A radical shift in society’s environmental priorities is long over due. As an educated citizen it is easy to see environmental quality, on a global scale, is quickly declining. Unfortunately, the modern way of life plays a huge role in the deterioration of the planet. The last 200 years emphasized economic growth and development while the environment sat on the back burner. Our current means to provide economic stability only considers the relevance of humans. Such actions are proving to be contradictory and self-destructive. If we want any shot at long-term survival on this planet, society needs to live a lifestyle that is focused on equality among the whole biotic community. A lifestyle that stresses ecological value as more important than self-interest, power, money and development. Aldo Leopold suggests this way of living through The Land Ethic “where moral focus is on ecological collectives”. Leopold considers, “a thing is right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community, it is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Palmer, 2014). That being said societies current operating system needs to be thrown in the trash.
I am not the first to consider a radical shift from anthropogenic practices and values as the most promising tactic to counteract the damage earth has undergone, or at least start. Edward Abbeys, Monkey Wrench Gang, sparked a radical environmental movement back in the 1970’s. The book focused on four men who protest industrialization with efforts such as burning billboards, putting sand in bulldozers gas tanks and disturb power lines. Radical Environmental groups such as Earths First! decided to take the monkey wrench approach, they turned fiction into reality. Earth first and other activist groups have been using ecotage (a radial environmental approach) to fight against industries ever since.
A radical change where focus is geared toward the environment would require a total social makeover, which is exactly why it stands the best chance of actually heightening US environmental priorities. Choosing a less extreme approach, such as reform, hasn’t been effective in the long run, especially if society is still functioning based off values that contradict the reform. But with an understanding and appreciation for the simple life, along with acceptance of the environments independent value (aside from the benefits we receive from it), change is likely to stick. Our values will flow into our behavior. As society puts less value into working, earning, buying and selling, production and consumption decrease, thus, less impact on the environment (Demaria, 2013).
Degrowth, originally coined as a slogan against economic growth, has turned into a social movement that opposes and aims to get rid of our market based relations, where production and consumption are highly valued (Demaria, 2013). The idea works to reduce environmental impact by demanding and producing less (which would slow or stall economic growth). Humans are essentially self-interested economic agents and if environmental priorities don’t prove to be beneficial to the self, there will be no interest. For example, those who have careers in fields that support development (like construction workers) are less likely to promote an idea such as anti-sprawl because less sprawl means less money in their pockets (Dagger, 2003). This is why many degrowth actors follow the thought that shifting values and behaviors of individuals is the only way to preserve earth (Demaria, 2013). However, values are highly subjective. You are not likely to convince a room of people to stop building cities and value the environment simply by discussing its intrinsic value. Questions of ethics, morals and what constitutes something as valuable will be raised and because humans are, generally, self-interested individuals, value is highly correlated to the benefits the individual will receive. In Environmental ethics Clare Palmer suggests a better approach of using an argument that will persuade as opposed to arguing over ethics. Show how the preservation of the environment is beneficial to them and they’ll find their own sort of anthropogenic value, which will be reinforced through their behaviors. Additionally, allowing people to come to conclusions and find value on their own will be more effective because individuals will not feel as though they are being pressured or forced to think a certain way- they are choosing to, for the benefit of themselves.
A radical increase in environmental priorities would require adjustments in all parts of society, lots of give and way less take (we’ve already maxed out on our take). Economic growth would take the back seat while society worked on restoring the environment; de-paving roads to reduce car use, downsizing huge cities and replacing them with forests, getting rid of malls and waterparks and all the unnecessary development we’ve done in the last 200 years (Dagger, 2003). We would have to be willing to abandon our lifestyles of luxury and convenience for the “simple life”. In “Island Civilization…” Roderick Nash suggests a future scenario for society (called island civilization) where humans limit their impact on earth by limiting the parts of earth we utilize. These so called “Islands” would be closed off from the natural world. Any kind of human activity that could cause damage would take place in these closed circles.
Furthermore, implementing policies such as a carbon tax would quickly force companies to switch to alternative methods of energy or at the very least cut their carbon emissions. David Weisbach, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, suggests a carbon tax is necessary for people to see the “full price” of the activities they engage in (Totty, 2012). Although these ideas might be considered more than radical to some, I believe it might just be radical enough to work. In reality, the idea is not unrealistic but would take time, effort and extensive policy change. Unfortunately, convincing people to live in such a manner would probably prove to be a little more challenging. If you tried to convince even a fourth of the members of the House to leave their high-end, capitalist driven lifestyles to live in a 100-mile radius dome, to protect the earth, you’d probably be laughed at. A less radical trade off might include giving up sprawl for high-density towns that deter automobile usage and promote walking, biking or public transit. Even trade offs that seem small or irrelevant could make huge impacts in the long wrong. Imagine if grocery stores decided to stop offering paper or plastic, the amount of plastic that would be saved in just one day is probably incredible.
The radicalness of environmental priorities depends on how much society, as a whole, is willing to compromise for the benefit of the biotic community and although, right now, it may not be necessary to do something as extreme as living Island civilization style, if we continue to ignore our destructive tendencies, radical damage will call for radical measures. With 87% of our fisheries over exploited and a third of our useable land service allocated to agriculture it is not far fetched to think the entire earth could be depleted of land space in the next 100 years (Palmer, 2014). Prevalence of a worldview that constitutes the quality of our environment and human life as more important than global growth requires widespread acceptance of less human domination (i.e development, production consumption, economic growth etc). Humans need to see beyond social, economic and political self-interest as forms of fulfillment. Society needs to quit drawing boundaries around wilderness. Humans need to stop playing God. The most important thing for mankind to understand is that nature is not a commodity that mankind should posses. Mankind belongs to nature.
Abbey, E. (1975). Monkey Wrench Gang. New York: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Dagger, R. (2003). Stopping Sprawl for the Good of All. Journal of Social Philossophy , 28-43.
Demaria, F. (2013). What is Degrowth? Environmental Values , 191-215.
McCright, A. M. (2014). Political polarization on support for government spending on environmental protection in the USA. 251-259.
Nash, F. R. (2010). Island Civilzation: A Vision for Human Occupancy of Earth in the Fourth Milleniun. Environmental History , 371-380.
Palmer, C. (2014). Environmental Ethics. Annual Review of Environmental Resources , 419-442.
Totty, M. (2012, October 5). Should there be a carbon tax?. Wall Street Journal. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444450004578004074034640026