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Rethinking Environmentalism: Beyond Doom and Gloom
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Readers of this journal are familiar enough with the environmental facts: human demand for resources and production of wastes exceeds the planet’s sustainable capacity, which portends future scarcity and potential calamity as resource stocks are depleted and pollution accumulates beyond dangerous thresholds. Deforestation decimates species habitats, industrialization intensifies patterns of resource depletion and pollution, sprawl pushes the urban-wildland interface ever deeper into remaining undeveloped areas, and climate change threatens to exacerbate all these problems and more. Readers are also familiar with social scientific analyses of the causes of such degradation and obstacles to its reform: the limited time horizons and regulatory incapacity of existing political institutions, social norms that encourage unsustainable consumption, collective action logic that undermines environmental responsibility, and the lack of reliable information concerning the environmental impacts of everyday choices all frustrate individual and collective efforts to live more sustainably.

From such dismal projections, environmental politics is often caught between the pessimistic defeatism of those recommending unpalatable and unheeded solutions as the only means for averting ecological collapse, the futile jeremiads of those warding off apocalypse with compact fluorescent bulbs, and the naïve optimism of the eco-pollyanna. Readers cycle between hoping against reason that the latter are somehow right and fearing against better regard for humanity that the former might be. A middle way is desperately needed, wherein hard-nosed realism about current threats and obstacles to meaningful change meets constructive criticism about current social and political life, and generates creative and far-reaching but viable and efficacious solutions.

In three ambitious and impassioned books, Paul Wapner, Thomas Princen, and Juliet Schor offer what may at least begin to dislodge environmental politics from this paralyzing stalemate among competing rationalizations for inaction. Each tries in her or his own way to inject a guardedly hopeful and empowering narrative into contemporary environmentalism, seen by all three as in need of saving from itself. For Princen and Schor, sustainability must be grounded in a compelling vision of the good life, rather than reasons for forswearing or feeling guilty about its pursuit, where living green can also mean living well. For Wapner it requires a new ontology that embraces ambiguity as liberating and informs a more enlightened and ultimately harmonious relationship between people and the places they live. All three seek to inculcate an ethic of responsibility that balances prudence and possibility, together yielding the sense that we can make a difference, if we are willing to critically reflect on the ways that we think and aspire, and do so while acknowledging the practical and conceptual obstacles that stand in the way, seeking transformation and redemption through the creative destruction of ossified ideals and insidious assumptions.

While constructions of nature have in the past provided environmentalists with focal points and normative ideals, has the concept of nature outlived its usefulness? Wapner suggests in Living Through the End of Nature that it has, as environmentalists have reified nature, building their movement around its preservation in what he terms the “dream of naturalism” and describes as the proposition that “we live best when we align with the natural world” (pp. 54–55). Here, “nature” stands in for an ideal of a physical world untarnished by humanity, defined as unnatural and a threat to its pristine condition, and an impossible reference point for maintaining “natural” environments in the face of all-pervasive anthropogenic interference in what can thus no longer accurately be viewed as such. For Wapner, Bill McKibben’s announcement of the “end of nature” comes not as a glum obituary or cause to lament the ubiquity of human influence, but “represents a profound opportunity” for the environmental movement to “liberate itself from a nature-centric perspective” (p. 12). Nature, he argues, “stands at the center” of the movement, but has become a distraction from the most pressing issues at hand.

Without “nature” obstructing our view of human settlements and affairs, concern for the environment can be reoriented toward the problems and possibilities that surround us (as in the German umwelt, or “surrounding world”) rather than being cast away from people as corrupting influences on that environment. As Wapner writes, this “postnature environmentalist trajectory” can address “urban sustainability, social justice...