Book Summary – Environmentalism of the Rich
In 2015, former NASA scientist James Hansen and 16 co-authors suggested that if global temperatures rise 2°C [3.6°F] above the levels that existed before industrialization, the effect would be catastrophic, including such consequences as sea levels rising 10 feet by 2100. If current trends continue, temperatures could keep rising, leading to more climatic instability and possibly to the “sixth mass extinction” described by Elizabeth Kolbert and, separately, by Richard Leakey and Robert Lewin. Globalization is creating an increasing number of energy users whose increased consumption undermines the environment. Ecological conditions continue to worsen despite the growing prominence of the environmental movement, whose leaders know its impact isn’t enough. Since the mid-1990s, this movement has lost its edge as a critic of global capitalism. Increasingly, wealthy individuals, large companies and governments control the environmental narrative. The world’s wealthy, about 1% of the population, now control about 50% of its assets. The 2.2 billion people at the bottom of the pyramid, earned less than $2 a day in 2011, little more than they made in 1980.
“Calls to reduce humanity’s impact on nature are louder than ever – and coming from every spot on Earth. The courage of activists has never been greater; nor has the desire of ordinary people to live more sustainably.”
Governments pursue “the environmentalism of the rich” under the rubric of “sustainable development,” yet they are still more concerned with boosting production than with protecting the Earth. Companies discuss “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) and “eco-business,” but profitability is their chief concern. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) leverage the environmentalism of the rich to seek funding or to create partnerships with businesses. And, most people think they are doing their share if they recycle, use less water and walk instead of drive.
“The future could well see many more citizen uprisings as political elites fail to act and as the sustainability crisis worsens.”
“Sailing into the Anthropocene”
Geologists debate whether the Holocene Epoch – which began after the close of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago – is over. Some suggest that the world entered a new geologic age, the Anthropocene, driven by global unsustainability. Scientists argue about exactly when this new geological epoch began.
“Even seeming regulatory successes are often lost in the shadows of global trade as firms increase exports to places with lower standards.”
The year 1600 might be a sensible starting point because that’s when European powers began conquering the globe. Over the next 300 years, they subjugated societies and appropriated lands all over the world. Today, many former colonies face a bleak future. They have few financial assets and haven’t controlled disease and violence. To shore up their balance of payments, their governments export an unsustainable volume of natural and mineral products. They can’t break out of this pattern because they need economic growth to ensure political stability.
“A commercialization of values – reinforced through advertising and branding – is further weakening efforts to promote social justice, economic equality and ecological integrity.”
Disaster in Paradise
When the British vessel the Snow Hunter reached the Central Pacific island of Nauru on November 8, 1798, the ship’s captain called it a “beautiful little island.” The tiny island had one asset, and that asset proved its undoing. Almost 80% of its small land mass has rich deposits of phosphate of lime. Germany made the island its colony in 1888. After the First World War, the League of Nations declared Nauru a mandate of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Acting as the island’s administrator, Australia focused on exploiting its phosphate deposits. Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain imported much of Nauru’s phosphate, paying far below global prices.
“Warning sirens [about ethyl gasoline] did not go off until the mid-1960s when Clair Patterson, a geochemist renowned for dating the age of the earth at 4.55 billion years, discovered that lead levels of Americans were 100 times higher than was natural.”
After it became independent in 1968, the Republic of Nauru realized that its phosphate would be exhausted in time. From 1968 to 1980, it continued mining and extracted about 1.8 million metric tons a year. During the 1990s, its phosphate exports diminished. By 2004, when Nauru exported only 22,000 metric tons, its economy faced dire straits.
“Efficiency gains and savings from corporate sustainability are going straight back into churning out more nondurable and disposable products, building more big-box stores and producing more billionaires.”
To diversify its income, the island tried to become an offshore banking center. The effort failed, and its last bank closed in 2006. Since the early 2000s, Nauru has earned revenues by housing Australian detention camps for processing asylum seekers. Other than these refugees in transit, about 10,000 people live on Nauru. The island, which has little vegetation, imports most of its food and, at times, even fresh water. It suffers from high unemployment and its people are among the most obese in the world. Nauru epitomizes the consequences of the relentless search for greater prosperity, consumption and economic growth.
“Corporate risk-taking in the pursuit of profit and competitive advantages can threaten the future of the Earth itself.”
“Gambling with the Future”
Since midway through the first decade of the 2000’s, businesses worldwide have attempted to cloak commercial imperatives within the idea of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. The world’s largest companies need to act decisively and genuinely toward meeting these goals, but only a few have taken major steps. While some “corporations are making real efforts to reduce waste and improve environmental efficiencies,” others still sell hazardous substances for profit knowing their compounds produce negative side effects. For example, in the 1920s, chemist Thomas Midgley Jr. found a way to counter cars’ “engine knock” by using tetraethyl lead to create ethyl gasoline. Critics warned that tetraethyl lead had toxic side effects, but refiners sold ethyl gasoline for decades. By the middle of the 1960s, Americans had lead levels in their bloodstreams that reached more than 100 times greater than normal. Lead is bad for human health and harms children’s mental development.
“Greenpeace is aiming to divide and conquer multinational brands, classifying some as leaders and others as laggards.”
Learning how human bodies and the planet’s ecology interact with new chemicals and compounds takes time and research, yet most businesses use their research capacity on developments that boost profitability – as the story of ethyl gasoline demonstrates.
“Activist campaigns over social media have clearly damaged brand reputations and influenced large numbers of consumers.”
Battle for the Environment
Since the mid-1960s the environmental movement has had an impact on the world that no other mass movement can match. “Today’s global sustainability crisis would certainly be worse without the spread of environmentalism since the 1960s.” Worldwide, more than 1,000 “environmental agreements are in place.” Positive steps include more animal sanctuaries, better water and sewer management, more recycling, improved energy use, and booming markets for sustainable products. Worldwide, people have rallied to support environmental awareness.
“Hundreds of rainforest activists and indigenous leaders…have been murdered or have ‘disappeared’.”
The environmental movement’s heroic figures include Swiss activist Bruno Manser, who fought to prevent the destruction of Sarawak tropical forests and died or disappeared there. Jane Goodall worked with chimps and spent her life preserving African wildlife. The movement has moderate groups like the Sierra Club and more forceful ones, like the Animal Liberation Front. Environmental groups have managed to persuade governments to introduce better regulations and to encourage more-prudent consumption. For example, Greenpeace uses social media to highlight environmentally dubious business practices. Confronted with the prospect of damage to their reputations and their revenues, many multinational companies take these campaigns seriously. Global firms appear more amenable to changing their current practices if the costs aren’t too high.
“The limited gains of environmentalism of the rich are nonetheless enticing more and more NGOs to take a more restrained, pragmatic stance with business and governments.”
To fight for the use of sustainable palm oil, Greenpeace highlighted the global impact of tropical deforestation, where forests fell to make way for “palm oil plantations, soy plantations and cattle ranches.” Greenpeace persuaded Procter & Gamble to change the sourcing of the palm oil in its shampoos. Pepsi, Mars, Cargill, L’Oréal, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Johnson & Johnson also agreed to change their sourcing policies for palm oil and paper.
“Especially since the early 1970s, environmentalism has made a real difference in how governments regulate, how corporations operate and how people live.”
Greenpeace asked Nestlé to stop buying Indonesian palm oil from the world’s second-largest producer, Golden Agri-Resources. The environmental NGO made a “mock video” that went viral showing an office employee eating a chocolate bar and seeming to chew, without realizing it, on an orangutan’s finger. Blood spewed onto his chin as a caption appeared: “Ask Nestlé to give rainforests a break.” A huge wave of protest hit the company which soon stopped buying palm oil from that supplier, promising that by 2015 it would buy only palm oil certified as sustainable.
“The crisis of the Anthropocene would certainly be worse without all of these efforts.”
The environmental movement’s chief supporters are consumers who support sustainability by buying energy-efficient cars and refrigerators. Yet they’ve had little impact. People also try to reuse plastic containers, but the production of plastic grows relentlessly. The world’s seas now contain five trillion pieces of plastic. The plastic flowing into the oceans annually ranges between five million and thirteen million metric tons and could increase “many times over by 2025,” predicted a 2015 study in the journal Science.
World Wildlife Fund
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) advocates alliances between environmental organizations and businesses to preserve forests and wildlife and to oppose companies that export or kill threatened species. WWF awards the title of “million-dollar Panda” to businesses that donate $1 million or more. Recipients of the award include the Bank of America, Avon, Gap, Domtar and Coca-Cola. The WWF works with many different entities, including regulators, businesses and local communities, to promote conservation. It advised Walmart on upgrading its supply chain and Coca-Cola on conserving water.
The WWF finances conservation sites and programs to certify consumer goods and food. Yet its impact on curbing pollution, reducing consumption or easing humanity’s impact on the Earth is hard to measure. For instance, Coca-Cola will benefit from working with the WWF to optimize its bottling plants’ water use and to reduce its production of waste and emission of greenhouse gases. Coke is using water more effectively and it will receive positive media coverage for scant investment. Yet it still consumes as much as 300 liters [79.25 gallons] of water to make a half-liter [.13 gallon] of one of its sweet drinks. By 2010, Coca-Cola was among the largest buyers of aluminum, sugarcane, glass, citrus and coffee. It invested $50 billion in new manufacturing plants and advertising between 2010 and 2013. Its consumption will increase, as will its environmental impacts, positive and negative.
An Important Role
The environmental movement plays an important role in countering shortsighted attempts to boost economic growth and corporate profits at the Earth’s expense. Ecologists highlight threats to the environment by fighting globalization with massive demonstrations at global summits. Ordinary citizens observe Earth Day in huge numbers, recycle actively and buy environmentally friendly products.
Since the early 1970s, the environmental movement positively shaped the regulatory framework worldwide, affecting how businesses function and how people live. Even as more people have become environmentally conscious, the ecological crisis shows no sign of abating. By this measure, the environmental movement is not actually a success. Environmental activists must take some blame. They have allowed the preferences of those supporters who have money and power to shape the movement increasingly since the early 1990s.
As ordinary people work prudently as consumers and citizens to reduce their impact on the environment, those who consume more – who are also those with more money and power – have a greater responsibility for tackling the crisis. People who have financial resources must think about the larger context of the planet. While celebrating their successes, environmentalists need to debate and attack dishonest portrayals of the impact of initiatives such as CSR, market solutions, and partnerships among businesses and NGOs. For the world to move toward more ecological balance people must harness their anger at income inequality, increased consumption and the push for economic growth without thought of consequences – and they must embrace responsibility for change.