehow facilitate a major mindset change to make cooperation our main motivator then positive change will happen naturally.

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