Why the environmental movement is dead

President Obama delivered his jobs speech last week. It was good. And from a business point of view, there was a collective sigh of relief in the media: there was no mention of the “Green Economy” anywhere—not that it helped the stock market, which tanked after his speech.

Way back in 2009 creating green jobs was at the heart of Obama’s economic recovery plan. So what happened? Well, I guess political and economic “reality” just got in the way. Since ’09 the global economy has stalled and the working classes have been hit hard by unemployment. So it’s come down to survival time—both politically for Obama with an election coming up next year, and for voters, who would rather have jobs and food on the table than taking tax money to fund airy-fairy green projects that might or might not amount to anything “useful.”

But this environmental ambivalence thing isn’t new. Environmental journalism got going in the early 1960s with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the famous exposé on DDT that ramped up the back-to-the-land movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s—the Whole Earth Catalogue generation—which faded away as quietly as silent spring itself. So again, what happened?

In the simplest terms the hippies just grew up and got real jobs. They left the communal farms, got mortgages had kids and raised their families. They morphed into the Me generation of the 1980s and evolved into the Starbucks generation of the 1990s. And yeah, most of them kept their eco-friendly orientation. But they also exploded into a supernova of occupations—from non-profit workers to commercial artists to researchers to tax consultants—with tastes that grew evermore refined, moving upmarket from rusty pickups to the shiniest sheet metal they could afford.

Throughout the process, the successful ones went from comfortable to fabulously wealthy. Today the top ten percent of the U.S. population (and it must be somewhat similar here in Canada) owns 80 percent of the population’s total wealth.

And the politics says it all. The political agenda has turned decidedly conservative. In real terms, that translates into a voting population that seeks to protect and grow its personal assets with as little interference from government as possible. This has led, as we all know, to some predictable results: the deregulation of business, demise of labour unions, massive lowering of taxes on wealth, reduction in government-funded social services and environmental protection and so on. Life, it seems, has become an endless game of “chasing the cash.” And that’s just the domestic scene.

Internationally it’s the same. The Amero-Anglo-Euro agenda has been aimed squarely at the control of strategic resources (read: energy, natural resources, human “capital” and food production). This power axis has been continuously involved in a geopolitical—and real—resource wars for the past 50 years, ever since the prospect of declining oil and gas reserves was first noted by geologists. International concern for the environment? Nadda. Whatever’s been done has been merely window dressing, with the exception of the banning of CFCs, yeah, those nasty refrigerants that were eating a hole through Earth’s ozone layer.

Here in Canada we’re managing to put oil and jobs ahead of the environment in a massive way with our tar sands oil mining venture—one of the dirtiest mega-projects in the world. Meanwhile, our good old underemployed Altantic Canadians make their pilgrimages to Fort McMurray for the fattest paycheques of their lives, and who could blame them, really, what with the fishery in total collapse? (And I’m pretty sure there is some kind of cruel irony in that, too.)

And now that our economy is stalling, like our neighbour’s to the south, our focus will be even less on the environment—and more on business development—as we move ahead.

Want proof? One need only to look at the recent Conservative government’s move to lay off 700 workers—fully 11 percent of the entire staff at Environment Canada—while granting corporations a generous $6 billion annual tax cut in an effort to create jobs, which has yet to materialize. Of course the CEOs of our biggest corporations aren’t complaining about any of this.

And don’t look to science or academia for too much help on the environmental front. Research today is a race toward corporate funding, so only those things that promise to “pay off” get funded. How about mind control research? There’s a market for that in the security sector. Let’s do that!

I haven’t even mentioned the lack of public outrage about the catastrophic Fukushima meltdown and radiation “leaks” (deluge would be more like it) or the inherent dangers of nuclear power on all living things on the planet. Or why ocean life here in Passamaquoddy Bay is full of flame retardants and worse.

Want the real reason the environmental movement is dead? As social critic Naomi Klein pointed out last week, Victoria (Posh Spice-girl) Beckham recently snapped up 100 Hermes Birkin bags for the low, low price of $2 million. Now, how can quoting Albert Einstein that “nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet” offset behaviour like that?

The easiest answer seems to be “human nature;” our nature against the rest of nature, as always.


  1. Very thoughtful treatment of some sad facts.

    Glad you brought up the hippies (my hand raised). Not all of my generation went that back-to-the-garden route. The majority of my high school classmates dug into their traditional mores all the deeper when they felt them to be under siege by the rest of us. Those alignments have largely held, to judge by my interviews during reunions. Most of those who leaned left and liberal in 1966 still do today and few of them made the big bucks. They tended to be academics, social workers, and teachers. The wealthy ones in my group inherited family businesses, for the most part. A few went to law school.

    I'm afraid I must admit to generally, simplistically, seeing the right/left divide as a reflection of the old Vietnam era divisions. So, yes, reality did intervene, but the approaches to reality that differentiated us in 1966 still seem determinative today.

    "Victoria (Posh Spice-girl) Beckham recently snapped up 100 Hermes Birkin bags for the low, low price of $2 million."

    Here's another sheepish admission. When '08 revealed an economy that was permanently altered, I had one point of relief: Maybe, at last, we'd have heard the end of Paris Hilton and her shallow-way-down-deep influence. And it was quiet on the purse front for a few months, but the folks who are locked onto Dancing With The Stars are survivors. Like plastic, they don't mulch in too well.

  2. A similar experience here. Kids inheriting daddy's business, others going to law school, yes. The Vietnam split was not so obvious here, but did affect us. And I would agree that the majority of that generation was traditional. The hippies were the minority; a large minority, but minority nonetheless.

    As to Becks and Paris, it must have some thread tied to Busby Berkeley movies and the mindless unattainable opulence set in front of the hungry masses in the middle of the Depression.

    Plastic, unmulchable survivors? Geez. There's a comic, frightening truth in that, isn't there?

  3. I sometimes think the divide really goes back to the Civil War, or at least to the reconstruction.
    Perhaps it goes back further.

  4. One might wonder if the divide is actually between compassion and self-protection?

    Maybe this is something ancient, both strategies being good in particular circumstances... but destructive from a sociological perspective when whole societies drift too far one way or the other, or polarize into oppositional extremes.

    I think psychology is a help understanding this. But I think sociology is a lagging study–semi-science which could stand a lot more investigation... say a Carl Jung for the social sciences.


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