Andreas Späth

Bright green things?

2011-03-02 07:20

There are environmentalists and there environmentalists. I don’t really think of myself as one at all. If you’re familiar with my columns, you’ll know that I’m, for the most part, merely a cynical observer constantly bemoaning our civilisation’s infinite capacity to screw over the planet we live on.

As far as the environment is concerned we tend to, more often than not, chose detrimental options over beneficial ones and when we do actually do something positive, it’s usually too little too late.

My hell-in-a-hand-basket scenarios aren’t a particularly popular perspective these days. The media want positive green stories, not depressing environmental doomsday sermons. And there are plenty of people with a much more uplifting point of view than mine. They see environmental problems as opportunities rather than disasters waiting to happen. Opportunities to build green jobs, green lifestyles and a green economy.

So-called bright green environmentalists tell us that the path to sustainable development and prosperity will be forged by optimistic innovators willing to find new technological solutions to environmental challenges. The relevant feel-good buzz phrases include efficient eco design, green energy, geo-engineering, closed-loop material cycles in manufacturing, biotech, technogaianism, nanotechnology, genetic architecture and others.

Employed by scientists and engineers, biomimicry promises to exploit nature’s brightest design ideas to solve humanity’s problems in a sustainable fashion and all while making money and creating a life of happiness ever after. Think photovoltaic cells inspired by photosynthesising plant leaves, Japanese bullet trains with front ends modelled after kingfisher beaks, shark-skin full-body swim suits and modern buildings with sophisticated ventilation systems a la termite mount.

And of course we can all make our own personal contribution to a greener future by recycling our plastics and changing to energy efficient light bulbs. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for renewable energy and more sustainable living, but I just don’t think this approach goes quite deep enough to really address our environmental problems in a fundamental and lasting way.

I think our troubles – and many of them are troubles, not just challenges and opportunities – lie at a much more basic and systemic level. They lie in the fact that our existing economic and social systems are inherently unsustainable.

Our chronic rates of consumerism and inequality, our pathological alienation from nature and our need for constant and accelerating industrial growth are incompatible with long-term survival on a finite planet. I don’t think these issues can be overcome by a patchwork of techno-fixes, no matter how innovative they happen to be.

Without getting too philosophical about it, I think there is something to be said for a Hegelian dialectical approach – one in which a problematic thesis is opposed by a radical antithesis, leading to a revolutionary change and an all-new synthesis. The status quo (the thesis) which maintains that the planet and nature represent a treasure trove of resources which humans, as the ultimate victors in the game of evolution, have the inalienable right to exploit to their fullest ability and to the maximisation of profits, must be opposed, not by cosmetic technological measures, but by an antithesis that demands a whole-sale re-evaluation of our civilisation.

A fundamental shift in consciousness, a dismantling and a new beginning, leading ultimately to a synthesis in which the artificial distance between humans and nature disappears and in which we reach a common consciousness of being intricate, respectful, interdependent parts of one truly sustainable whole and our social institutions reflect that understanding.

I’m not trying to stop you from buying organic veggies. Neither am I opposed to anyone inventing more efficient solar panel technology. These things are important and have their role to play. I just think that we need to do much more than that.

We need to change the world. We need to change the way we perceive it and the way we live in it. A revolution in the thought and actions of individuals as well as society as a whole.

Where do you see yourself on the environmentalist spectrum? Are you a hopeful bright techno-green? Are you a gloomy deep dark green? Somewhere in-between? Or do you just not give a damn?

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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