More eco-populism, less eco-chic

Environmentalists need to stop saving the world so they can save the world

Environmental issues have come roaring back into our psyche after almost two years in the doldrums, evidenced by various reports and magazine articles this summer.

Despite this, there seems to be disconnection among the general public regarding solutions to our environmental problems. Why is that the case when, in the year 2010, the environment should be the number one issue on people’s minds?
There are several factors that contribute to this disconnect.

First, politicians in Canada (especially in Manitoba) can be blamed for having a lack of concise and exciting plans for green economic policies that would engage citizens.

Another important fact is the influence large fossil fuel corporations like Shell and Exxon Mobil have on our energy policy in North America. This influence blocks the way towards strong and competitive clean energy policies that would allow the nurturing of wind, solar, and hydro energy.

That said, it may be, ironically, that the environmental movement at times blocks the way toward a coherent path for a green planet. Various questionable protest tactics focus on miniscule things at the expense of the bigger picture and promote a lifestyle that many Manitobans and Canadians only wish they can afford.

One such case occurred on Dec. 7, 2009: twenty Greenpeace protesters were arrested after scaling the Parliament building in Ottawa before the Copenhagen conference. They had plastered a sign that read, “Climate Inaction Costs Lives.”

While it may be true that the intentions of Greenpeace and their concern about a lack of climate change policy were good, the stunt failed to get the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It also damaged some goodwill among the members of the general public who do have sympathy for such tactics.

One example of environmentalists raising awareness about small issues is the University of Winnipeg’s student group Ecological People in Action (EcoPIA).

While EcoPIA should be commended for their commitment to promoting composting, holding “stuff swaps” every few months and encouraging other ways to reduce waste, their constant awareness-raising about such smaller issues without going after the bigger picture – pushing for a green economy among the student population – only does a discredit to what we need on a larger scale.

Similar issues arose with the recent Winnipeg Green Lifestyle & Organic Living Show, which, despite being a step in the right direction for this city, had products that most lower-income people could not afford. It had clearly been geared towards a higher-income population.

That is where the disconnect lies. Green issues are hard to prioritize over more immediate issues. Low-income families are likely more concerned about surviving than worrying about Greenpeace protesters placing a sign on Parliament.

A university student working two part-time jobs and taking a full course load is more concerned about paying the bills and having a good job afterwards than composting.

An unemployed autoworker is concerned about their retirement, less so about eating hemp bars.

How do we reconcile this disconnect? Well, through eco-populism.

In his 2008 book The Green Collar Economy, Van Jones makes clear that we need an “eco-populist” movement that has a broad coalition of progressive business people, student, faith and social justice groups, environmentalists, labour unions and rank and file members of society all aiming for the creation of green jobs.

Such jobs could include retrofitting, solar panel installation and wind turbine building. The movement must also address the major issue of climate change. This would be a far more productive and beneficial way of achieving social justice and environmental goals – while going after the big nasty oil companies – than protesting would be.

Perhaps some in the environmental movement need to stop complaining about every way to save the world – in order to actually save the world.

Adam Johnston is an economics and rhetoric and communications student at the University of Winnipeg who focuses on environmental, economic and technology policy at

Published in Volume 65, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 7, 2010)

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