Environmental Problem Solving
and Managerial Environmentalism
By David Orton
Thanks for inviting me to speak to your class here today. I am talking from the perspective of someone who has been involved for a long time as an activist in environmental issues. I live in rural Pictou County on an old hill farm which has gone back to being wood-covered. But we are surrounded by the legacy of industrial forestry, the clearcuts and the ecological, wildlife, and social consequences of this.
I am also going to speak from a certain theoretical or philosophical point of view within the radical deep ecology movement, which is known as left biocentrism. Yesterday I outlined to the introductory class the basic deep ecology perspective, as well as talking about what was distinctive about left biocentrism. Today I will try to focus on what your class is about, that is, “environmental problem solving.” I want to elaborate on some points which relate to the class focus.
1. Environmental problems come up within a definite world view
As students you will find that the environmental problems that you encounter come up within a definite societal world view. In sociology this has been called the “of course” world. The society we live in is taken as a given. This world view is not generally challenged but is accepted. It is within this world view that environmental problems are usually defined. Supporters of the philosophy of deep ecology call the outlining of environmental problems within the world view of industrial capitalist society “shallow ecology.” I myself sometimes use the term “managerial environmentalism” to describe what you would be exposed to on this and other campuses, as students studying environmentalism. The universities, like your School for Resource and Environmental Studies here on the Dalhousie Campus, in the main teach managerial environmentalism to their students. This takes for granted the continuation of industrial capitalist society, the need for more economic growth and consumerism, the multi-national corporation as the economic model, human-centeredness, increasing population growth, etc. and perhaps, more generally, the subservience of society to the existing economic system. The concept of ‘sustainable development’ which has currency in managerial environmentalism, means increasing economic growth, plus the illusion of environmental protection, all in a finite world.
Let me give three examples of defining environmental problems within this “of course” world. Yet if this world view is set aside, then environmental problems would be looked at very differently.
a. Marine Protected Areas (MPA),
as defined under the 1996 Canadian Oceans Act, take for granted assumptions
which I do not support. These assumptions, supported by the federal government
through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, would be the overall framework
through which research contracts on MPAs would be given out. They invalidate
the real essence of what an ecocentric MPA should be. The assumptions
are as follows:
- An assertion of ownership by the Canadian state over the internal waters, the territorial seas
and the exclusive economic zone. Supporters of deep ecology do not believe in “ownership”,
whether from a state, individual or collective viewpoint. Ownership is a convenient social fiction
for a human society to try and enforce control over other life forms and the Earth itself.
- Support for ‘sustainable development.’
- Use of the term “resource” to cover non-human creatures living in the oceans. Implied is that
Nature’s destiny is to be a “resource” for human and corporate use.
- Use of the term “stakeholder”, to mean any human interest in MPAs. All human interests, whether
exploitive or environmental non-exploitive, whether major corporate as with the oil and gas
industry or small exploitive as with the inshore small-boat fisher, are lumped together. Non-
human stakeholders in potential MPAs, like the seals, fish and the algae and the oceans itself,
are not even considered.
- Upholding treaty rights in MPAs. This means that any MPA can be exploited by aboriginal
peoples. Thus the maintenance of ecological integrity is not primary.
b. Industrial or pulpmill forestry. As practised in the Maritimes, it includes the total removal of tree canopy through clearcutting instead of selective cutting; biocide use - both chemical and biological, to ‘control’ the problems inherent in this industrial human and corporate-centered forestry model; stand conversion in the Acadian forest and a consequent narrowing of the indigenous trees species to those few softwood species in demand by the pulpmills; a vast logging road network to bring to the mills, the “fibre” from the newly established plantations (now planted with only one or two tree species and biologically sterile, compared to the multi-species and multi-aged original forest). Research into environmental problems carried out by the Canadian Forestry Service, which basically serves industrial forestry (any Publications Digest will list many studies), does not fundamentally challenge, but accepts, the ecologically and socially destructive practices listed (high-tech machinery is not people-employment friendly), as part of currently practice pulp mill forestry in our region. Thus within a taken-for-granted industrial forestry framework, environmental problem solving can only be concerned with mitigative measures.
c. Sable gas and pipeline project. As you know, natural gas is now flowing overland through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, south to the United States from the Sable Island gas fields, but not yet available to Canadians living in this region. When I became involved at the early stages of this project, there was quite a large amount of literature to read on it. Many different studies were done for the corporate partners by various environmental consulting firms. But do you know that all these studies, which were put forward as evidence for justification of this project with its industrial life of at least 25 years, came to an identical conclusion? The conclusion was that this vast project, both in its marine and terrestrial manifestations, would have “no significant adverse environmental or socio-economic impact.” How is this possible? “Significance” here has nothing to do with real ecological or social impact but what is in the eye of the corporate beholder. There was no deep discussion, for example, of the contribution of this project to global warming. In the detailed pipeline route hearings, from the company point of view, the shortest line (of course the cheapest for the companies involved), was usually portrayed as the most environmentally friendly. It did not matter that the local people, who knew intimately the terrain transversed by the pipeline, said otherwise. The companies had many university trained “experts” on hand to give an ecological garnish to the shortest route, the “no need to change anything”, argument. (In the radical environmental movement we speak of such company experts as “rent-a-biologist” or “biostitutes”.) For those ‘landowners’ who opposed having a high pressure natural gas pipeline on their doorstep, the federal government’s National Energy Board, using the National Energy Act, was ready with the paper authorization to expropriate. Environmental problem solving within such a context becomes a charade and manipulation, essentially for corporate public relations purposes. That the newly minted Atlantic Canada Petroleum Institute now has its office publicly visible on the ground floor of Dalhousie Law School, just inside the front door, symbolizes the new corporate/university dance - or “partnership.” (According to a statement issued in October of 1999, funding for the Atlantic Canada Petroleum Institute is from the following sources: the provincial and federal governments are investing $1.25 million over 5 years; Mobil Canada is putting up $1.25 million, with other oil and gas companies providing $450,000 “plus in-kind support” (the other “private sector” partners include Shell Canada, Imperial Oil and PanCanadian Resources); the additional university partners to Dalhousie, are the University College of Cape Breton and the Nova Scotia Community College. The executive director of the Institute is a former manager of East Coast affairs for PanCanadian Resources.)
2. People writing about environmental issues are often academics
and not directly involved
The definition of environmental problems within universities becomes important. Who is permitted to define them? It seems to be very difficult for activists, interested in theory and quite capable of writing a footnoted paper, to be invited to write for textbooks on environmental issues, whether practical or theoretical, utilized in the academy. Why is this? Articles or commentaries are now being written discussing left biocentrism by academics in the university. Yet the people doing this are not involved in trying to unfold this theoretical tendency, even if they are generally sympathetic commentators.
Textbooks on environmental issues which are written, usually don’t give room for radical ecocentric views. One example would be the 1992 book of essays, edited by Anders Sandberg, called Trouble in the Woods: Forest Policy and Social Conflict in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The conclusions of this book give a left social democratic, human-centered perspective, with all its limitations, on the Acadian forest. For example, “development” is good and unquestioned, pulpmills are good and we need “the goal of maximum production”, wood is a “resource”, Sweden is the model for how it should be grown, utilized, and the spoils divided, etc. Yet Sweden’s “success” at timber growing through tree plantations, has been at the expense of the biodiversity of the original forests.
Another problem committed environmental activists face, is that of the media-designated university “expert.” For example, one academic in the biology department at Dalhousie, sometimes interviewed by the media as a forestry expert in Nova Scotia, has justified herbicide spraying in forests, said that roads not clearcuts are the problem, and in an address to Christmas tree growers who are at the ‘leading’ edge of biocide use, described opponents of spraying as “Bambi lovers”.
Those who write on environmental problems or issues should be engaged at some level in actual environmental struggles, if they claim to be the depicters of such struggles to the academy or to the general public. Environmental studies cannot just be a “field of study.” Alternatives, the main academic environmental magazine in Canada, seems divorced from front line struggles or pressing theoretical issues. It exists, it seems to me, to provide a publishing outlet for academics (and aspirants) in the “field” of environmental studies, defined naturally as managerial environmentalism within the confines of industrial capitalism.
3. Can activists and academics work together?
I think this is quite difficult, unless there is some sharing of basic philosophical assumptions. Even then it is hard to step outside the social status accorded to academics. The internet may provide such an opportunity. In a discussion group on the internet for example, unlike in the university classroom, a professor does not have the power to claim the last word in a discussion.
An example of trying to work together is the internet discussion group “left bio”, which is a mixture of environmental, green and animal rights activists outside the university, and academic-activists inside the academy. It has been operating for almost three years. The group, which refers to itself collectively as “left bios,” decides on the admission of new members. Each new person who wants to join is asked to submit a brief biographical note about themselves, and when they are admitted the new member is sent the bios of everyone else on the list. This is the way we have tried to address bringing together people who do not know each other personally.
To be part of left bio, one has to be in general agreement with the Left Biocentrism Primer, which itself rests on the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform (by Arne Naess and George Sessions), and agree to some general etiquette guidelines for the mutually respectful conduct of discussions. For example, one must ask permission of the person who has posted to the list, to post a message outside the list. All agree not to release the list of names off the list. Basically the rules have come out of our practice and are meant to facilitate frank, yet confidential discussions. I think the non academics have greatly benefitted from the depth of knowledge brought to the discussions from the university-based participants. The off-campus activists have brought their practical experience and political savvy to the exchanges. Left bio has functioned also as a support network for people who, because of their radical ecological politics, tend to be isolated in their immediate local areas. Personally I have found that this discussion group has helped me a lot in working out theoretical ideas.
I am also a member of another internet list, sponsored by the Environmental Studies Association of Canada (ESAC), which tries to link off-campus environmental activists and academics. In my opinion, it is not successful. While one can post theoretical writings to this list, and I do, most of the postings have to do with the culture of the university and the professional lives of academics.
In my own environmental work, and also more generally, I have believed there is a need for the creation of an independent science group, linking non compromised academics and radical activists. It is stupidity to rely on governments or the industrial polluters themselves to supply unbiased data, say on biocide impacts, pulp and paper mill pollution, or oil and gas impacts on the offshore. Yet shallow environmentalists, working on environmental problems within the managerial environmentalism paradigm, usually do just that. This is like asking the police department to investigate itself.
One example of a group outside any university which does its own investigative work for activists, and by which I have been inspired, is the Centre for Holistic Studies in India. This Centre was founded by the recently deceased Winin Pereira, but his work is being carried on by others. (See the publication Indranet: A Holistic Approach to a Just and Sustainable Society. The latest issue, February 2000, is a “Winin Pereira Memorial Issue” with commemorative articles by Lakshmi Menon, Jeremy Seabrook and myself.) I have been exchanging publications and information with the Centre since 1990. Pereira was opposed to Western “development” for India and believed that Indians should rely on their own traditions and knowledge. He made it the business of the Centre to collect and make such traditional knowledge available to others. (See the article by Pereira called “Traditional Rice Growing in India” published in The Ecologist, March/April 1991.)
The Internet has made it possible to break the university textbook monopoly to some extent, by circulating theoretical and philosophical analysis. It has also made it possible to seek out information much more easily, and to find out the experience of others who have faced similar environmental situations. A couple of years ago in Nova Scotia, when faced with the largest ever forest spraying program using the insecticide Btk (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki), we established an internet discussion group specifically to exchange information dealing with this particular spraying program demanded by industrial forestry interests against the tussock moth. (The spray planes flew over our own house many times.) While the spraying program was not halted, and our critical information showing that this spraying program should not take place never made it into the media, the critics on the internet group deepened their knowledge.
4. My own perspective on environmental problems
It has probably become clear by now that I believe that the fundamental environmental problems cannot be “solved”, unless we all move to an ecocentric or deep ecology world view - an Earth-centered theoretical outlook- and we have a society whose institutions and thought processes reflect this.
We need to see humanity as part of nature, that is, as part of the biological community. Injuring Nature would be seen as injuring ourselves. As I explained to the Introductory Environmental Science class yesterday, we must concern ourselves with the larger theoretical/philosophical issues of how to bring about such a paradigm shift. As Daniel Quinn wrote in two of his books, Ishmael and The Story of B, we need to move in our basic thinking from the “Taker” to the “Leaver” mentality. He is here talking about the heart of deep ecology, although interestingly, Quinn never mentions this philosophy in the two books.
The spiritual side is important. (This was an significant focus in the work of the late Rudolf Bahro.) Not of course organized religion, which by giving people “souls” helped to remove them from the community of life. I believe that we have to bring back some kind of animism. Humans could then see themselves without superior status, as part of a biological and living spiritual community. Then, destroying other species and their habitats would be unthinkable, from a moral or ethical viewpoint. From everything I have read, animism facilitated such beliefs. It is interesting to reflect on how with computerization, human-to-human communication has expanded, yet it has also narrowed, as we have come to exclude the rest of Nature!
There is a pertinent quote from Arne Naess for an
environmental problem solving class, which I like.
“The strength of the deep ecology movement depends upon the willingness and
ability of its supporters to force fact-dependent experts who underpin environmental
decisions into discussions in terms of values and priorities.”
Ecology, community and lifestyle, p.72
I would say that environmental problem solving must pay a lot of attention to a philosophical critique of the values of industrial capitalist society.
Not many environmental issues are winnable. My own practical experience is that the truth will never win out in significant environmental issues, if we are up against the interests of the dominant paradigm of values, without a very large mobilization in society. This usually does not happen. But it did happen in Nova Scotia when uranium exploration and mining was stopped. The primary reason was because of a large opposition but also because, compared to other areas in Canada, the uranium deposits turned out to be marginal.
In order not to despair, it is important to see oneself as part of a long range ecological and social movement for radical change. But we also do need investigation and analysis to mobilize support for our constituency. If you look at the Green Web Literature list, there are issues which deal with the Earth destroyers and there are issues within our own ranks as environmentalists and greens, animal rights activists, etc. Some issues are in both categories. For example, in the past Btk forest spraying here in Nova Scotia (which dates back to 1979), was supported by the forest industry and the provincial government AND by some mainstream environmental groups like the Ecology Action Center - as an alleged “lesser evil”.This is not the case today, and such a spraying program has no environmental support.
Since its formation in 1988, the Green Web has been involved in both practical issues - forestry, biocides, wildlife, protected areas, Sable gas, etc., and theoretical issues. The theoretical issues written about in the last year have included putting out position documents on the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, deep ecology and animal rights, marine protected areas, the ecological footprint concept, recommended environmental readings, book reviews and the recent ecofascism bulletin. The general research guideline followed, is to study with a problem in mind. The problems have to be real concerns facing the environmental and green movements.
One of the things we have learned as a research group (which is what the Green Web mainly is), is that to bring about some change, analysis must be linked with activism. For example, Green Web Bulletin #3, “Christmas Tree Cultivation: Open Season On Pesticides”, which came out a long time ago (in 1989), became influential. This was because a Halifax couple found out their summer home was alongside a Christmas tree plantation. They then took up the task of fighting the Christmas tree industry and massively disseminated and worked with this bulletin and educated many people in the process. Of course the industry still uses herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, growth regulators and wildlife pesticides. But awareness of Christmas tree spraying has increased. This particular bulletin has became a source document for many articles and is still used, particularly around the Christmas holidays. Within Nova Scotia, an organic market has developed for Christmas trees.
Personally, I do not think I can “solve” problems as the title of your course indicates. I see my task as trying to raise consciousness, first for myself and then for others, about particular issues and then, through such issues, open other people’s eyes to the larger ecocentric vision.
Thanks for listening to me on how I view environmental
problem solving. Analysis and action must be brought together. Let me finish
with a recent slogan which has inspired me, from the Friends of Clayoquot
Sound: “If you want the trees to stand, you have to stand with the trees.”
Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
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