Environmentalism vs. Sustainability

[Editors note: This piece originally ran as the lead article in the April 14, 2012 NJ Highlands News email newsletter, and is being posted “retroactively” to the blog on August 2, 2012, since it did not post as intended at the time it was written. With apologies for that oversight.]

I’m straying a little from my normal format today, and including links to an important pair of related ‘Long Read’ articles that you should definitely read. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist  addresses the issue of environmentalism vs. ‘sustainability,’ through the eyes of Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. In it, Kingsnorth states that “We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’,” and then asks “What does this curious, plastic word mean?” He then goes on to profoundly describe his ‘withdrawal’ from modern environmentalism and the reasoning behind it.

The second article, Hope in the Age of Collapse, by Wen Stephenson from the Thoreau Farm Blog, delves deeper into Kingsnorth’s essay, offering an analysis from a differing viewpoint through a series of communications between Kingsnorth and Stephenson. It also contains links and references to another handful of excellent ‘Long Reads’ well worth digging into.

Both articles hit home hard to me. Like some of you, I’m questioning just where we are heading currently as environmentalists. I’m beginning to feel that ‘sustainability’ has become synonymous with ‘mediocrity’ and that the foundational forces funding our movement are pressuring NGOs – using philanthropic social engineering – to buy into this ‘sustainability’ bullshit. Let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya while the environment burns!

While New Jersey’s environmental resources in general – and the Highlands in particular – are being hacked and shredded by the current administration, foundational funders and mega-corporate monsters like WalMart, PSE&G, Covanta, NJ American Water and others are enabling soccer Mom’s in SUVs to be green-brain-washed into thinking that their ‘sustainable Green Team points’ (link updated March 7, 2013) or recycling or shopping at farmers markets or changing lightbulbs are making a difference, all the while deflecting focus (and desperately needed funding) from the real, pressing environmental issues of the State that need serious fighting at the grassroots level. Energy policy. Land use policy and the State Plan. Water quality. Air quality. It’s all suffering, and absolutely no amount of accumulated ‘points’ is going to change that.

There, I said it out loud. There’s no taking it back now.

I know this is true – I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes. I’ve heard it with my own ears. Something must be done now to address this dilemma. I know that many leaders in our environmental community feel the same way, but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing the precious and shrinking foundational funding they already receive. And what makes me even madder are the leaders and organizations who have sold out to corporate influences and ‘mediocrity’ for the almighty (mitigation) dollar, rather than stay true the causes for which they were formed. But that’s the topic of another day’s rant.

The question I keep coming back to for myself is this: is it really worth all this effort for ‘sustainable mediocrity,’ given the amount of personal time and mental well-being that needs to be sacrificed? I don’t know. I wish I had answers. So I keep looking for them in the thoughts and writings of others.

If you find yourself in a similar spot, take a break, check out these two “long reads” and see if you find some answers:

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (Orion Magazine), and

Hope in the Age of Collapse  (Thoreau Farm Blog)

Read on!


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