Why Environmentalism Needs a Human-centric Approach

environment festival

When it comes to climate-related economic issues, news narratives typically focus too simplistically on the trade-off between protecting the environment and prosperity. Make money OR save the planet. Run a successful business OR protect our environment.

Mitigating climate change is often seen in the context of making choices that can be undesirable: flying less, buying less, ditching the car.
Is this why environmentalists are often demonized?

On September 23, 2019, we watched as 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg mounted the stage at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, and told world leaders, “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

The Greta Thunberg Effect and Newton’s Third Law

Greta first gained media attention as a determined Swedish activist who boycotted school to call attention to the climate crisis. Her early U.S. media appearances were calm and persuasive, and her speeches began to gain momentum all around the globe.

At the U.N., she gave an emotional speech with anger in her voice—which played to opposite effect in our polarized media echo-chambers.

Even before Greta finished her remarks, the Tweet storm had begun. Websites and social media were chirping with breaking news alerts, fervent commentary, and well-timed money requests from candidates and non-profits with opinions to share—on the right and left.


Greta and the environmental movement sought to sound alarm to the climate crisis and our continuing inaction to face it. But, counterintuitively to many in the movement, she may have invited greater opposition than support.

Much as she herself may not have wanted to, Greta galvanized both sides of the echo chamber. Rather than Greenpeace or Friends of Earth hitting me up for donations, it was self-described “conservative” campaigns and non-profits, now unfairly casting Greta as an angry heavy metal rock star, and her followers as unwitting pawns of angry left-wing extremists determined to subvert capitalism, ruin our economy, and steal our children’s future. And this messaging often works.

It wasn’t the first time this phenomena occurred, nor should Greta’s heroism be diminished by it. But when over 300,000 pro-climate activists descended on New York City in September 2014, the world was watching on their televisions and phones. Tweets, posts, and comments started to flow in, by the thousands, as concerned citizens registered their worries.
However, much of the outpouring was by climate skeptics and their supporters, who spread the word that environmental “extremists” were taking to the streets.

These two instances tell us why, as climate champions, we need to change our strategies to outflank the media narrative, and avert the seeds of blowback that too often undo our most important achievements.

What I see all too often is that, unwittingly, climate champions can generate more opposition than support.

climate march
Oftentimes when I share this observation I’m then asked, how can we move forward, if what you’re saying is that every move we make just evokes equal or greater opposition? Half the room wants to fight harder, to one-up their opponents until the eventual day of victory. The other half becomes de-energized and disengaged, seeing no path forward.

Neither of those are the response I want to inspire. The first only deepens the war, and the second invites capitulation. 

This is not simply Newton’s third law, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If that were the case, we’d be doomed. But it is true when the climate movement can’t step outside a playbook that is too often used and abused with precision by its opponents, in ways the movement doesn’t fully appreciate.

Instead, we need a new strategy, one that genuinely outflanks the media spin-narratives and playbooks we all fall victim to.

Re-directing the Narrative

“Doom-and-gloom” environmentalism—our movement’s overwhelming focus on blaming each other for the catastrophic consequences that we can expect from global climate collapse, unless we take urgent action—is now one of the most powerful agents driving opposition to the environmental movement. 

Our negative mindset could soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that undermines the faith, will, and confidence of the public to take the steps necessary to protect our planet.

It is time to shift gears, from our dependence on gloom, doom, blame, and shame, to a vision of what is possible, desirable, and within reach.

This is not a call for denial. There is plenty of cause for alarm. In the industrial era, human actions have driven atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to the highest known level on our planet since the Pliocene Epoch millions of years ago, long before the age of humans. 

This rise will doubtlessly continue for generations.

Fear is justified. Panic is not. Fear serves us in one way: to wake us up, and call our attention to a threat. After that, it loses its utility. It freezes us in place. 

The layering of fear on fear, so quickly we numb to it, that it stops us from acting. If we only focus on the problems, then our anxieties have nowhere to go.

climate march
We, as humans, don’t do so well when we’re panicked. We need clear heads and minds when it comes to finding solutions for the environment, especially considering all the variables that must come into play, including the economy, education, consumer habits, and so on.

One way to direct our fear is to hate. Hate strips away human empathy, and allows us to destroy what threatens us, as if we were a machine. But here too, hate is only useful if it is directed toward a genuine demon, a threat that must be destroyed.

Otherwise, the hate dehumanizes us precisely when we most need to be human. It deactivates our capacity to understand at the very moment we most need to understand.

Like right now. 

We don’t deny the utility of fear and hate. We simply notice that our fears are being continuously triggered, directing our hate toward the wrong enemy.

Don’t Just Think - Step Outside The Box

We have a choice. We can behave like Useful Idiots, and champion climate fundamentalism that varies based on your political leanings. 

That will keep us in fundamental gridlock, dependent on big vested interests on both the left and right, who want to lock in old-style industrial-based growth and pave a path back to the consumption-driven economy of the 1950s through 1970s.

Or, we can step around those vested interests—of which we are all a part—and continue on the path that is forming ahead of us.

A path along which we begin to empower not the big institutions of the past century, but people, so that we draw from inside ourselves the creative capacities that can support our species in the centuries to come.

environment festival

For inspiration on how to do so, we look to the ideas and insights of optimistic environmentalists from the years before cynics turned the planet into a partisan cause, smart scientists who see the risks but also sense the possibilities of our present predicament.

Innovators like William McDonough, who sees our capacity to create value by design; Amory Lovins, who wants us to reinvent fire; and Janine Benyus, who knows nature not as a source of fuels to be extracted and used up, but as a source of ideas and innovations that we can mimic. 

We also gain inspiration from the possibilities recently unleashed in our economy and culture, through which we are just beginning to take steps beyond the merely industrial.
The digital age, with all its many faults, has cultivated a kind of growth founded not on fossil fuels and raw materials, but on knowledge and smart design. An economy in which productivity gains can happen not in increments of a percent or two, but in leapfrog advances that multiply many times the amount of value we tap from a given amount of fuel or material. And a culture that values people not as mere consumers whose footprints on the planet must be driven toward zero, but as creators who contribute value to the whole, whose footprints leave a positive impression on the earth.

Harnessing Our Innovation For Good

Together we have built a civilization with which we can feed and nourish not only our bodies, but also our minds and ultimately, we suspect, our hearts. And we now have the knowledge and technological capacity to amply provide for our material needs—to provide the food, clothing, and shelter we all need to support our lives, and do something worthwhile with them.
Moreover, we have also birthed a set of digital technologies that can reverse the flow of power, from the vast industrial institutions of our recent past, back to the communities, families, and individuals that sacrificed their power and their sense of connection for the greater good.

Those technologies could drive broader gains in productivity than anything we experienced in the industrial age. Because they are founded on knowledge, they can increase the productivity not just of labor but also of energy and materials—of our treasured natural resources—by much more than today’s 1 or 2 percent a year, and perhaps significantly beyond last century’s 3 percent rates.

Instead of working less and consuming more, they can drive productivity gains that enable us to consume less while prospering more. 

That is an essential ingredient in sustainable, equitable prosperity. Because if we can grow productivity faster than we grow our economy, we can enhance and expand global prosperity, even as we reduce our draws on the fossil fuels and raw materials that lie beneath the surface of the earth—and reduce our destructive greenhouse gas emissions into our shared atmosphere.
climate festival

More exciting to us, however, is that by using these same technologies, we can begin to repair the connections between people, which were severed in the industrial era; to reawaken our sense of self and community. This is a far cry from what those technologies seem to be doing to us now.

They have divided us more than ever, into digital tribes and solitary individuals who engage in rhetorical wars with an impulsivity that can be dangerous. But people can reverse this power dynamic, and take greater control of these technologies, not by enlisting the support of the government, but by joining together as organized citizens. 

Lessons Learned

The environmental movement has been sounding the alarm since the first Earth Day in 1970. Despite the alarms, we sit here as a society feeling absolutely powerless.

It’s time we take a new approach. It’s time we get involved ourselves and not leave it up to the protestors, monied elites, and the media’s new favorite person to either glorify or demonize (depending on where you tune in). 

Protests serve a purpose. Media stunts serve a purpose. But big money has a way of manipulating them both to their respective partisan advantage.
If we actually want to see solutions, then we need to do more. We need to engage the majority of Americans and the majority of people globally to start thinking, not in terms of us vs. them, but only in terms of us committing to collective problem-solving.

So how do we do this? Join the Climate of Unity community today!

It’s time we ALL become ‘in this together’ for the planet. After all, it’s the only home we’ve got.

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Climate protection donors from across the political spectrum are set to announce at CERA this week a new voter education campaign to unite the middle 70% of Americans behind practical and effective climate solutions. CERAWeek brings together global leaders to advance new ideas, insight and solutions to the biggest challenges facing the future of energy, the environment, and climate.

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