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Fourth wave environmentalism: We wrecked the planet, now we have to live with it

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Benjamin Sibelman
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Living Worlds Productions

Fourth wave environmentalism: We wrecked the planet, now we have to live with it

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Overview of first, second, and third wave environmentalism in America
WaveFirstSecondThird
Approx. date of originMid-19th century1960sWithin the past decade
GoalsProtect wild lands from (excessive) developmentStop industrial pollution and species extinctionsSolve the climate crisis by building a new green economy
Best-known figure(s)Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden; John Muir, nature writer and founder of the Sierra ClubRachel Carson, author of Silent SpringAl Gore, Nobel laureate and star of An Inconvenient Truth; Van Jones, founder of Green For All and author of The Green Collar Economy
Notable achievementsThe national park system, National Wildlife Refuges, Wilderness ActThe Clean Air and Water Acts, Endangered Species Act, and founding of the EPAMoving the ideas of "going green," and to a lesser extent "green jobs," into the mainstream

The phenomenon I've decided to call fourth wave environmentalism didn't begin with Bill McKibben, but his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet nicely sums up its goals and their justification. It's strange to discover that he was already working on this book during the run-up to the 350.org International Day of Climate Action, for which he was the lead organizer. 350 Day's premise was based on Dr. James Hansen's assertion that "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, . . . CO2 will need to be reduced . . . to at most 350 ppm." But McKibben's book assembles an impressive array of statistics to show that the planet Hansen is talking about no longer exists, that the ten-thousand-year-long climatic "sweet spot" we've inhabited is already gone and probably never coming back. On page 184, McKibben writes that getting down to 350 "is what we must do to stabilize the planet even at its current state of disruption"--that is, the world of smaller icecaps, acidified oceans, more and bigger droughts, floods, and wildfires, etc, etc.

The first three waves of environmentalism never came close to this kind of statement. They generally assumed not only that the world as we know it was still around, but that we should focus so squarely on preserving it that failure should be unthinkable. After all, to plan for how to survive and thrive after such a failure would seem to take away some of the urgency of our discourse. Most previous pictures of a world where environmentalism fails have been simplistic apocalypse scenarios where civilization collapses into chaos and almost everyone dies, painted solely for the purpose of emphasizing that "failure is not an option."

But that doesn't mean no one has been planning for at least a partial failure. The Transition movement is all about adapting to both global warming and the end of economic growth powered by cheap energy. Many of the Permaculture principles they're based on can also be seen in the new localism and voluntary simplicity movements, which include Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Cities, etc. All of these groups and movements fall under my definition of fourth wave environmentalism.

The fourth wave is opposed to the third wave's economic mainstreaming, asserting that due to peak oil and the immense cost of coping with a newly chaotic world, economic growth will end soon regardless of how "green" the economy gets. On page 52 of Eaarth, McKibben tries to maintain some ties to third-wave idealism: "I support a green Manhattan Project, an ecological New Deal, a clean-tech Apollo mission. If I had money, I'd give it to Al Gore to invest in start-ups." But, he is forced to conclude, "it's not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don't think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion . . . We no longer possess the margin we'd require for another huge leap forward, certainly not enough to preserve the planet we used to live on."

Instead, the fourth wave proposes a new system of small, stable economies with some degree of local self-sufficiency, although "it will be a while before there's a village computer maker or a local locomotive manufacturer" in most places (p. 141), and big governments will still help in "spreading risk across a continent: New Orleans couldn't have repaired itself" after Hurricane Katrina, the kind of disaster that will soon be commonplace (p. 144). Communities will feed themselves with local organic farms that replace oil-based inputs with compost and manpower, while growing many different plants in every field for resilience to extreme weather. Power grids will be regional, not national, and most communities will have small local generators (wind, solar, hydro, biomass, etc) for resilience to grid power outages.

Of course, there are a chorus of standard objections to the idea of eliminating growth and reversing globalization. The resulting society would be "stagnant and hierarchical and no fun to live in," as bdunbar summarized in a reply to this entry. McKibben's answer to this is simply to keep the Internet running. He argues that this would a) help maintain an open society that resists local tendencies to stratify, eliminate women's rights, etc, b) provide lots of virtual fun to offset the boredom of small-town life, and c) serve other useful purposes like helping people learn farming skills. (This suggests an interesting sci-fi scenario: what if both the Permaculture people and their arch-nemeses, the Singularitarians, turn out to be right? A superhuman AI emerging in the Internet on a world locked in permanent climate crisis would have an interesting time of it.)

I'm not sure how I feel about all this myself. McKibben leaves no room for space travel in his new world, dismissing the idea that it will remain a national project in future America: "Theoretically we've committed to sending a man to Mars, but I know very few people who either believe we will or care" (p. 120). But what if he's wrong about how bad things will get? Most crucially, what if he's not pessimistic enough? Space colonization is worthwhile partly because it provides a means of persistence for both societies and ecosystems even if Earth plunges into a true apocalypse scenario. Even in the face of so many other demands on our perhaps-soon-to-be-shrinking economy, that plan for survival should not be lightly abandoned.
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