Reconstructing Environmentalism

The following blog post  was written by SEE-U Agro/Food student, Sam Purcell. Sam expresses the need for a new approach to environmental advocacy that is collaborative rather than combative.


Paris 2015 – COP 21. Source: Le Centre d’Information sur L’Eau (

With the perpetually worsening impacts of climate change, the continual degradation of biodiversity, the persistent depletion of natural resources, and the myriad of issues facing our planet, the struggle for environmental sustainability has never been more urgent. Developing a system in which environmental advocates can effectively monitor and manage the actions of governments, big businesses, and individuals is vital to protecting the globe’s long-term health. Our class discussed this on our visit to a Wingdale farm during a lecture by Evan Van Hook, who has worked in the field of sustainability in both the public and private sectors for decades. His main focus was the methodology utilized by the environmental movement. Van Hook asserted that since the inception of environmentalism, the principle strategy that its proponents have employed has been adversarial in nature. By this he means that environmentalists’ chief objectives have been uncovering activities detrimental to the planet and holding those in charge of such endeavors accountable. This technique is demonstrated by the way the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) operates, typically through monetary fines for those failing to comply with their regulations.

Van Hook contends, citing the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) Report produced jointly by Yale University and Columbia University, that this approach of discovering “bad actors” and penalizing or publicly shaming them has failed to protect the globe’s environment or to improve sustainability. This claim is substantiated by the EPI 2016 Report, which states that, although trends show progress has been made in regards to some environmental issues, others concerns “…have worsened considerably.” Furthermore, these positive trends often “…are overshadowed by other, more troubling findings.” For instance, despite having more marine habitats protected globally than ever before, fish stocks are in constant decline. The report goes on to detail many other growing environmental problems including climate change, air pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. To Van Hook, continuing a practice that has proven unsuccessful is the quintessence of foolishness.

Therefore, Van Hook argues for a major shift in the manner environmentalists function in the larger picture. Instead of continuing this adversarial and combative approach, he calls for a non-adversarial and collaborative method. Van Hook concludes that the best environmental outcomes can be achieved if environmental advocates work with corporations and governments, instead of working against them. Instead of the EPA fining businesses that exceed acceptable levels of pollutants, the agency should work with businesses to find the best strategies to bring them in compliance with regulations. Dorothea Baur and Hans Peter Schmitz call for this type of cooperation across the spectrum of corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in a 2011 article in the Journal of Business Ethics. They argue, “…NGOs can play an important role in providing corporations with needed information and policy options that contribute not only to the solution of a perceived environmental or social problem but also to the long-term sustainability and expansion of their business.” Furthermore, this reasoning is the basis for the rise of the “Transition Movement” (developed in the UK around 2006), which focuses on grassroots, community-based responses to challenges like oil use and climate change. As described in a 2013 article by Andrea Felicetti, “Transitions should…refrain from confrontational attitudes and maintain a non-adversarial and inclusive approach.” Finally, this concept of non-adversarial collaboration is emerging in the global environmental community. This is particularly true in international agreements regarding climate change, such as the Paris Agreement produced at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in December, 2015. This agreement sets aggressive targets on emissions and global temperature rise. However, it is also “…non-adversarial and non-punitive…” in nature, calling on developed nations to collaborate with less developed nations and other stakeholders to achieve targeted emission levels.

Overall, I agree that the failure of the environmental movement to address major issues suggests that a new approach is necessary. Continuing the same ineffective practices will not improve results, but only acerbate a problem that is time sensitive. However, it could be asserted that these adversarial and punitive methods serve as deterrents to those who would further degrade our planet. Ultimately, I believe that these “bad actors”, such as those involved in Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, do not take these actions because they are not concerned with punitive measures, but because of the arrogance of believing they will not be exposed. Perhaps this shift from an adversarial approach to a more cooperative one will prove to be efficacious. Certainly new methods must be attempted because continuing the same failed practices is simply accepting defeat.

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