Why Environmentalism is Failing

Environmental problems are well-known and have been for decades, but we still appear to be edging towards a global catastrophe. Why? Environmentalist Graham Saul believes that part of the problem is environmentalism itself. He believes it has a message problem — mainly because it doesn’t have a single, coherent, unified message that people can grasp. Graham Saul has been on the forefront of environmental thought and activism for over 25 years. In this lecture, he parses the problem and points towards a step with potential planet-saving implications.
The central message of the environmentalist movement isn't clear, according to Graham Saul. And defining it is crucial to our collective survival. (Sebastian Gollnow/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Environmental problems are well-known and have been for decades, but we still appear to be edging towards a global catastrophe. Why? Environmentalist Graham Saul believes that part of the problem is environmentalism itself. He believes it has a message problem — mainly because it doesn't have a single, coherent, unified message that people can grasp. Graham Saul has been on the forefront of environmental thought and activism for over 25 years. In this lecture, he parses the problem and points towards a step with potential planet-saving implications.

We are running out of time. According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that we have just over a decade to turn things around to minimize the impact of global warming.

I've come to realize that as environmentalists, we don't have a clear easily understood or commonly used answer to the question 'what are environmentalists fighting for?' We need to find a way to bring this overarching problem and solution into focus.- Graham Saul

Communication breakdown

But Graham Saul, a Metcalf Innovation Fellow and the Executive Director of Nature Canada, is worried that the message still isn't getting through: "I've come to realize that as environmentalists, we don't have a clear easily understood or commonly used answer to the question 'what are environmentalists fighting for?' We need to find a way to bring this overarching problem and solution into focus."

In his lecture delivered at the Alliance Française in Toronto, Saul details the communication failures that have impeded the environmental movement. The interviews that he conducted with over 100 environmentalists indicate that people do have clear ideas about what the environmental movements stands for, but that their ideas are too disparate and incoherent.

His research then led him to examine major social movements, like the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the civil rights movement in the 20th. Both were able to galvanize support because people could associate a few central terms with each of them: justice, equality, humanity. Successful social movements have always been able to say exactly what they are fighting for.

"Ethical Fog"

Graham Saul (Guntar Kravis)
One crucial step, Saul argues, is that we have to emerge out of what he calls our "ethical fog". As he sees it, the term can be defined against the backdrop of history: "The struggles that seem obviously righteous to us today — in their own time, were perceived with an amazing degree of moral relativism by mainstream politicians, the media, and vast segments of society."

But environmentalism is different. Some environmentalists see capitalism as the underlying cause of the crisis, while others believe that "green growth" and harnessing the power of markets is the way forward. Some link environmentalism to other social causes, while others believe it needs a solo focus. These differences are all legitimate and real, says Saul. But he wants to funnel these differences into a common goal: "I am asking environmentalists of all kinds to put aside their differences and come together to engage in a conversation about how we can best articulate the common solution that unites us."

Getting out of the "ethical fog" and its attending moral relativism is paramount. The prospect of ending slavery in the 19th century, for example, was often expressed in degrees of moral relativism. People had 'polite conversations' about whether ending slavery was good for the economy. 

Hope

But the time for polite conversation about the environment is over. What's crucial is having a clearer sense of environmentalism's purpose — because that purpose will make sustained action possible.

It's precisely this last point that steers Saul away from despair. As he says, "If there is a problem that unites us, then there is also also a goal that unites us."

Graham Saul is an environmentalist and executive director of Nature Canada. 1:09

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**This episode was produced by Maggie Reid.

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