Environmentalism and Social Revolution

The goal of the environmental movement, however, has always been broader than mere legislation. Going back at least to the kind of thoughts expressed in Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, environmentalism has sought to change public attitudes about man's place in nature. Like other serious social movements, environmentalism aims to found new modes of thinking and new orders of social life to bring about a different world. Its success in doing so can be measured by the simple example of trash. In the late 1960s, the public message was "stop littering." By the 1990s, the ubiquitous public message became "recycle."

To raise the example of recycling, however, is to evoke the most searching questions about the nature and extent of social transformation that the environmental ethic is advancing. While recycling can be viewed as a sign of great triumph—people who once threw bottles and paper out their car window now take great care to recycle them—some environmentalists view recycling as a sign of failure, because the "culture of consumption" has remained fundamentally unchanged. And for some kinds of environmental thought, nothing short of a wholesale transformation of the economic and social systems of the world will suffice.

It is not only production processes that must be changed, but democratic political institutions. Martin Lewis, professor of environmental studies at Duke University, describes the "central proposition" of radical environmentalism as the view "that human society, as it is now constituted, is utterly unsustainable and must be reconstructed according to an entirely different socioeconomic logic . . . . Most importantly, eco-radicals inform us that economic growth must simply come to an end."3

The kind of thinking that looks beyond real problems to the need for revolutionary, "holistic" new social structures represents not environmentalism, but utopianism. This kind of utopianism is the greatest hindrance to serious environmentalism because it breeds an unrealistic, if not erroneous, understanding of how the world works and an intolerance that paves the way for political coercion.

Some environmentalists have been open and explicit about their support for greater political control of people. The Ecologist magazine's Blueprint for Survival, a 1972 manifesto about a simpler, decentralized form of social organization, forthrightly declares that "great restraint" among the people is required to make the "long transition" to this better world: "Legislation and the operations of police forces and the courts will be necessary to reinforce this restraint."4 (Emphasis added.) In Ecology and Socialism, British author Martin Ryle wrote, "If one is honest, however, about the objectives which an ecologically enlightened society would set for itself, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the state, as the agent of the collective will, would have to take an active law-making and enforcing role in imposing a range of environmental and resource constraints."5

To be sure, most of the prominent environmental organizations in the United States do not advocate this kind of thoroughgoing utopianism. Yet if so-called "mainstream" environmentalism eschews coercive utopianism and revolutionary social intentions, it nonetheless tends to be radically disaffected with the way the world works and harbors a latent romanticism about the ideal form of socio-economic organization for humankind. At its heart, even so-called "mainstream" environmentalism shares with radicals the fundamental doubt that economic growth and technological advance are good things. This, in turn, leads the environmental movement to be pessimistic in its outlook. Author Mark Dowie, for example, argues that environmentalists "have been unable to produce a significant improvement in the country's environmental health," even though the facts say otherwise.6

The fundamental doubt about progress and economic growth causes environmentalism to reject markets and economic ways of thinking. David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth and other green activist groups, has said that "economics is a form of brain damage," which makes a rational discussion difficult. While Jeremy Seabrook, author of The Myth of the Market: Promises and Illusions, wrote that, "If it had been the purpose of human activity on earth to bring the planet to the edge of ruin, no more efficient mechanism could have been invented than the market economy."7 Seabrook's comment is remarkable in light of the much more severe environmental devastation found in the socialist command economies of Russia and eastern Europe. Environmental improvement did not begin until these nations embraced market economies after 1990.

Professor Martin Lewis, who considers himself a left-leaning environmentalist, provides a note of realism about this anti-market viewpoint: "[I]n seeking to dismantle modern civilization [the environmental movement] has the potential to destroy the very foundations on which a new and ecologically sane economic order must be built." The view that economic growth and technological progress are bad things, Lewis believes, "should be more deeply challenged as a threat to nature itself . . . . 'Primal' economies have rarely been as harmonized with nature as they are depicted; many have actually been highly destructive." To the contrary, Lewis concludes, "capitalism, despite its social flaws, presents the only economic system resilient and efficient enough to see the development of a more benign human presence on the earth."8

The pessimism that often accompanies environmentalism is ill-suited for both the naturally optimistic American character and the realities of the modern world, where economic growth and progress are the hope, and not the threat, of the future. The lesson of the past century has been that environmental progress depends on economic and technological progress, which are best produced by dynamic markets. Environmental progress in the twenty-first century will build upon this foundation.