Once there, inside the system, we were compelled to a certain tameness by the need to succeed. As Washington became more conservative, mainstream environmentalists became more cautious. In sum, we opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek transformation of the system itself. We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek transformation of the system itself. The central precept has been that the current system can be made to work for the environment. America has now run a forty-six-year experiment testing whether this is true. The results are now in, and we have learned dissertation that our system of political economy does not work well, to put it mildly, when it comes to the environment. Todays environmentalism is fine as far as it goes. The problem has been the absence of huge, complementary investments of time, energy, and money in other, deeper approaches to change.
Their overall point was that we should strike at the hippie root causes of environmental decline. They saw that doing so would require us to seek fundamental changes in our prevailing system of political economy—to proceed down the path of system change. They saw that the problem was the system. Most of us ignored these calls for systemic change. In particular, we should have revisited these deeper issues when our momentum stalled after 1980, especially in light of the anti-environmentalism of the reagan years. What happened instead was that the 1970s successes locked us into patterns of environmental action that have since proved no match for the system were up against. New laws created major opportunities to make large environmental gains. But in pursuing these changes, we were drawn ever more completely inside the dc beltway.
As she explains: Since the 1970s, conservative activists have disseminated a compelling antiregulatory storyline to counter the environmentalist narrative, mobilized grassroots opposition to environmental regulations, and undertaken sophisticated legal challenges to the basis for and implementation of environmental laws. Over time, these activities have imparted legitimacy to a new antiregulatory rhetoric, one that emphasizes distrust of the federal bureaucracy, admiration for unfettered private property rights and markets, skepticism about science, and disdain for environmental advocates. By employing arguments rooted in this formula, conservatives have been instrumental in blocking efforts to pass major new environmental legislation or increase the stringency of existing laws. A constantly building opposition is, to my way of thinking, the obvious, immediate reason for our mounting environmental failure. But this exercise of power and control is, as I will discuss, merely the surface political manifestation of deeper systemic imperatives. Here is the biggest mistake i believe we environmentalists made. As federal environmental laws and programs burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, we eagerly pursued the important goals and avenues those laws opened. There, the path to success was clear. But in doing so we left by the wayside the more difficult and deeper challenges highlighted by leading environmental thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s—Barry commoner, paul Ehrlich, donella meadows, and others.
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To chronicle the much larger part, it is useful to begin with Frederick buell and his valuable book, from Apocalypse to way of Life. He writes: Something happened to strip the environmental cause of what seemed in the 1970s to be its self-evident reaction to the decade of crisis, a strong and enormously successful anti-environmental disinformation industry sprang. It was so successful that it helped midwife a new phase in the history of us environmental politics, one in which report an abundance of environmental concern was nearly blocked by an equal abundance of anti-environmental contestation. Nowhere has this disinformation campaign been more important—and successful—than with climate change, all brilliantly documented in naomi Oreskes and Erik conways book, merchants of doubt. The disinformation industry that buell notes was part of a larger picture of opposition.
That reaction can perhaps be dated from Lewis Powells famous 1971 memorandum to the us chamber of Commerce, in which he urges business to fight back against environmental and other regulations. Powell, then a corporate attorney who would become a supreme court justice, urged corporations to get more involved in policy and politics. Since then, well-funded forces of resistance and opposition have arisen. Especially since reagan became president, virtually every step forward has been hard fought. It is not prose just environmental protection that has been forcefully attacked but essentially all progressive causes, even the basic idea of government action in the interests of the people as a whole. The story of the conservative assault on environmental protections has now been well told in Judith layzers important 2012 book, open for Business.
Something is terribly wrong. Clearly more of the same cannot be the answer. Weve had decades of more of the same. Here we are, forty-six years after the burst of energy and hope at the first Earth day, headed toward the very planetary conditions we set out to prevent. Indeed, all we have to do—to destroy the planets climate, impoverish its biota, and poison its people—is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to degrade ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century wont be fit to live.
But human activities are not holding at current levels—they are accelerating, dramatically. It took all of human history to grow the 7 trillion world economy of 1950. Now, we grow by that amount in a decade. The potential for much larger and continuing environmental losses is very real. We american environmentalists must take some responsibility for what has happened. In particular, we did not take stock and adjust to the dangerous new conditions ushered in by the reagan revolution of 1980. As I will discuss, that was a moment to reassess and reboot. But our part of the blame is decidedly the lesser part.
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In some ways that is true, but the reality is that our domestic environmental essay challenges are far from met. Half of the fresh water bodies in the us still do not meet the goal of fishable and swimmable set for 19 Clean Water Act. And about half of Americans suffer from unhealthy levels of air pollutants. We have protected an area the size of California as designated wilderness, but since 1982 we have lost open space fully the size of Washington state to development—urban and industrial sprawl—much of it prime agricultural land. Thirty percent of us plants and 18 percent of our animals are now threatened with extinction. And these estimates do not take into account the full impacts of likely climate change. Americas record of climate inaction must rank as the greatest dereliction of civic responsibility in the history of the republic.
All of us who have bear been part of the environmental movement in the United States must now face up to a deeply troubling paradox: Our environmental organizations have grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill. The prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet. Climate change is coming at us very hard. A great tragedy is now likely. Around the world, we are losing biodiversity, forests, fisheries, and agricultural soils at frightening rates. Fresh water shortages multiply. Toxics accumulate in ecosystems, and. But those are global-scale issues, some say; we have done better here at home.
new system of political economy. I will present the environmental one. Almost a half-century has flown by since a group of us launched the natural Resources Defense council (nrdc). Over that period, nrdc and other mainstream us environmental groups have racked up more victories and accomplishments than one can count. I shudder to think what our world would be like had they not. A specter is haunting American environmentalism—the specter of failure. Yet, despite those accomplishments, a specter is haunting American environmentalism—the specter of failure.
Its watchword is caring—caring for each other, for the natural world, and for the future. I will argue that promoting the transition to such a new political economy should be the central task of a new environmentalism. To guide us, we desperately need a new American Dream—a dream of an America where the pursuit of happiness is sought not in more getting and spending but in the growth of human solidarity, devoted friendship, and meaningful accomplishment; where the average person is empowered. These traditions do not always prevail today, but they are not dead. They await us, and indeed they are currently being awakened across America. More than a little utopian, some may be thinking. Yes, but a utopian vision is precisely what todays situation requires. Things homework are much too bad for pessimism, it has been noted.
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This paper by gus Speth, published alongside three others, is one of many proposals for a systemic alternative we have published or will be publishing here at the next System Project. You can read interests it below, or download the pdf. We have commissioned these papers in order to facilitate an informed and comprehensive discussion of new systems, and as part of this effort we have also created a comparative framework which provides a basis for evaluating system proposals according to a common set of criteria. The Environmentalists Tale, in his 1976 book, the joyless Economy, tibor Scitovsky saw environmental neglect and other problems as results of a very American pattern of putting the earning of money ahead of the enjoyment of life. Four decades later, his observation remains valid. In this essay, i will explore the transition from a joyless Economy to a joyful one. In the joyful Economy, the goal of economic life is to sustain, nourish, and restore human and natural communities, so that the material and non-material blessings of life are available to all. It is a new system of political economy that gives true and honest priority not to profit, production, and power but rather to people, place, and planet.