Environmentalism has been with us for a century and the world would be a poorer place without the efforts of the vocal and active minority who are its practitioners. Great swathes of land have been saved from the chainsaw and the plough, pollutants are fewer, and planning for development is now tempered by the need to consider more than just profit.
At the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago there were perhaps 1 million Homo sapiens. Back then the Earth must have seemed vast, boundless and bountiful.
With so few people there would always be the next forested valley to forage into, the next herd of game to hunt and the next pristine glacial lake to fish.
Our numbers began to increase once we figured out how to grow our own food. More babies survived to adulthood and adults lived longer simply because of improved nutrition. Then our numbers exploded once we discovered abundant energy from the burning of fossil fuels. And for a long time during these agricultural and industrial revolutions we kept that boundless and bountiful feeling about the world we live in. We went on to grow food everywhere and increase in numbers building cities and farming infrastructure as we went.
Environmentalism was the “hey, hold on a minute” call that we needed to have.
A few vocal individuals reaslised that natural resource renewal was compromised by the impact of our growing numbers on organisms and habitats, that habitats and species were being lost, and even that our actions would have a collective effect on climate. Environmentalism pointed out the very real limits to this growth and the need to prevent some of the damage it causes.
This notion that the earth that sustains us is being over-exploited and that something active needs to be done about it found an early home in the politics of Europe in the 1970’s, especially in Germany where environmental advocacy gave birth to the greens.
Politics is a risky nursery for any new idea and environmentalism grew from a perception that the environment is important into a passionate belief that the earth is under threat from human interventions. A new breed of environmentalist emerged who would speak out, change their lifestyles, and do whatever it took to slow or halt the exploitation of natural resources.
Still in the minority, it was and still is a tough stance.
Only what is now the very numerous majority are not easily shaken from our comfort. We don’t call it a comfort zone for nothing and we don’t respond well to doom and gloom merchants, especially when the message requires us to give up some of that bountiful comfort. Instead we react with indignation, annoyance or disregard; ignoring any suggestion that our world is limited or under threat from the consequences of human wealth creation.
So, on we go, growing in number and well-being, chewing up more and more resources and space. Apart from concessions to the whales, some nature reserves and pollution control, we have essentially ignored environmentalism in favour of economic growth.
We have conceded a few nature reserves and attempts to save a handful of rare species and then ignored environmentalism as an essential counterbalance to resource exploitation, a crucial check on our profligacy.
So why is environmentalism a real environmental issue?
The reason is the attraction of environmentalism. It gathers people interested in a stoush and the minority voice. There has to be a cause to fight for and the process falters when the opponent concedes or even begins to agree with you. Environmentalism has become about controversy and confrontation and this is the problem. Conflict has become the agenda, more important perhaps than the issue of sustainable environments.
The real environmental issue is that environmentalism is not a positive voice.
It is basically against the activity that has delivered health and well being to billions. This can be a successful defensive tactic when the situation is dire. But is makes for very poor offense. Humans are not galvanised into action by doom and gloom.
Environmental advocacy needs a big slurp of positivity. It is important to start talking up the innate resilience and regenerative abilities of nature. The environment can heal from human resource exploitation ravage, there can be a future of sustainable production.
All it takes is for us to realize that this is possible.