Environmentalism is part social movement and part philosophy.

It embodies the notion that the environment — including and because of all its values — deserves to be looked after, protected from the worst of human excesses and conserved to ensure that it stays healthy.

This loose definition hides a much simpler truth. 

Environmentalists are driven by emotion that begins in feelings of anger and guilt about how humans have exploited the planet and finds expression in noisy antagonism as a way of coping with this truth.

Before those with this feeling click away to a more sympathetic website, it is worth working with this feeling for a moment.

There is nothing wrong with recognition of wrongdoing. After all without awareness nothing would change.

And guilt is founded in morality — a sense that we are right about something — so to be passionate about what we feel is right is no more or less than what makes us human.

It is the assumption "that we are right" that makes environmentalism such a controversial environmental issue

almost everywhere the environment is not as it was thanks to human ingenuity and world population growth

Can the environment be moral?

Over geological time the environment has seen many catastrophic global changes including

  • ice ages, 
  • meteorite strikes, 
  • changes in atmospheric composition, 
  • continents that move, coalesce and break up, and
  • sea levels that rise and fall

There have also been any number of local disturbances from volcanic eruptions, meteorites, wildfire, drought, flood and wild weather.

All of these have resulted in the death of plants and animals and in extremes the extinction of species. 

When plants first began to photosynthesise and generate oxygen it was a global pollutant to all the organisms that had evolved in the absence of it.

All those historical events were disturbances not disasters. 

In the long run disturbance created the diversity, complexity and resilience of the natural world. What we see, value and exploit is there thanks to the big global events combining with local everyday disturbances to provide the backdrop for evolutionary processes.

It is worth asking if the environment should be in a different moral place just because humans are agents of many current disturbances.

Some hope still from environmentalism

Environmentalism tries to foster the knowledge that resources and natural capital are limited and that the resilience of natural systems is not guaranteed.

If we leave pollution to go unchecked, continue to clear land for agriculture without restraint, and not set aside areas for nature, 7 billion will be too many people to sustain. 

Some actions of environmentalists can look extreme but are necessary to raise sufficient environmental awareness of just how dependent we are on the environment.

Except that none of this is actually about the environment. 

It is all about us — one species, Homo sapiens. This is because the environment has no notion of itself or the need to be saved from anything. 

But we do.

Rather than dismiss environmentalism as the extreme that requires dreadlocks, hemp pants, and time living in a tree house, there is economic and social advantages to making what it stands for mainstream.

If we don’t and environmentalists stay at the extreme to be feared and ignored, then this becomes a major environmental issue itself. This is because whilst the moral notion may not have all the philosophical legs and evolution could not care less about which species survive or not, we believe that we have a choice.

coal train moving vast quantities of natural resources out of Australia to the global markets

› environmental issues

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

tree planting to enrich the carbon and diversity of savannas in northern Australia

Recent Articles

  1. Global environmental issues

    Jul 26, 15 07:19 AM

    Global environmental issues fall into three broad categories based on the extent of their effects. Thinking this way helps us to know when the issue is real.

    Read More

  2. GFC | many routes to environmental issues

    Jul 26, 15 06:59 AM

    The GFC hit hard and fast, reverberating through economies everywhere. There are a number of ways that this impact fuelled environmental issues.

    Read More

  3. Fracking | A classic environmental issue

    Jul 26, 15 05:47 AM

    Fracking is drilling and injection of liquid to fracture deep rock layers and release natural gas. It is similar to drilling for oil but far more controversial — find out why.

    Read More

skylines are very different to what they were just a few decades ago | skyscrapers in Sydney