Four Stages of Environmental Political Consciousness

The environmental crisis is an epochal event to the extent that some have argued that the Earth has entered a new geological era. In my 2015 book about “Environmental Politics” I propose four stages of people’s sensitivity to the environmental problem and identify a clear divide between the progressive and the conservative political approaches. The COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermaths are hastening the passage from second to the third stage which implies the adoption of a more radical approach to current environmental policies[1].

Keywords Geography • Ethics • Epistemology • Future generations • Polity 

An Epochal Divide 

Since antiquity, philosophers have explored the relation between humanity and nature. However, around the middle of the twentieth century the relation changed more than it had ever done since humans appeared on Earth. Hannah Arendt argued that a symbolic date should be fixed on the day when Yuri Gagarin was the first man to see the earth without being part of it. That epochal date could also be fixed on the day Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. In that moment, for the first time in human history, it became clear that nature should fear humanity. Until then humans were scared by nature, as it was mostly beyond their control. Today, when earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes or devastating floods occur, rather than being scared, we blame ourselves for not having prevented the disasters. Of course, it applies also to the ongoing pandemic. Thus we show our superiority even over the most powerful natural events. 

Climate scientists and other natural scientists, quite naively, call for a concerted and rational human action that will be able to avert the upcoming catastrophe. This of course is not wrong, but it does not help to construct a solvable political problem, a task that does not fit the rationality of scientists. We cannot expect scientists to provide sophisticated arguments about the process of social and behavioral change. In fact, the scientific reaction has included the implementation of a series of “solutions” such as green technologies, impossible-to-enforce international treaties and hopeless pleas for corporate responsibility. 

The Environmental Political Case Reframed 

Firstly, we need to define the environmental problem from the political point of view. Analyzing the definition of the environmental problem from the political perspective in the contemporary environmental political debate, we may identify four types of environmental consciousness, which give way to consequential political actions. We may assume that the four types are also stages, ordered in terms of intensity of concern for the environment. Moreover, although the four types are neither listed nor intended as a chronological succession, we stand for an affirmative evolution from the first to the fourth. 

The First Stage of Environmental (non-)Consciousness 

In the first stage, we can completely deny the existence of problems defined and catalogued as “environmental”. The “environmental file” comprises so many entries that it has become predictably nonspecific. Air, water, and noise pollution, as well as waste disposal, traffic congestion, endangered animal and vegetal species and so on, are such diverse phenomena that they are not necessarily supposed to be grouped together. Different disciplines and diverse professionals are in charge of studying and dealing with the aforementioned list of problems. Obviously, this position is now outdated: at least three decades ago we learnt to catalogue a group of issues defined by common sense as ‘environmental’. However, although we have adopted a different taxonomy and have grouped them in the novel entry named “environmental”, when we deal with the problems in practice, we still approach them separately. Until a quarter of a century ago, most scholars still refused the idea that a comprehensive approach to environmental problems was necessary. From an epistemic point of view the prevailing idea was that the progress of each science and the advancement of applied technologies used by professionals and practitioners was the obvious solution to problems that were not “environmental” but rather chemical, biological, physical, engineering, genetic and so on. Until 1980, there were very few higher education programs in anything called environmental studies, nor had traditional teaching subjects – such as chemistry, engineering, geography – yet added the adjective “environmental” to indicate either a new content or an innovative approach. Economics was the discipline that would have synthesized, in the market monetary solution, each single problem that was worth separating from the others. 

The Second (Still Conservative) Stage 

The second stage entails a higher degree of concern regarding the environmental crisis: people admit that the relationship between humans and the environment ought to be somehow revised. Therefore, we select a series of different issues worth being categorized in the same entry as “environmental”. This is a step forward from the first stage because the new classification is meant to lead to building new links between phenomena and situations, and focusing on these links rather than on the single issues. From the scientific method point of view, we can tentatively assume that the first stage accepts the classical reductionist approach; while this second stage is more concerned with an interdisciplinary approach and/or with system analysis. For this reason there has been intense debate among epistemologists about whether or not “ecology” should be considered a “subversive science”. Nonetheless, at this stage the scientific approach is still prevailing over any political and philosophical arguing. Thus, the proposed solutions to the newly grouped-together problems, recently defined as “environmental”, proceed in the traditional fashion, i.e. keeping them rigorously separated when we need to manage them practically. Nowadays, this is the most broadly adopted approach. It implies that all environmental problems can be addressed in a purely technical manner. The approach insists that in order to solve environmental problems, it is enough for each operative organization to merely contribute to their own part. This consequentially leads to a comprehensive vision. At most, we can speak of interdisciplinary knowledge and coordination. Sustainable development belongs to this level of concern. People endorse this second level when they assume that traditional technological progress is not only the sole viable means of solving environmental problems, but that this type of solution will also favor further economic growth. 

Third Stage: the Progressive Shift 

At the third stage, we break into the field of real environmentalism, which can be more or less extreme. Moving into the third stage implies a social critique, i.e., we avow a shift from just environmental “issues” into an environmental “question”. This is something substantially different from the basic recognition that problems exist to do with the environment, which can be conventionally grouped and even given priority over other problems. This third level of concern implies the existence of a real “environmental question” whose solution would require a change in lifestyle, ethics, laws, technology, and production systems. New techniques are not enough to solve the environmental crisis. From this perspective, the environmental crisis is not a technical problem. Instead, it is an ethical, social, organizational, and ultimately, a political issue. For this very reason, environmentalists insist on actions unrelated to traditionally splintered bureaucratic competence. They move beyond solutions organized around the operative and administrative structures of most governments. Consequently, third stage-environmentalists believe that the problem should be approached mainly from a political point of view. 

The approach outlined as second stage is not an “environmentalist” approach. It demonstrates just a shallow sensitivity to environmental problems. Environmentalism is meant to pick up the environmental issue as a political one and associate it with other crucial political issues such as labor relations, civil rights, citizenship, political participation, citizens’ privacy, tax systems, etc. Moreover, the environmental question has its own specificity and is different from other more traditional political questions. 

Fourth Stage: The Radical Option 

The fourth stage of concern is the most intense. Radical environmentalists claim that the environmental question today is the pivotal political issue around which all other political and social problems orbit. Environmentalism is viewed as the approach to start with, to solve all other political and social issues. In the last three centuries of human history, the political debate has been hinged on social justice and individual freedom. Most of the political theory elaborated in this period was conceived in relation to different and contrasting ideas on how to combine and pursue social justice and individual freedom. This was happening in an era in which a growing wealth needed to be redistributed among peoples and social classes. All other considerations were often deemed a consequence of this priority. 

Radical environmentalists claim that we need to start our political militancy and our theoretical elaboration with considerations concerning striking a new deal between humans and nature. Although social justice and individual freedom will always be crucial, the starting point of the political debate should give priority to environmental preservation, non-human entities’ rights, the relation between people and territory, bio-citizenship, etc. 

The two intermediate positions (stage two and three) are the most likely to be adopted. Yet, the political success of the U.N.’s sustainable development approach has overshadowed the third level. These two positions – both seemingly reasonable and moderate – are indeed separated by a clear philosophical divide, which involves opposing environmental and political ethics, and a non-reconcilable epistemology. The dramatic break between these two positions has been underestimated and overlooked. As a result, we do not want to try a negotiation between these two philosophically distinct and seemingly incompatible positions. Rather, we need to make the conflict discernible and hence make both these positions “political”, instead of leaving them to rot in a sterile academic controversy. In my essay I call for a new dialectic which can be created if the crucial difference is recognized and given political status. 

[1] The subject is more broadly developed in my book on Environmental Politics, Springer, New York-London 2015. In this short article, I just associate it to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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