Time for a New Environmentalism

Erik Assadourian | February 4, 2014 | Leave a Comment

time for a new environmentalism

Environmentalists can learn a lot from the successes of missionary religious movements

Since the early years of the environmental movement, some voices within the movement have pointed out that fighting power plants, dams, deforestation, mining, and roads is a game of defense, one that can never be won. As the late environmentalist Peter Berg used to say, such fights are “like running a battlefield aid station in a war against a killing machine that operates just beyond reach, and that shifts its ground after each seeming defeat.” In the 30 years since Berg uttered those words, the killing machine has only grown in size and power; meanwhile the environmental movement has mostly failed to evolve its tactics to go on the offensive.

Thus, it is time to create a deeper environmentalism — one that can provide a vision of a sustainable future in which human well-being is achieved while restoring Earth’s biocapacity. This will mean an environmental movement that crafts a multi-century strategy, not just annual campaign goals; that builds fellowship among supporters, not just signature lists; and that doesn’t go hat-in-hand every year to foundations and affluent individuals whose wealth is derived from the very system that needs to be dismantled. We need a movement that can learn from the most successful movements in history: missionary religious philosophical movements.

Missionary religions have rooted themselves across a variety of geographies, eras, and cultures, and today have billions of adherents. Religious philosophies offer something fundamental that the environmental movement has so far failed to provide: a way to understand the world and humans’ place in it, as well as how to behave in that world. Just as important, religious movements build committed communities of adherents — helping each other in times of need and celebrating and mourning together — and draw their resources and power directly from these communities.

Why haven’t environmentalists done the same? We need to create ecophilosophies that offer humanity an ethical code to live by. We need to provide an explanation of suffering (theodicy in religious terms). And we need to tell a story that offers individuals a clear and unequivocal purpose — one as simple as “it is humanity’s role to care for and now heal the Earth of which we are part and on which we so utterly depend.”

And then we need missionaries to spread these ecophilosophies. Organizations to set up social services to help those in need and convert them to a new way of thinking and living. Activists to go door-to-door like Mormon youth and convert people for the planet. (Canvassing operations built just to extract campaign contributions don’t count.) We need to build community gathering places where Earth fellowship roots and flourishes, and develop ways to cultivate the artistic expression and political action of those within these communities.

Environmentalists need to start providing people with real, tangible assistance, just like the Christian soup kitchens, food pantries, and clinics across the United States or the Islamic madrassas across Southeast Asia. There’s no shortage of need for such eco-missions — in developing countries, of course, but also in overdeveloped, inequitable countries like the United States. Atrocious daycare centers, underserved school systems, failing hospitals, even predatory lending operations are all excellent intervention points for eco-missionaries. Just imagine a non-profit payday loan store that in the process of lending (at a more reasonable rate) teaches clients how to extricate themselves from both the debt trap and the destructive consumer culture at its root? After all, the faster we facilitate a transition to a degrowth, post-consumer future, the better off people and the planet will be.

But truthfully, it might already be too late for a gentle transition to a sustainable civilization. We’ve already committed ourselves to a nasty, brutish future — with at least 2 degrees Celsius of climate change baked into the coming centuries. Given that the world’s governments are busy divvying up the Arctic instead of writing a climate change treaty, and that fossil fuel companies have trillions of dollars of reserves already earmarked and ready to extract (including new sources of shale gas and tar sands), it would take a miracle for us to keep climate change under catastrophic levels of 3, 4, even 6 degrees.

Miracles probably don’t have a place in ecophilosophies like they do in monotheistic missionary religious philosophies. Neither will ecophilosophies promise the kind of eternal salvation that the world’s two most successful missionary religions, Christianity and Islam, offer. But I believe that environmentalists can offer something almost as attractive: physical salvation (or at least a higher chance of survival), here in this world. We can help prepare those who listen for the turbulent times ahead. Basic skills — cooking, gardening, foraging, sewing, carpentry — will become far more valuable in the radically local and disrupted future we’ll live through, and teaching these to adherents might mean the difference between life and death. Creating ecophilosophical groups today that can prepare their members for that transition—psychologically, spiritually, and economically—now while also mobilizing their members politically (just as religious groups mobilize their adherents to act politically as part of their service) will be much more effective than running one defensive campaign after the next.

If we work today to spread new ecological philosophies, when the dark age that we’ve likely set upon ourselves concludes centuries from now, and a new civilization starts to flourish around the poles of the planet, we might have a cultural orientation that is no longer obsessed with growth, but understands humanity’s utter dependence on the planet for our ability to survive and thrive. So that instead of once again creating a civilization that grows until it collapses, we can truly bring about a just, equitable, and sustainable civilization that so many of us long for.

Erik Assadourian is Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? He is author of the book’s “Chapter 10: Re-engineering Cultures to Create a Sustainable Civilization” and “Chapter 27: Building an Enduring Environmental Movement.” A longer version of this essay was first printed in Earth Island Journal.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/new-environmentalism/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • StephenTindale

    Interesting post, but I strongly disagree with your conclusion. We don’t have time for a deeper environmentalism. To control climate change, we need a more pragmatic approach. Can’t afford to make the best the enemy of the good. Nuclear power is far from ideal, but is less bad than fossil fuels. Very low carbon. So should be supported.I’ve been attacked for saying this on the grounds that accepting an approach because it kills fewer people than alternative approaches is “policy making by body count”. Guilty as charged.

    We should also be pragmatic on agriculture. GMOs are not natural. So what? Trains are not natural, but environmentalists support them. Fine to imagine an ideal world, but our more urgent task is to deal with this one.

    Granted, ‘practical pragmatism’ doesn’t make a great slogan. Maybe someone more creative than me can come up with a better one. I also think the word ‘environmentalism’ should be avoided. People wanting to avert climate chaos and to stop people dying of hunger are not just ‘tree huggers’. My main motivation is a desire to promote sustainable human development, and the same is true of many others I’ve worked with in green organisations. But sustainable development, sustainable economic welfare, closed loop economy etc are phrases that will be meaningless to those who aren’t green policy geeks. We don’t need a new philosophy, but we do need a new language.

  • YES! Back to the farm for us all. We should ban agricultural productivity enhancements. Tractors, for instance. Even horses and oxen pulling plows. Irrigation should be outlawed.

    Any equipment on the planet that uses any energy (oil, electricity, etc.) should be destroyed for Mother Earth. No computers, light bulbs, etc.

    If we can just produce 90% less food with 100 times more workers, in a couple generations the scourge of humanity will be 90% eradicated from the planet.

    Viva Gaia!!!

  • Richard Grossman

    I agree with Erik Assadourian; we do need a proactive approach to environmentalism. Paul Ehrlich set the standard for this many years ago.
    I feel that I am lucky in that I already belong to two groups that are working toward a better way of living.
    My wife and I have lived in a cohousing community for 14 years. We are here because we value other people, we share things as well as ideas, and we live more simply than most people in the USA. Instead of running out to buy a new tool I see if a neighbor can loan me one. Because we have a common house with guest rooms, we don’t need a large home for the occasional visitor. (www.cohousing.org)
    As a Quaker (a member of the Religious Society of Friends) I felt that I had found my spiritual home when I discovered Quaker Earthcare Witness (www.quakerearthcare.org). We do not believe in proselytizing but we do believe in education, and many of us are population activists.
    I am certain that other MAHB people also belong to other groups that are not typical environmental nonprofits. I was pleased to find out about Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences from Fazlun Khalid. What other groups are out there?

  • Tibor Arouet

    The word “propaganda” owes its origins to the 17th Roman Catholic organization Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of Faith), which was setup by the Pope to train missionaries. I’ve become convinced that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from undertaking a careful study the history of propaganda/advertising/public relations, and in particular, the work of Edward Bernays. Are there any environmental writers who’ve tackled things from this angle?

  • William (Bill) Lidicker

    In pursuit of an ecophilosophy movement

    Erik Assadourian makes a timely, well-argued, and interesting case for a new
    ecophilosophy movement. His blog reminded me of an essay I wrote several years
    that makes a similar argument, but without the explicit religious flavor. After
    getting 3 or 4 rejections from potential publishers I gave up trying. Editors almost all said in effect: excellent
    article but not suitable for our journal. My proposal had three components.

    Those attempting to put humanity on a
    sustainable path for survival into the future must not just be reactive and
    defensive, but proactive and emphasize paths of opportunity for success. Any progress
    achieved will generate a positive feedback loop attracting adherents and
    leading to more successes.

    Programs, whether local, global, or in between,
    must be placed in the context of our inter-connected world. That is, there
    needs to be a holistic framework that matches the realities of the way things
    work as parts of integrated systems. Projects must be proposed, defended, and
    evaluated with respect to how they relate to globally important issues and
    values relating to sustainability and human welfare.

    We desperately need a cultural revolution which
    I expressed as a new political movement. Assadourian emphasizes that this
    change really needs to be philosophical and social, with the politics following
    along. My suggested new movement has three core values: social consciousness,
    rationalism, and environmental sanity. I called this movement “Pro-grandkids
    Party”, a name which emphasizes its futuristic goals of human survival and

    Just as our problems are
    multi-faceted and inter-connected, our efforts to solve them must be
    multi-faceted and inter-connected as well. It will take a “team” to raise an
    ecophilosophical renaissance.

  • Pingback: Time for a Missional Ecophilosophy? | Sustainability in Crisis()

  • Fazlun Khalid

    A timely comment. For a Muslim contribution please see http://www.ifees.org.uk

  • Paul Meleng

    Probably the fast track route to what you rightly suggest is in fact via the strong “religious” organisations to which many caring people with ears and eyes open already belong. The ones that are already community sevice oriented such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other “old” socially mature churches. Many dedicated and effective”environmentalists” are members. Have enough humility and respect to recognise that and ask how can we all help.

    • Erik Assadourian

      There is certainly a place for greening existing religions (in fact a
      colleague of mine, Gary Gardner, has written about this for years). This
      of course assumes that these religions can be brought to focus on
      preventing the collapse of “Creation.” But considering most of these
      religions seem to focus more of their political energy on combating
      homosexuality and abortion than the future of humanity on this world
      (rather than the next) perhaps it’s time to create something new.
      Especially for those like me who believe the Earth is sacred but lack a
      community to share that with and who cannot accept the otherworldly
      orientation of existing missionary philosophies. New philosophies are
      created all the time–why not a new ecocentric philosophy to both
      channel energy of those like me AND to put additional pressure on
      existing religions to green themselves (as they lose adherents to these start-ups?).

      • Colin Bell

        Speaking as an active “Green Christian”, I think you’re right in all of this. Though we’d appreciate people like you coming to share all our beliefs, we have to be honest we can’t expect this to happen! I too wish the church would work more on creation issues in public. Here in the UK, a reasonable amount goes on behind the scenes at least.

        But a question: the Transition movement seems to do much of what you suggest in the penultimate paragraph: certainly socially and skill-sharing. Is this the kind of “institution” you’re looking for, or is Transition deficient in some way? Maybe not philosophical enough?

        • Erik Assadourian

          You got it–not philosophical enough. When the collapse comes will the transition town movement stay intact? Will it be here _after_ the transition? What about 500 years from now when the Earth restabilizes and a new human civilization pursues growth beyond Earth’s limits again? Having something philosophical that can evolve with humanity’s changing situation will increase the odds that we don’t cause our own collapse again. (I think it’s probably too late to stop the one coming this time around.)

          An ecophilosophical movement, if designed well, could get us through the imminent ecological transition, help us rebuild and direct that rebuilding in a way that restores Earth’s systems and makes our species a healthy part of our planetary system.

          • Colin Bell

            The Transition movement wouldn’t stay intact, but it wouldn’t expect to: I think they’d describe themselves as sufficiently flexible and open that they can facilitate the development of appropriate philosophies depending on circumstances.

            I can see some of what you’re trying to do, but it feels a bit premature to try and design a philosophy now for the post-collapse era. Something more organic and authentic is likely to emerge from the trauma of realising what humanity has done to itself and the planet.

          • GrowthBuster

            I immediately thought of Transition Towns as I read this piece. If you feel it’s missing something (and I’m not sure it really is), then I suggest joining the movement and contributing in that way, rather than reinventing the wheel from scratch. Too many silos, and Transition is getting so much of this right! I don’t see anything temporary about what they are building.

  • acomfort

    There is a good argument that the anthropogenic impact on the environmental stems from our over-population of the earth. If so, what do religious philosophies offer to fix this problem? . . . Or, are religious philosophies/beliefs the problem?

    • Erik Assadourian

      Unfortunately most philosophies do encourage being “fruitful and multiplying,” which is not a good idea in our full world. A new philosophy could instead encourage a one-child family size norm, and supporting adoption of children beyond one (ideally from wealthy consumer families to reduce ecological impact even further). Impact, after all, is a combination of population X consumption X technology and not just sheer population numbers.

  • Suzanne York

    Great article Erik. Environmentalists need a new strategy. We win
    battles occasionally, but are still losing the war. Ecophilosophies
    offer one way to change course. I would also suggest Thomas Berry’s
    ideas on earth jurisprudence as well, which is being promoted by lawyers
    like Cormac Cullinan, who wrote Wild Law.

    Recently I was at a conference on rights of nature, which I think is the paradigm shift that
    is really needed (along with concepts like steady state/degrowth,
    greater human rights, healthy population growth, and so on).


  • Earon Davis

    This is an idea worthy of discussion, in my opinion. Too often, we see “environmentalists” defending science rather than human values and morality. George Lakoff writes about this often. Defending facts rather than human values like our children’s future seems like it would be ineffective – and it is. It is through community and selfless service that people are transformed into being more socially responsible.

    I’ll add, explicitly, that science is a tool, not a set of survival values. Science gives information and not direction. It has consistently enabled us to live in science fiction fantasy worlds and to believe that we have no limits. Let’s confront our addiction to new technology and to “innovations” that are distracting us from our real lives and leaving us vulnerable to ecological destruction.

    We need to cultivate lifestyles that are sustainable, not warn people against imminent destruction. Ecopsychology proved, long ago, that warnings stress people out, trigger cognitive dissonance and result in even less rational decisions. Consumerism offers people a limitless amount of material goods. The only way to counter that, the only force more powerful than greed, is human community.

    Assadourian is right. We need to hug people. We need to focus on protecting people and our future generations. Hugging trees is fine, as we learn about our interconnected world, but if we are seen as hugging trees and hating people, we will keep losing. We need to be a human-centered social movement – not an environment-centered anti-human movement. This is where the neoliberal nature of the environmental movement and its history is so vital to understand. Earth Day appealed to middle class and upper middle class visitors to national parks, not to factory workers or inner city residents. Many groups, like http://humansandnature.org are working on revisioning our cities and making the “environment” something that is part of our lives. It is this cultural process, NOT more science, that will determine whether we can build a more sustainable relationship with our world.

    • Ruben Nelson

      I share the directional bias of the post — time for a fundamental re-think. And I am among those who who would have us move to a human/societal/civilizational focus, i.e. I would have us drop the language of “environmentalism” entirely.

      My reasoning:
      The environment was “created/discovered” at a time when as a society the modern west was firmly in the grip segmented thinking. (It still rules the roost, but is losing its power.) So, of course, we would focus on, research and defend the environment in a way that was mostly wholly separate from all else that matters. And, it was heard that way by those who listened to us and those who rejected us.

      The irony is that as the folks who helped put systems and ecological thinking on the map we were a living demonstration of how tenaciously a culture protects the images and metaphors that have given it life — we established the environment as yet another segment in the wider world.

      Sadly, the environment as a segmented movement has often been as hostile and reductionist as has the economics against which we contend. Neither has a grasp and understanding of what it is to be deeply human. The irony here is that most would agree that persons truly fit to live with are neither mindless consumers of themselves, the earth or one another.

      Time to formally put environmentalism to bed and move to a new wholism, if for no other reason, we know better than what we are doing.

      There is a major international conference here that could have impact way beyond its size, if enough care and preparation was undertaken.

      Or so it seems to me from the Eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.

      For our shared future,


      • Jenny Goldie

        I think Erik is onto something here. A social movement is required but one based, paradoxically perhaps, on science. You need the science to know the whys and wherefors, but you need the social movement to reach people’s hearts and lead them to another way of living and being.