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Thread: [Voices] Another Inconvenient Truth: The Environmental Movement is Reborn

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Richard Carson's avatar
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    [Voices] Another Inconvenient Truth: The Environmental Movement is Reborn

    Unless you have been living in a cave in Tora Bora, you have read and heard the words “sustainability” and “sustainable development” a lot in the popular media. The words are put before you in magazine articles, television interviews or conference flyers daily.

    So what is “sustainable development” and where did it come from? Did Al Gore invent it? Well, all evidence to the contrary, Al was a little late to the sustainability party. His 1992 book, “Earth in the Balance” and the subsequent Oscar winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” were only about 35 years after the fact.

    Sustainable development, unlike the more recent trends of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, was not the packaged product of a group of marketing savvy architecture and planning consultants. Sustainable development is actually an old idea repackaged for the 21st Century by none other than the United Nations. It is the ecology movement of the late 1960s and 1970s reborn with the scientific credentials and the political clout of the international community.

    Our Common Future?

    The phrase "sustainable development" dates back to The Bruntland Report (1987), also know as "Our Common Future." The Bruntland Report was published by the World Commission on Environment and Development. The March 1987 forward to the publication started by saying “’A global agenda for change’—this was what the World Commission on Environment and Development was asked to formulate. It was an urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations: to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond…” So began the international “sustainablity” movement.

    The report provided the basis for the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In late 1992, the UN established a separate division called the Commission on Sustainable Development. In 1997, the UN held a special session of the UN General Assembly to review and update these findings. This was the same year as the Kyoto Conference on Global Warming. In 2002, the Johannesburg Summit was convened to identify quantifiable targets for implementation.

    The Brundtland Report was primarily concerned with securing global equity, redistributing resources from wealthier nations towards poorer nations, while encouraging the latter’s economic growth. The report also suggested that equity, growth and environmental maintenance are simultaneously possible and that each country is capable of achieving its full economic potential while enhancing its resource base. The report also recognized that achieving this equity and sustainable growth would require both technological and social change.

    Ecology Redux – Our Common Past

    This international concern about humanity’s relationship to the natural environment is predated and foreshadowed by the ill-fated American environmental movement a couple of decades earlier. In 1962, Rachel Carson published “A Silent Spring.” This was the first major wakeup call about humanity poisoning itself and nature.

    This was followed by a never ending stream of prophets who predicted the end of the world. People like Dr. Paul Erhlich, author of the hit book “The Population Bomb” (1968) did the environmental movement no favors by overstating humanity’s demise prematurely. He told us that a billion or more of us could die from starvation by the mid-1980s.

    Greenpeace, the international environmental organization that was founded in Canada in 1971, says it “uses non-violent, creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems.” However serious Greenpeace was, their so-called confrontations with the corporate establishment seemed more like college kid antics to the mainstream public.

    Of course, the environmental prophets of doom had good company with the religious zealots of the day, who were also predicting the end of times on Biblical grounds. Remember the Church Universal and Triumphant? That was the church that was best known publicly when it set up house underground in Montana during the late 1980s and predicted the end of the world by of nuclear war.

    And which of us Baby Boomers can forget Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 book “Ecotopia?” In his book the West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington broke from the USA in 1980. This was a literary account of Ecotopians who were environmentally and socially responsible and wanted to create a stable-state ecosystem. But it was a fiction.

    On April 22, 1970 Americans celebrated the first Earth Day. Of course, the fact that this was also Lenin’s birthday was not overlooked by the Daughters of the American Revolution or then FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover who kept tab on the “subversive” environmentalists.

    In 1972, we saw the publication of the Foxfire book series. Long before anyone talked about reducing our “carbon footprint,” the Foxfire series showed that we Americans already had the knowledge to become self-sufficient. Sadely, the environmentalist movement’s message of economic and environmental self-sufficiency would wane and be supplanted by the millenium survivalists who were sure that the end of days was near and due to either the 2nd coming of Christ or because Bill Gates couldn’t count to 2000.

    The problem with the American environmental movement was that it had a hard time getting the public to take them seriously. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, it was the beginning of the end for the environmental movement politically. Even the reprieve offered by the election of Bill Clinton was routed by the Republican takeover of the Congress with the “Contract with America.” Three terms of the Bush presidencies of did nothing to revive Americans from their environmental lethargy.

    The Environmental Movement in the Balance

    So where is environmental movement today? Gaining momentum is a fair description. The international sustainability movement is here to stay and is incredibly strong.

    In American, there is an environmentalist friendly Congress recently elected and now in power. The future of the Presidency is certainly up for grabs and could result in a pro-environment President taking office in 2009. Certainly Al Gore is getting a lot of presidential attention because of his environmental positions and writings about global warming.

    But it doesn’t really matter if you like Al Gore or not, or if you believe that humans cause global warming or not. What matters is that we are beginning to understand that we all live on planet Earth. We all breathe the same air and we drink the same water that is circulated and filtered through a global cycle of rain and evaporation. It is not Earth that is in the balance. The Earth can and will continue on without us. It is you and I – and the rest of humanity -- who are in the balance.

    Richard Carson is a writer and lecturer who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in sustainable development through Washington State University's Environmental Science and Regional Planning program. A collection of his essays is on the web at http://www.carsonessays.org

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Tom R's avatar
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    Ecology "movement"

    An even earlier book "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold published in 1949 gives a well written basis for land stewardship. Everyone should read it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sand_County_Almanac
    WALSTIB

  3. #3

    OMG!! Not the UN!!

    I think less of those who would put crap like this on their website.

    Dan, it took a couple years to dump that albatross planetizen, please don't go back to those bad old days. Spicing up the rhetoric should not mean the prevasive "right wing versus the rest of the world" diatribes that are across the net.

    I love Cyburbia for the resource of planners for planners. Baseless attacks are not the same as criticism, and planners do not need to have this pushed in our faces from such a valuable site. I'm sure there are lots of industry based astro turf that will be happy to push this as being other than what it is, a hollow, baseless, slap at common sence principles. Attention whores are easily found elsewhere, maybe you can link to them under an appropriate heading, not on the front page.
    In my life, I have met men both good, and evil. I defend my self against them all...

  4. #4
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Linden Smith View post
    I think less of those who would put crap like this on their website.

    Dan, it took a couple years to dump that albatross planetizen, please don't go back to those bad old days. Spicing up the rhetoric should not mean the prevasive "right wing versus the rest of the world" diatribes that are across the net.

    I love Cyburbia for the resource of planners for planners. Baseless attacks are not the same as criticism, and planners do not need to have this pushed in our faces from such a valuable site. I'm sure there are lots of industry based astro turf that will be happy to push this as being other than what it is, a hollow, baseless, slap at common sence principles. Attention whores are easily found elsewhere, maybe you can link to them under an appropriate heading, not on the front page.
    I think you're being a bit harsh but I sympathize with your distain for the "us vs. them" mentality that has marked the environmental movement for the past 50 years and lead it into irrelevance at points IMO. Let's hope that the new environmentalism will help us build a bigger tent and put an end to the finger-pointing and unproductive rhetoric.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Tom R's avatar
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    reaction

    Quote Originally posted by Linden Smith View post
    I think less of those who would put crap like this on their website.

    Dan, it took a couple years to dump that albatross planetizen, please don't go back to those bad old days. Spicing up the rhetoric should not mean the prevasive "right wing versus the rest of the world" diatribes that are across the net.

    I'm sure there are lots of industry based astro turf that will be happy to push this as being other than what it is, a hollow, baseless, slap at common sence principles. Attention whores are easily found elsewhere, maybe you can link to them under an appropriate heading, not on the front page.
    I didn't agree with everything that Mr. Carson said, but I think you have way over reacted. The environmental "movement" should not be and is not above criticism. I can see putting it on a separate page, but calling someone an "attention whore" is lowering yourself way below being a rational critic.
    WALSTIB

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    a wider view, perhaps...?

    I notice that Richard's account is very USA-centric. Apart from naming Bruntland (a Norwegian) the UN (which is headquartered in the US) and Greenpeace (founded in neighboring Canada), he doesn't say much about what has happened in the rest of the world in terms of environmental protection and sustainable development. Even in the US there were events that were very important threads that should be woven into the story of sustainability thinking...not the least of which was the whole Environmental Impact Assessment development. This gave us the tools to assess long term damage by individual large scale projects, not only to the environment but to human health and resource depletion.

    Richard doesn't mention the Stockholm conference in 1972 which was the first big international conference on the environment. The Rio Conference was in a sense a 20 year report back on progress (of which there was some, but not enough). In Sweden and other European countries the environmental movement's history would have to include the debate on nuclear power and the referendum to shut down all Sweden's nuclear power plants. Today in an interesting twist on that Sweden is now trying to address the CO2 problem without reinstating its nuclear reactors. This is definitely giving an impetus to renewable energy technology and better energy efficiency.

    Europe has seen a very politically active set of "Green Parties" which if nothing else have forced the traditional parties to establish credible environmental platforms. They've had the added impact of shaking up the public into rethinking the way political parties run.

    China, that usually gets chastised for its polluting development is in the forefront now of creating eco-friendly cities. I meet sustainability thinking almost everywhere I work - Tanzania, Philippines, Egypt and elsewhere.

    So I was surprised at the title "environmental movement reborn" - I wasn't aware that it had died.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    wow, i read Carson's essay in a completely different vein. Look at the last para. It embraces the need to be more vigilant and aware of our place and our impacts.

    the first post in the thread was over the top.

    Carson is provacative; it makes him fun to read.

    The fact is that it is difficult to deny that there is a new momentum for sustainable practice, conservation, et al. today.

    Carson's last point is the best: who cares why!

    And he's right, let's keep partisanship out of this new way of thinking and begin to simple live better--more efficient, using less energy, less goods.

    I am drinking the coolaid on simply using less.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Richard Carson's avatar
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    Author's response

    Where to start? I don't understand how a reasonable person can categorize my essay as one of those "prevasive (sp.) 'right wing versus the rest of the world' diatribes." Actually, the point of the essay is fairly liberal in intent. The environmental movement lost momentum nationally and has regained it internationally. Some would say that is a down right communist point-of-view. Calling me one of those "attention whores" is almost unworthy of comment. I have been called a contrarian, a demagogue and a devil's advocate at times. But I would think most people would take offense at such unwarranted name calling. Saying my essay "is, a hollow, baseless, slap at common sence (sp.) principles" is just incorrect. It is a well-reasoned opinion that the reader is free to agree or not agree with.

    My main concern, in terms of present day environmental issues, is that they are being politicized by the left and the right. For example, I think everyone should first agree that global warming is a reality. That is a reasonable beginning. What causes it and how to remedy it is really a secondary question that we can agree or disagree on. I think that the idea of "sustainable development" is also an idea we can all agree on. The World Commission report essentially said that we should leave our children a better world than the one we inherited. Again, how we do that is a secondary question to debate.

    I agree, that the essay is very "USA-centric" and the fact is that the environmental movement fell on hard times here. However, my point was that it has done very well internationally. I did list all of the above mentioned conferences in an earlier draft, but it just made for a longer essay and added little to the central premise. I also have some problems with the UN approach to "sustainable development." They recently appointed the Zimbabwe minister of the environment and tourism to head the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. As the Economist pointed out, the UN "could think of no better candidate than one from a country whose agriculture has been largely destroyed by its government's catastrophic policies." (http://www.economist.com/world/afric...ory_id=9196256).

    Finally, I don’t write for Planetizen these days. In recent years, I have written for national and international magazines like Urban Land, Architecture, Archis, Planum and Planning.
    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey, writer, essayist, novelist (1927-1989)

  9. #9
    Cyburbian gicarto's avatar
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    I applaud Mr. Carson's observations. We have taken an issue that is so important (the human environment) and added so much politics to it that many people don't even believe that the environment is in trouble and accuse the environmentalist movement of being communist. I have often wondered if the claims about global warming are a hoax. I think that the one thing that the environmentalists have forgotten is that you cannot make change unless it is incremental and can be rationally explained to the doubting public. To me, there is no doubt that we are in a phase of global warming but the environmentalists have so poisoned the issue to the point that half of the world thinks that it is just a political ploy. I think it is time that environmentalism to sell itself as an all encompassing art of providing options to the people that indirectly improve the landscape. I will talk about this more after I have found some sources to back me up.
    Trying to get my grubby hands on as much stimulus money as I can.:D

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    secondary issues

    Richard, you are absolutely right to suggest we should and can agree on the fact of global warming. We may or may not have similar views on the cause(s).

    However, the "secondary" issues are very much the ones some people in the REAL world are having to deal with NOW. That is "what to do about it." Last year an entire community had to leave its home island because of sea level rise. Other countries, such as Tuvalu, Maldives, and more are facing this same thing NOW NOW NOW. For them it is not a secondary issue. And it is precisely because behavioural changes will take a long time to have environmental impacts of significance that we have to start right away.

    I also have my differences with others on "sustainability" and the rest, but people who are serious about the importance of the fundamental principle are in fact working together to do something in spite of their differences.

    And Gicarto, it is not just the environmentalists who "have so poisoned the issue." It only becomes a significant political ploy when two sides of the political spectrum pay attention and start the verbal war. That is, it takes a minimum of two to fight. And my memory is that it was the environmentalists who raised the alarm, the oil and coal interests that pooh-poohed it. It reminds me of the tobacco interests "proving" that smoking had no link whatsoever to lung cancer or any other disease.

    And the environmentalists are very much in the business of suggesting options and countermeasures...even ones that make money.
    Last edited by Monamogolo; 05 Apr 2008 at 5:56 PM. Reason: forgot my final point! :-)

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