(2) Environmentalism

Scholarly Environmentalism

Environmentalism, more so than in the case of other social and political movements, can suddenly shift and reorient in unexpected directions following groundbreaking scientific research or new ways of understanding from the social sciences and humanities.

One of the most influential essays in the intellectual history of environmentalism goes back to 1798 when Thomas Malthus published the first edition of “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, which predicted that a worldwide famine would one day ensue because population, left unchecked, rises exponentially while food production can only increase arithmetically. One of the most influential books was Rachel Carson’s ‘’Silent Spring’’ (1962), which many people believe ushered in modern environmentalism by raising American (and over time global) consciousness of the environmental dangers of chemicals such as “dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane - (DDT)”.

Before Carson, books such as Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” (1949) were influencing the emerging environmental movement in the United States. Numerous bestselling books and popular articles would also follow Carson’s Silent Spring, with many of the authors inspired by a belief that environmentalists must reach a global audience to bring about necessary reforms. One particularly influential book from the late 1960s was Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968), with its metaphor of the earth bombed by an exploding human population, leaving it no longer able to feed the starving survivors.

One of the most cited academic articles of all time came out in the same year: Garrett Hardin’s article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which sees the history of access and collapse of the English commons as an analogy to access and collapse of shared environments in modern times. The idea of a global environment began to emerge around this time as well, reinforced as astronauts took stunning pictures of a fragile and borderless earth from space, an image that soon became a symbol of global environmentalism.

This image also reinforced a growing sense in both the First and Third Worlds of mutual vulnerability of increasingly entwined economies and ecosystems. Three especially influential books in the 1970s were “The Limits to Growth” (1972) by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III; “Small is Beautiful” (1973) by E. F. Schumacher; and “Steady-State Economics” (1977) by Herman Daly.

“The Limits to Growth”, are using groundbreaking computer simulations to argue that economies would one day crash into the earth’s finite resources, convinced many people to question the value of unrestrained economic growth. “Small is Beautiful” took these critiques further and proposed reforming the global economy to decentralize and democratize decision making and ensure appropriate technology scaled for a quality community life.

Steady-State Economics” added further to a growing vision among some environmentalists about how to manage economic life sustainably, and became a foundational text for the emerging field of ecological economics. Some influential books were also written by politicians, such as Petra Kelly’s “Fighting for Hope” (1984) (she was one of the founders of the West German Green Party). Other influential books and articles came out of governmental forums.

The World Commission on Environment and Development, set up by the United Nations in 1983 to develop ideas for bringing together the goals of development with the values of environmentalism, published a report in 1987 called “Our Common Future” that included a definition of sustainable development that to this day continues to guide most governments and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs): “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Although rarer, corporate leaders have also authored influential books, such as “Changing Course” (1992) by Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny, who founded the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) in 1991. More common is for books to receive a significant boost in publicity as business leaders praise it. One example is economist Julian Simon’s “The Ultimate Resource” (1981). Another is journalist Gregg Easterbrook’s bestseller “A Moment on the Earth” (1995). An even more dramatic example is the bestselling translation of Danish political scientist’s Bjørn Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist” (2001), a Cambridge University Press book with more than 3,000 footnotes. Bestselling books critical of environmentalism, however, remain much less common than ones about the global environmental “crisis” or ones calling for global reforms to “save” the planet from humanity. The list of influential books in this category is long: three examples are Herman Daly’s “Beyond Growth” (1996), Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” (2005), and Bill McKibbin’s “Deep Economy” (2007).

A few environmental movies, too, have been highly influential in shaping public debates and global consciousness: one of the best known is Al Gore’s documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), which won two Academy Awards and was one of the reasons Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

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