books social justice

What can we build on the other side?

If you had to boil it down to its essentials, how would you sum up the message of environmentalism?

In their book Rewilding, Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe suggest that there are three main points to the narrative:

  1. “Nature, soils and the environment are in decline”
  2. “Human fecundity and poor stewardship are to blame”
  3. and “without action, humanity faces catastrophe”

The basics of this story can be dated to two influential books, they argue: William Vogt’s The Road to Survival, and Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet. Both were published in 1948, and later books would build on that story – from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, to the Limits to Growth report, and into the era of climate change with Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

This line of thinking is embedded and reinforced in environmental organisations, in scientific institutions, in government ministries, in education and of course in the public imagination. And it’s not wrong. Those three points are broadly correct, even if the specifics don’t always pan out the way some people think they will. But those three points aren’t comprehensive either.

One thing that’s missing from that description is power, and therefore inequality. There’s no universal human experience of environmental decline, and no universal human responsibility. Some people have inflicted this decline on others, and environmentalism – in its very name – has never captured the justice angle of the problem very well.

Another missing dimension to this story is what success looks like. The focus is on the damage and who is to blame for it, and because the destruction is so embedded in the system, there are no simple answers to that. That can be a depressing place to be, because you can be entirely convinced of the need to act, but powerless to make any kind of change happen. There is lots of talk of stopping things, sacrifices and giving things up. Entire movements emerge that are defined by what they oppose, like anti-globalization in the 90s or degrowth today. Too much of this, and environmentalists can start to be resented, like Old Testament prophets of doom.

Of course, if you actually read the Old Testament prophets, casting a positive vision was very much part of their tradition too. They saved some of their most soaring rhetoric for their descriptions of restoration and renewal. But those calls for restoration often come after the calls for change failed, and the worst happened. The warnings and the ‘alarmism’ didn’t work, and the prophesied doom came to pass. Now the role of the prophet changes, to focus on the future and what can be saved and rebuilt.

I wonder if we’re at a similar pivoting point ourselves. As I’ve written about before, it’s really too late for talk of preventing climate change, but of managing how bad it will be. The climate emergency is already unfolding. There is a new urgency and new forms of resistance. But once we know that climate change is already here, it’s also time for new stories.

What Jepson and Blythe argue is that rewilding is an example of that new kind of story, one that refocuses on restoration. This story is “characterised by taking stock and putting aside blame, awakenings, decisions to act, and reassessment, leading to the recovery of wellness.”

The starting place for rewilding is not the threat of decline, but the reality of loss. The damage is already done. Now what? What can be saved? What is still possible?

I also see these sorts of stories in Transition Towns, in the Restorative Economy, in Regenerative agriculture, in the holistic politics of the Green New Deal and its attendant ideas, in the diverse perspectives of the book All We Can Save, one of my favourites from last year.

I don’t think these stories replace the warnings of environmentalism, where so much damage can still be caused. Things can get worse, and injustice piled on injustice. But new stories also turn our attention to the more hopeful task of what lies beyond disaster, of what we can build on the other side.

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