A guest essay by Arthur Coulston
(The essay represents Coulston’s opinion alone, and does not constitute an official statement from Energy Action.)
For over a year now, various rabble-rousers have been ringing the death knell for environmentalism, creating an uproar and prompting a series of rebuttals and hallelujahs that taken together raise the important question: “What were we talking about?”
But just in case the water was not muddy enough, I offer my own contribution. This is not a riposte to either the initial “Death of Environmentalism” or any of the specific responses made since. Rather, it is my own answer to what I believe is the central question in this important debate: “Why has environmentalism struggled to address the issue of climate change, and how might we become more effective?”
Our posterity: An open letter to environmentalists
It is self-evident that in a democratic political system the short-term interests of the present generation can pose a threat to the long-term interests of their posterity. Without a systematic or constitutional means of balancing these potentially conflicting interests, posterity is represented only as a tenuous secondary interest of a handful of citizens who must balance and blend their representation of future interests with their own present interests.
In the modern era, these future interests have been represented primarily by what is referred to as the “environmental movement,” and have often been blended on the political stage with other interests related only incidentally, such as aesthetic/intrinsic valuation of natural objects and systems or the more immediate effects of regional pollution. Posterity is given rare mention in the political realm, even in the context of issues that threaten the livelihood of future generations.
The undeniable scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change demands an urgency of action that overshadows and often conflicts with many present interests, including some that permeate the environmental movement. This threat forces tough pragmatic decisions, and demands a scale of change beyond the scope or reach of interest politics alone. Climate change demands an examination of posterity’s representation in the government and society as a whole, and calls for a broad appeal that transcends political and ideological identity.
Climate change is a challenge to the prejudices of the environmentalist identity. To stop climate change, we must confront this challenge.
We must acknowledge, both in our speech and our actions, that climate disruption disproportionately impacts the poor and disempowered. The first to slip into poverty are those on the brink of poverty; the first to starve are those almost starving. Tomorrow, just as today, the bulk of human suffering will be born by the poor and under-represented — through no fault of their own. Future generations are connected to the disempowered of today, as both face the ill effects of under-representation.
The conservation movement’s evolution into the environmental movement, and now into the climate movement, has generally followed a thread of interest in natural systems rather than humanist principles. Groups organizing around social justice, human rights, poverty, and self-determination bear a more direct moral connection to the fight for our posterity. A movement that acknowledges this fact and engages these groups as leaders will empower the victims of climate change both present and future with a much stronger political voice.
Our own interest in the well-being of our posterity is a value we share with almost everyone, not just those we typically identify as allies. All thoughtful people care about the well being of their descendents. The divide between environmentalists and non-environmentalists is not created by environmentalists’ interest in posterity; it is created by divergences in self-identity, prejudices, and short-term interests. This must be acknowledged in order to make possible the necessary collaboration across traditional political, social, and ideological boundaries. With a discussion that centers on posterity rather than nature, the list of people and organizations ready to work to address climate change will become longer and more diverse. The greatest barriers to building this broader movement are the prejudices that divide us.
America’s founding fathers, having the forethought to see the value of government in protecting the interests of posterity, afforded for them protection under the Constitution. They declared, in the preamble, that the U.S. was founded to protect the rights and welfare of “us and our posterity.” We must continue to advance the interests of future generations in public debate, and affirm that they must be defended by government, as intended by our constitution. We must make such demands in the name of posterity, and not in an effort to advance our own interests. Such an approach has the potential to transcend political and social divisions and drive the scale of change necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Climate change does not mean the death of environmentalism, but it exposes the limitations of the environmentalist identity. And when the tide shifts, as is happening now, environmentalists must confront this challenge and become partners in a larger and more diverse movement: for posterity and against climate change.