What’s the most important environmental problem? A (slightly) contrarian perspective

Lately I’ve seen the following James Gustave Speth quote shared on social media:

When I read that quote I “groaned” a little. Cultural change is part of what’s needed, no doubt about it, but are the top problems “selfishness, greed and apathy”? Apathy can hamper any change effort, sure, but the emphasis on selfishness and greed seems a cliché critique which often doesn’t clearly apply to behaviours which negatively impact the environment. For example, is most air travel selfish and greedy (this is a growing contributor to climate change)? Is most consumption greedy and/or selfish? Related assessments of need can often be quite subjective. This perspective can also come across as a form of moral superiority which often turns people off and may consequently help to confirm Speth’s thesis.

This also feels to me like the default position within the environmental movement (although I don’t have data to back this up), on which there has been too little reflection.

A contrasting perspective: To me the biggest environmental problem is that environmental politics itself has become stale. Here are some indicators:

Environmentalists struggle to appeal to and strongly mobilise diverse constituencies. Consider the fact that Green parties around the world have remained a small political force – despite the mainstreaming of environmental concern – rarely getting more than 10% of the vote in elections.

Infighting and disputes within Green parties hampers these political parties and associated political movements (though this occurs in all political parties). Consider the recent infighting in the Australian Greens Party driven by the emergence of a ‘hard Left’ faction called “Left Renewal” (link, link), with the current party leader Richard Di Natale stating publicly in response that “of course the Greens do not support the overthrow of capitalism or any other ridiculous notions of the sort” (link). Informally these factions have always existed but divisions appear to have hardened, perhaps partly in response to a ‘moderate’ figure (Di Natale) rising up to the Party leadership.

In terms of the ideological spectrum things are now so tribal that the Left is typically understood as ‘pro-environment’ and the Right is understood to be ‘anti-environment’, with, admittedly, some justification (consider US politics!). Still, it wasn’t always this way. If we consider US politics as an example, a Republican President (Richard Nixon) proposed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and created it by Executive Order; a Republican President (George H. W. Bush) signed into law key amendments to the Clean Air Act which had bipartisan support to address four environmental and health threats: acid rain, urban air pollution, stratospheric ozone depletion and toxic air emissions. Perhaps intense partisanship on the environment is another indicator of stale (and toxic) environmental politics?

Over the past decade or so we’ve also seen increasingly acrimonious debates ranging from those on conservation (link), to agricultural biotechnologies and innovation in related fields (e.g. see link, link, link) and, of course, climate and energy policy for decarbonisation (e.g. link, link).

Additionally, the political advocacy of environmentalists can also be hampered by the diverse and conflicting messages communicated by environmentalists, ranging from arguments related to specific conservation issues and goals through to more macro arguments about risks facing modern civilisation, through to ‘ecomodernist’ agendas which are articulated in reaction to “the environmental movement’s apocalyptic doomsaying, soft-energy utopianism, and obsessive moralizing about consumption” (link).

Over the past few years we have seen some innovation related to this staleness. The ecomodernists launched their manifesto. Some anti-capitalists are now advocates of postcapitalism and/or peer-to-peer (or ‘commons’) approaches. But, overall, environmental politics still feels stale.

The question is: what can or should be done about this?

My mind immediately wanders towards pondering the often rigid ideological positions of those I meet in environmental movements. What might motivate or enable greater reflection? I don’t know. But take the frequently expressed view that ‘if global warming is real, then capitalism is finished’ (that’s the core argument), a position most famously argued by Naomi Klein in her most recent book This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate. Whilst this view may motivate useful activism there is little room for creativity in such a rigid position. This framing of the problem can also exclude or alienate most people right from the get go – and therefore has political limits – given that most people work in the private sector. Perhaps the search for solutions will motivate greater reflection?

Beyond this where I think Gustave Speth is on the right track is in encouraging us to think about things that effect environmental outcomes and related actions (e.g. by environmentalists, policy-makers, and others), rather than the environmental problems themselves.

Along these lines here are some issues (far from exhaustive but a starting point) that should be considered as part of efforts to develop a new environmental politics for the 21st century:

  • Re-examining and rethinking the roles and limits of science: green arguments are profoundly scientific – consider recent forays in geological era definition (regarding the Anthropocene) and the frequent emphasis on scientific consensuses by activists such as regarding human-induced global warming. However, as British sociologist Steven Yearley has argued, science is often less of an ally to greens than is hoped. He argues that modern environmentalism is not only tied to science but also often hostile to it (see some of the debates noted above) and often hampered by its inherent limitations. Yearley suggests this helps us to understand why the environmental movement often “experiences difficulty in winning over the authorities and bringing about policy changes”. Additionally, the hostility of many environmentalists to many current areas of research is set to become a more important dimension of environmental politics in the context of twenty-first century technoscience. Consider the responses of many greens to genetically modified foods, nanoscience and nanotech, emerging forms of synthetic biology, and research on next-generation nuclear power, etc, which can hamper advancements that may have positive environmental outcomes. Related debates about the governance of innovation are a new focus for environmental politics.
  • Rethinking the role of technological innovation (getting beyond the dread of “techno-fixes”): technical resolution of problems ought not be frowned upon a priori particularly where this can make the politics of environmental problems more tractable. On this point I’m with the ecomodernists. Sarewitz and Nelson’s commentary published in Nature, entitled ‘Three rules for technological fixes’, offers some good pointers. So too does the contributions of vegan ethicists like Peter Singer who, perhaps surprisingly, have stated that they’d happily eat lab-grown meat (link).
  • Reconsidering the main goals of environmental politics: if issues like climate change are better understood as conditions of modernity, rather than distinct problems that can be “solved” in any meaningful sense, then environmental politics must evolve to address living with environmental change, not only preventing or repairing environmental change. More modest goals such “intelligent muddling” may often be more productive foci (see Allenby & Sarewitz 2011) than the radical political programs embraced by Green parties over recent decades.
  • Considering the environmental state as an “entrepreneurial state” (see Mazzucato 2014; Mazzucato 2015): recently scholars in the environmental politics field have begun to reconsider the environmental state (link, link). A missing theme is the role of the state in innovation. Social scientists such as Mariana Mazzuco argue that we’ve forgotten how major innovations occur (not simply the latest version of, say, a smartphone) and, consequently, our capacity to achieve key goals such as decarbonising energy is hampered. This also suggests that innovation policy and industrial policy must be part of the bringing the state back into environmental politics.
  • Taking account of the politics of expectations: environmental politics often turns, to some extent, on what expectations are seen as being in the realm of reasonable possibilities and related judgements about the future. What’s lacking to-date is sufficient analysis of expectation creating and expectation shaping activities and their political consequences. Furthermore this is an area in which typical (or conventional) distinctions between science and politics often breakdown.

Additionally, a general need is to find ways of enabling “productive conflict” rather than the acrimonious debates we currently tend to see (the concept of “productive conflict is proposed in Allenby and Sarewitz in their book The Techno-Human Condition). Encouragingly we’re starting to see greater critique of the partisanship which often intensifies such debates.

As many others have pointed out the problem with a debate is that if your opponent’s argument changes your mind you’ve “lost” (rather than learned). Too many discussions are setup as debates where the main objective of participants is to win (rather than learn something). Perhaps another area for innovation is experimenting with other ways of structuring conversations.

Finally, as some of the issues/topics listed above implicitly suggest I feel like greens themselves need to be willing to change in order to enable a more productive environmental politics, just as much as (or perhaps more than) devising new ways to get others to change.


  1. Fer de la Cruz

    I´m trying to find the source of that original quote, whether it came from a book, or an article, or lecture… Would you happen to know this?

    Thank you.

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