The last couple of days I’ve been pondering the divergent, competing and – to a limited extent – evolving visions expressed in sustainability discourses and debates. A striking example is found in a recent paper by UTS physicist Prof Geoff Smith called “Green Nanophotonics” which highlights the potential for new technologies to reduce energy use in buildings. (Nanophotonics is a field that studies light on the nanometre scale and conducts R&D into materials [new ‘nanostructures’] that manipulate, detect and/or utilise light). Smith contrasts the following:
- A ‘traditional green’ paradigm which he characterises as seeking a “modern version of pre-technological harmony”, focussing “on nature [but] excluding economics, human needs, and political reality”, and focussed on “the desire to turn back the clock”; with
- A ‘new-green’ paradigm in which links with natural processes/the environment are restored, and nature better preserved, but modern benefits are retained and spread throughout the world (e.g. thermal comfort, reliable transport, good interior lighting, etc). Quality of life “will hinge on creating something new, an over-arching harmony between technology and nature”, using new technologies that provide for human needs “while having minimal or no adverse environmental impacts”. Human wants and needs are not reduced or reconfigured. Three traditional aspects are proposed to be retained: “getting closer to nature, preserving nature, and reducing city pollution”. A key focus is supporting higher quality of life for the whole expanding world population, not just in wealthy Western nations.
In Smith’s view nanotechnologies (and nanoscientists) are an important part of this potential ‘new-green’ paradigm. Economic considerations (e.g. making technologies low-cost, commodity-style production scale) may be better met by nano-based solutions, and new ‘functional materials’ – Smith argues – can be created that for example are “tailored to environmental energy flows [such as solar radiation, atmospheric thermal radiation] and human needs” (e.g. smart windows whose transparency can be varied, new coloured paints which like white paints have very high solar reflectance). Nano-engineering can enable “designing for fine-tuning” the optical and/or thermal response and the functionality of materials, with biomimicry often central to the designs and technologies. More broadly, nanoscience can be drawn on for other new technologies such as improved energy storage, and further advances in solar cell devices (e.g. enhanced light capture, flexible solar cells, etc).
A key finding during my thesis research was that most of the nanoscientists and other scientists that I interviewed are strongly motivated by this ‘new-green’ vision. However, I also found that campaigning environmental activists – who oppose many emerging technologies such as nanotechnologies, some biotech (e.g. GM crops) – typically favour very different green visions centred on behavioural changes and shifting economic paradigms (post-growth). This was often linked to an urgency imperative, i.e. not wanting to wait for new technologies.
It feels like there is more and more divergence. (I reported and discussed this in a recent paper in Journal of Futures Studies). For example, on the one hand we have scientists and industry pursuing new genetically modified (GM) crops to improve food security. On the other hand, low-tech urban farming is emerging and being championed by many environmentalists – often motivated by the same concerns about climate change, peak oil, and global sustainability. (This I discovered when conducting an ethnographic study of urban farmers in Melbourne).
Where there is widespread agreement is on the need to avoid ‘overshoot and collapse’ fatalism. (Although some writers have argued collapse is now inevitable and the task now is to make the best of it. E.g. Richard Heinberg in his review of Collapse by Jared Diamond writes “the choice we have now is not as to whether our society will collapse, but how”). That is, as Bill McKibben noted in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on Tough New Planet “obsessing over collapse” futures “keeps you from considering other possibilities” and thereby limits creative thinking.
Perhaps environmentalism can be compared to the paths of other modern ‘isms’, such as feminism? This thought emerged as I listened to Naomi Wolf’s take on feminism. She is an advocate of ‘third wave’ feminism, which she argues is more pluralistic, less dogmatic, and less puritanical (e.g. open to expressions of feminism through the marketplace [such as through consumption practices], politics, or media). Wolf further argues that feminism must now shed “flaws in how we inherited Western feminism” and current cultural frames.
In ‘Environmentalism in Transition?’ I looked at the major waves of modern environmental movements. The first wave: In the 1960s a new protest movement developed in response to the consequences of industrialism. The second wave: By the mid-1980s a new wave emerged focussed on achieving consensual action through mainstream institutions (see the emergence of sustainable development, ‘triple bottom line’, etc). I speculated that a new, more forward looking third-wave could soon emerge from the contestation between competing environmental discourses and new change-oriented practices that are being experimented with.
In my experience environmental communities often seem a lot like second-wave feminism, particulary in terms of dogmatism and the puritanicalism that is discussed by Naomi Wolf. Perhaps a third-wave of environmentalism could also be more pluralistic and less dogmatic. Right now this doesn’t seem likely but it certainly appears to be necessary.