Barack Obama’s election as the 44th President of the United States has dramatically changed the discourse on the environment for the country and the world. As religious studies Prof. Ira Chenus noted in his three part article, a sitting president can set what topics are discussed, can prioritize the issues to be addressed, can choose what symbols to highlight, and can set the tone for the country. Prof. Chernus prophetically wrote a week before Obama was elected; “… the President of the United States does a lot more than make decisions about specific policies. He (or she) is an immensely powerful symbol, doing more than any other person to set the mood and tone of political life for the whole nation, as well as signaling to the whole world what the USA is really all about. Symbolism and mood-setting are a huge, though often overlooked, part of the president’s role…”
In just 100 days of office Barack Obama has radically changed the national discussion on the economy, scientific integrity, foreign policy on Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, among others, alternative energy, global warming, and climate change. Whether one agrees with his actions and policies or not, he has been inspirational to say the least.
For the environment, Obama is the welcome rain after an eight year drought.
Do remember that during the Bush years, vapid denials of climate change, an assault on scientific research and integrity, support for pollutive corporations, and environmental discrimination were the norm. Afterall, Bush and the Republicans were pro-business with their eyes closed. Further, corporations, legal and man-made creations, argued forcefully in court numerous times that they had the same rights as human beings and citizens of the United States. It is no surprise then that greed and profit-taking no matter what were virtues during the Reagan and Bush years.
For environmentalists, the years after the 1992 U.N. Conference of Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro were a steady decline in their influence and effectiveness. There was a lot of hand-wringing and introspection, best summarized in the article Death of Environmentalism.
Today, it seems we are hopeful. The economic and environmental crises have forced all of us to rethink how we do business, consume, and live our lives. It is simply more costly in terms of money, health, safety, and security to continue on a path of unsustainable energy and conspicuous consumption. In the United States, some of the biggest companies have disappeared because of a lack of foresight. Auto companies, for example, have long used their Washington connections and paid lobbyists to delay the updating of emissions standards and auto efficiency. They look pathetic these days begging for money just to survive. Agrochemical companies look like corporate bullies trying to pressure Michelle Obama to use agrochemicals in the White House organic garden she recently established.
With scientific paper after scientific paper coming out warning us of the dire effects of greenhouse gases and climate change, the climate change denialists have returned to their villages or rather caves and have wisely decided to keep quiet. Has their funding run out?
As a participant and witness to the surge of environmentalism in the 1980s and early 1990s, only to watch it wane with the rise of the go-go neoliberal years worldwide, I am amazed at the comeback of the global environmental movement. I look back at the hand wringing of the environmental activists and debate whether the analysis in Death of an Environmentalist was correct. There are differences and the following show why this time around, environmentalism is here to stay.
1. Mainstreaming of environmentalism
Environmental issues are now part of everyday language and debate. It is now neither esoteric nor the domain of specialists. Environmentalists are no longer the highly educated, snooty, and condescending experts they were perceived to be. Today, the urban gardener, the cancer survivor, the worried mother, the last of the farmers, and the fisherman are all environmentalists and rightly so. Protecting the environment and conserving our finite natural resources are a concern and responsibility of all. More people are now conversant and understand environmental issues. Public education and the mass media, of course, had important roles to play in the mainstreaming of the environment.
Take Earth Day for example. Celebrated every April 22, first held in 1970, and founded by then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes, and separately by peace activist John McConnell, the Earth Day Network has more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries. They estimate that over a billion people participated in Earth Day activities, possibly the largest non-religious event in the world. For 2009, Earth Day celebrations include the launch of the two-year Green Generation Campaign on carbon footprint reduction and the creation of a new green economy.
2. Rise of LOHAS
Affluence, access to better medical facilities and services, better nutrition, and hygiene have extended lifespans and improved quality of life indicators. Accessible information on the deleterious effects of unhealthy lifestyles such as smoking, chemical drug use, and alcohol as well as that of industrial pollution have forced individuals and communities to confront these challenges.
Today, demographic shifts are towards an increasing number of people have chosen lifestyles of health and sustainability (LOHAS). Not only is this healthy, but in many cases, cheaper and gentler on the environment. The LOHAS sector is a fast expanding market estimated at $209-400 billion.
Lastly, I am also of the view that most people, deep down, have values that are environmentally conscious and consistent with a sustainable, socially responsible, and/or healthier lifestyle.
3. Legislation and litigation have reigned in excesses
In the past 40 years, very public and decisive legal cases in numerous countries, both developing and developed, have forced legislatures to pass environmental laws. In the United States, there is the NEPA, Endangered Species, Clean Air Act, among many others. In the Philippines, which has similar a environmental regulatory framework, the EIA, air and water pollution control, mining, and wildlife laws among others have provided regulatory guidance to officials, corporations, and communities.
Civil society has been proactive and innovative in environmental actions. Governments, corporations, and civil society have been at the forefront and receiving end of legal action on environmental issues.
Thus, pollution and environmental degradation are now perpetrated by outliers. The first outliers are the very rich and powerful sectors, mostly corporations, who bribe and corrupt their way into exploiting natural resources and public goods. The second would be the very poor with limited options and access to environmental, social, and economic services and resources. For the former, their actions are illegal, criminal, and immoral and can be addressed with law enforcement. They can also be societally ostracized. For the latter, it is addressing poverty and making them partners in development.
4. Environmental and economic crises are pushing for a green economy.
As noted earlier, energy and fuel consumption has increased significantly worldwide. However, fossil fuels are a finite resource. With greater demand and limited supplies, fuel prices are bound to increase at worse, and fluctuate at best. Also, fossil fuels contribute to global warming with disastrous consequences. As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said recently, it makes economic sense to invest in green technology, a green economy, and a green lifestyle.
A green economy that generates green jobs is what will start the economic recovery caused by an unregulated FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) economy.
Obama has pledged $10-15 billion a year for the next decade to fund the green economy. This will have multiplier effects worldwide as other countries follow suit.
5. The environmental-LOHAS revolution will be digital
Information and communication technologies (ICT) and social networking media will support and expand the above four phenomena. ICT will facilitate information exchange and importantly, mobilizing and organizing for the environment- LOHAS. For those in the green economy, ICT will be important in not only branding and marketing, but in service provision. ICT will open up new opportunities and vistas for environmentalists.
Like the United States, the Philippines is in a unique position to ride this green wave. We have the demographics, a young, educated, and literate population that can harness the opportunities and technologies. We can organize and mobilize to the community level-Gawad Kalinga has shown this- to become environmental and green economy leaders.
The Philippines can leapfrog into a green economy uplifting itself from the morass of poverty, inequality, and social exclusion.
The dawn of LOHAS and the green economy has arrived. What will you be doing?