activism books environment

Post-green environmentalism

This week I’ve been reading The God Species, Mark Lynas‘ new book. It explores the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’, and how we manage the earth we find ourselves in charge of as a species. It’s also a broadside at the environmental movement.

Every other page seems to take a pot-shot at the greens, accusing them of hypocrisy, a selective approach to science, moralising, and of failing to pick their battles, especially on nuclear power and offsetting. I agree with Lynas on many of his points, but it makes for uncomfortable reading all the same. This is an author who comes across as disillusioned, frustrated.

He’s not the first. James Lovelock’s later books are full of bitter “I told you so” statements. Books like Alistair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water or Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species turn from climate science into reflections on what it is to be human, on hubris and denial and self destruction. Paul Kingsnorth has written extensively about his growing disillusionment with environmentalism, directing his energy into the Dark Mountain project. George Monbiot remains a hugely influential environmental writer despite regularly rebuking his fellows.

Lynas’ own experience is helpful. In the book, he explains how he used to take direct action in his younger days, tearing up GM crops and railing against nuclear power. As recently as 2008, he was writing against GM in the national papers. The God Species reads like a confession at times, as Lynas explains why he was wrong. He says more in an article in the Guardian this week, which explores the whole idea of an environmental movement losing its way. He describes himself as “a recovering activist”, and says “the green movement in itself is dying – I’m an environmentalist but not a green”.

It’s a fair distinction, and one I can sympathise with. I can’t stand the tie-dye wackiness that dooms so much of the green movement to be forever on the fringes. I object to the selective attention to science, or the way that environmentalists who attempt to engage with big business are seen as sell-outs. I’m aware of my idealist tendencies, but I recognise the need for more realistic solutions and less utopianism. The association of environmental questions with the political left is deeply unhelpful, especially since the categories of left and right are arcane and irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.

Is something happening in the environmental movement? I hope so. There are plenty of reasons for it to be in crisis. Many green issues have gone mainstream, in theory at least, and that leaves the radical elements with nowhere to go. Climate change peaked as a public concern in 2009, the failure of Copenhagen burying media interest entirely, especially in the US. The financial crisis refocused everyone on the economy.

The environment is changing, so it’s hardly surprising that advocates for the environment need to change too. The movement was born as a warning. While there have been plenty of victories along the way, overall the warning has fallen on deaf ears. As I wrote recently, our way of life is crossing from unsustainable to unsustained, limits to growth are being breached. It may be too late to stop irreversible and disastrous climate change.

How will earth advocacy change? I’m not sure. I can only speak for myself, and for me it’s a matter of what kind of a world I want to help build. What works? Does it work for the poorest and most marginalised? What will lead to greater freedom and human flourishing? Is the diversity and beauty of the earth respected? Who or what is being served by any given system or project? What is the right thing to do?


  1. Thanks Jeremy – as always, you’ve given a lot of food for thought. I can understand Mark’s frustrations as I’ve been asking myself the same questions.

    I think that I always come back to that same nutshell: what kind of world do I want to leave behind?

  2. That’s the stuff I and most of the ‘greens’ I know have been thinking about for years. The only thing new in what you write is the slagging off of the very people who share your concerns. Actually, that’s not very new either lol.

    1. sorry if I come across as slagging anyone off, that’s not my intention. The issues are too vital to forget who our friends are. I think part of the problem is that there’s a whole culture around green issues. It’s a vibrant and creative one, but the very distinctiveness of it works against us. I think it’s easy for politicians or ordinary citizens to think “oh, it’s them again”, and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. I don’t see anything wrong with a movement containing differing views (i.e. pro and anti-nuclear “greens”) and reject any theory that requires strict categorisation of people into groups in order to define their activities.

    However I also agree with much of what you say about certain (often very vocal/active) pockets of people who wilfully ignore facts available to them. This happens on both sides and I would rather stand next to the climate doom-mongers than the climate deniers, as I have more in common with them,even if I disagree with their ball-of-fire-end-of-world vision.

    Something fairly dramatic occurred to me yesterday, during a discussion with an MSc student from Edinburgh University, which is that our attempts to change peoples’ behaviour based on the threats to future humanity (conflict, resource depletion, food scarcity etc) as a result of climate change must be placed in the context of a world where people already die of hunger,disease and poverty and lack access to basic necessities for life. As such, grass roots campaiging on issues that will mainly affect people in the future does feel a bit like pissing into the wind. What on earth does the message have to be to create change in people who already ignore (albeit unknowingly) disasters on their doorstep?

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