Issue Date: July 15, 2013
The Evolution Of Environmentalism
When I was growing up in Mt. Laurel, N.J., in the 1960s, it was a rural area, not the bustling extension of suburban Philadelphia it is today. Mt. Laurel Road, which ran in front of our small farm, was a high-crowned road, with the two sides of the road sloping down from the center crown to allow rainwater to roll off into ditches on either side of the road. The ditches emptied into a small tributary of the North Branch of Pennsauken Creek, which eventually flowed into the Delaware River.
I remember mosquito remediation efforts in which a truck with a 150- or 200-gal tank mounted on it would crawl along the side of Mt. Laurel Road and spray a cloud of insecticide into the ditch. Down one side of the road and then, half an hour or so later, back up the other side, spraying its cloud of pesticide all the way. Mom and Dad would keep my sister and me inside during these events. “That’s DDT,” my dad said. “You don’t want to get sprayed with that.”
Many C&EN readers, those younger than 50 or so, probably don’t remember a time when there was not some sort of environmental consciousness in the U.S. The environmental movement, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many of us remember when DDT and its chlorinated hydrocarbon cousins were sprayed with abandon to kill insects, and broad-spectrum herbicides were seen as an effective means of controlling roadside brush.
Three recent books trace the arc of the evolution of environmentalism from its origins through its current state to its possible future. Although each book has its flaws, they provide a useful framework for viewing the impact of the environmental movement in the U.S. and elsewhere over the past 50 years and into the 21st century.
Adam Rome, the author of “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation,” believes that “the first Earth Day is the most famous little-known event in modern American history” and that it “inspired a decade of far-reaching legislation to control air pollution, restore the health of rivers and lakes, ensure safe drinking water, regulate hazardous waste disposal, protect endangered species, and much more.” While the book provides an exhaustive examination of the first Earth Day—including its organizers, the events that day, and the participants in them—it does not prove its thesis that the event was somehow seminal in the rise of the environmental movement. Quite the contrary. The story Rome relates suggests that Earth Day was very much waiting to happen and was, in fact, the natural expression of powerful forces that had been developing for a decade or more.
Rome states early in “The Genius of Earth Day” that “the environmental movement was still inchoate in the 1960s.” He then goes on to show just the opposite. He cites the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962, President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to environmental legislation as part of his Great Society initiatives, scientists’ increasing awareness of the costs of environmental degradation, and many other elements of a growing environmental awareness in the U.S.
That said, “The Genius of Earth Day” is a useful examination of the genesis of the environmental movement and an interesting account of an important event. One of the incongruities that struck me as I read the book was that, at a fundamental level, very little has changed in the past 43 years. Legislation and regulations have vastly improved environmental quality in the U.S. and changed corporate, government, and individual behavior. Yet we are still conflicted over many of the same issues that were being discussed in 1970. Rome profiles Earth Day speakers who expressed deep concerns about overpopulation, the tragedy of the commons, problems with using gross national product as a measure of progress, economic externalities, and climate change. We still haven’t really begun to address those issues. We’ve banned DDT and the Cuyahoga River doesn’t catch on fire anymore, but there are still too many of us and our fixation on growth threatens our very existence.
Fast-forward to 2013. Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister, coauthors of “Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability,” are deeply skeptical of corporate commitments to sustainable business practices. Dauvergne is a political science professor and director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, and Lister is a senior research fellow at the Liu Institute. “What we call ‘eco-business’—taking over the idea of sustainability and turning it into a tool of business control and growth that projects an image of corporate social responsibility—is proving to be a powerful strategy for corporations in a rapidly globalizing economy marked by financial turmoil and a need for continual strategic repositioning,” they write. Nevertheless, although “eco-business is good for business and for the economy,” they continue, “it has limits as a force of environmental protection and social justice.”
Like Rome, however, Dauvergne and Lister’s thorough research into and reporting of corporate sustainability efforts undermine their thesis, which, by the conclusion of “Eco-Business” even they partially admit.
Throughout “Eco-Business,” Dauvergne and Lister point to efforts by a large number of companies to move toward more sustainable business models. Again and again as I read the book, I asked myself, “How can this be bad?” They write, for example, that “multinational grocery firms and food manufacturers are providing advice, funding, and technical assistance to farmers all over the world in order to help them improve energy and water efficiency, reduce toxic chemicals, and cut down on waste. ‘Taking care of farmers’ livelihoods,’ explains Steve Yucknut, Kraft’s vice president for sustainability, ‘ensures the stability of our supply chain and our long-term viability.’ ”
And that’s the problem, from Dauvergne and Lister’s point of view. Companies are promoting sustainability to ensure the integrity of their supply chains, increase their competitive advantage, and boost their profitability. Eco-business does not question the fundamental nature of capitalism’s obsessive focus on growth and its concomitant negative environmental consequences. “Absolute environmental gains are an incidental outcome rather than the goal of eco-business,” they write. “It doesn’t aim to curtail consumption to stop ecological loss; it helps ensure that any loss doesn’t impede more goods and more growing.”
Yes, that’s true. But it doesn’t seem realistic to me to expect multinational corporations, which are, after all, the ultimate expression of unbridled capitalism, to raise questions about the underpinnings of capitalism itself. About the best we can hope for from corporations is incremental improvements in their environmental footprints, and Dauvergne and Lister show that an impressive number of global companies are doing just that.
By the conclusion of “Eco-Business,” the authors seem to realize that they’ve effectively undermined their own distrust of big business having a positive effect on the environment. They make the interesting point that “although fraught with limits, the rise of eco-business presents an opportunity to govern on a global scale at higher speeds.” Multinational corporations like Walmart have a greater ability to influence their suppliers’ behavior worldwide than any individual nation-state, they contend.
Dauvergne and Lister are skeptical throughout the book, but in the end they admit that eco-business is still an improvement over past practices. “As this book has shown,” they conclude, “the motives and true goals of eco-business place strict limits on what it can—and ever will—achieve for the planet. But to simply ignore the efforts of big brands to take over sustainability and turn it into eco-business would ensure an even more perilous path into the future.”
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the coauthors of “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance,” do not share Dauvergne and Lister’s distrust of the motives of big business. McDonough, an architect, and Braungart, a chemist, enthusiastically embrace business as the engine that can transform our relationship to Earth. The authors also collaborated on the 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle.” “The Upcycle” effectively is an extension of that earlier work. If you’ve read “Cradle to Cradle,” you can probably skip the new book because, as the authors concede, much of the latter book draws on ideas articulated in the earlier one.
“The Upcycle” is stridently optimistic and relentlessly upbeat. McDonough and Braungart make valuable and valid observations but reach conclusions that seem, to this reader at least, wildly unrealistic. “Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem,” the authors write. “If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”
McDonough and Braungart express a worthy goal for the upcycle, which is “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power—economically, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.” Like Dauvergne and Lister in “Eco-Business,” McDonough and Braungart cite numerous instances, almost entirely drawn from their own work, of corporations implementing cradle-to-cradle principles to achieve upcycle ends. These efforts are inspirational and a reason to hope that humans can design products, factories, and even cities to contribute to a more sustainable world.
The idea that poor design is responsible for many of the environmental problems we face is a powerful one, and McDonough and Braungart provide many examples where they have collaborated with companies and governments to reach inspired designs that actually improve the environment. However, the authors’ flip dismissal of efforts to minimize the environmental impact of humans—what they call eco-efficiency—is disingenuous and sabotages their argument. “Eco-efficiency might also seek to curtail consumption: water use, for example,” they write. “But that consumption limitation is premised on the notion that we live only in a world of scarcity and limit, that the ecological world is insufficient for the world of human activities and industries. This is just not true.”
Well, yes, it is true. It’s true of water. It’s true of fossil fuels. It’s true of arable land. Earth has a carrying capacity, and we’re in danger of exceeding it. No amount of clever design or new technology will change that.
A particularly egregious example of the authors’ naïveté occurs in a chapter of “The Upcycle” entitled “Let Them Eat Caviar.” In a five-page span, they purport to solve Beijing’s pollution and energy problems through enlightened design, despite the fact that the city is projected to double in population to 40 million. “The more growth, the more good,” they conclude. “The demand side and the supply side woven together in a beautiful tapestry of optimized growth. A city twice as big and living within its means.”
If it were that easy, Beijing’s environment wouldn’t be the mess that it is today.
The kinds of corporate efforts to develop sustainable business practices chronicled in “Eco-Business” and “The Upcycle” were inconceivable 50 to 60 years ago. C&EN published a harsh review of “Silent Spring” in 1962; the headline on the review, penned by the chairman of Vanderbilt University’s biochemistry department, was “Silence, Miss Carson.” That sentiment informed much of the chemistry enterprise’s attitude toward environmental issues.
The first Earth Day was an important event in the evolution of concern over how human activities impact Earth. As “Eco-Business” and “The Upcycle” chart, many industry leaders have come very far in understanding that they operate on a finite planet and, to continue to be successful, they must figure out ways to operate sustainably.
That said, we still have a long way to go.
Rudy Baum is C&EN editor-at-large.
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