Environmentalism, Sustainability and Ordinary Chores

If you grew up in the woods or in a rural home a few decades ago, you would have looked after a great many things that now are classed as ‘environmental’. Things like tin cans and other household garbage, a supply of drinking water and yes, human waste. Such things could be called ‘personal utilities’ or for those in a village or town, ‘public utilities’.


Such things have to be looked after because if they were not, you would have problems, sooner or later. So you looked after them to prevent nasty impacts on your personal environment and your life. That is how such personal and public utilities came to be referred to as ‘environmental’.


The ‘environment’ referred to is your human environment. You are trying to keep your human environment acceptable for now and into the future. Looking after personal and public utilities are really issues about sustainability of acceptable living conditions for us humans. Or if conditions are made better than just acceptable, it is about supplying amenities to us. Benefits to any other organism are purely secondary.


Concerns about the ecological condition of the land and about all the other non-human beings are at a larger scale – less self-centred, not just about us humans and not just ‘in-my-backyard’.


The real nature of environmentalism, even high-budget environmentalism, has been clearly displayed at several U.S. universities recently. Dartmouth made a high-level appointment to head up its sustainability effort. Harvard has devoted thirteen staff members and a US$800,000 budget to its environmental effort. Cornell not only appointed a ‘sustainability co-ordinator’ but the administration also signed a ‘peace pact’ with students and staff who protested for months and blocked clearing and paving a 176-space parking lot in “Redbud Woods’.

The protest was honestly labeled ‘sustainabilty’ aimed at reducing the university’s ecological impact and was based on a presidential statement that “For a variety of reasons, the current mode of life on Earth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”


The peace pact at Cornell forced a spate of new activities that illustrate the human-centred’ nature of ‘sustainability’. These included: a US$60 million Lake Source Cooling project that reduced the energy consumption for air conditioning by 86%, recycling and composting that diverts 50% of the solid wastes from landfill, scales in cafeterias that showed that “all you can eat” deals resulted in an average of four ounces of edible food left as waste by each person. A long list of long-term research projects also was started including topics such as: various aspects of sustainable agriculture, biodegradable plastics, fuel cells, solar energy and ‘green’ business plans. Clearly Cornell was turning ‘green’. Environmentalism was rampant.


But when the Chair of Cornell’s Ecology Department, an internationally recognized professional ecologist was asked to assess this whole venture, he pointed out that all the action was simply to lessen or neutralize the impact of human activities on a small area of the land. Essentially the sustainability actions were aimed entirely at looking after the ‘public utilities’ that would sustain the amenities that everyone wanted on the university campus. The total of all those actions would actually have little effect on the ecological processes of the landscape outside the university.


Sustainability is a more honest term than environmentalism because “sustainable” is more easily seen to relate primarily to our human environment whereas “environmental” is commonly mistakenly interpreted to mean ecological conditions for more than just we humans. The ‘greenwash’ that politicians and amateur ‘greens’ spread widely, most often has nothing to offer to the smooth operation of the ecological processes that maintain survivable environments for all the beings other than humans. Humility is unacceptably absent from policies that really seek only to guarantee continuing amenities for humans.


The human focus of green goals is not restricted to local organizations or local governments. The UN’s stated sustainability goal is similarly human-centred: “ to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Future generations of birds, snails, snakes and maple trees are not mentioned.


Several philosophical rationales allow this narrow view of life. Like the Cornell President, we can believe that human ‘progress’ must continue and other things simply must be sacrificed or, we can use the Judeo-Christian position that humans are superior to all else or, we can simply follow the money and all else can beware. These are all dangerously homocentric and show ignorance of our effects on ecological processes on which we and all other living things depend. Next time you see “Healthy Environment” consider what they really mean.

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