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Radical Environmentalism

I'm a big fan of typologies. In the spirit of Ampersand and Hugo Schwyzer, I thought I'd offer a typology of radical environmentalism. Its structure is more like Schwyzer's typology of the men's movement in being an inductive clustering, rather than based on the logical combinations of underlying dimensions like Ampersand's typology of feminism or Cultural Theory.

Radical Mainstream Environmentalism
This seemingly contradictory title refers to environmentalism that is radical in its political goals, but continuous with mainstream environmentalism in its analysis of the problem. It shares the Malthusianism and concept of human activity as inherently destructive that characterize much mainstream environmentalism, though it typically sees those problems as greater in scope. It is the most accepting of mainstream ecological science, particularly Clementsian equilibrium notions. However, radical mainstreamers think the problem is too dire to be solved with the technological advances and shifts in demand that mainstream envirnomentalism advocates. Rather, they advocate major reductions in population and resource use, and a return to more local communities and economies. The Limits to Growth movement is perhaps the best known exemplar of this camp.

Deep Ecology
Where radical mainstream environmentalism gets its motivational energy from predictions of human catastrophe, deep ecology is centered on an ethical concern for the fate of the non-human world -- both individual organisms and environmental systems like rivers, mountains, and biomes. Indeed, they sometimes fear that it may be all too possible for humans to live a comfortable and sustainable lifestyle at the expense of the environment. This camp is by far the most religious or spiritual in its philosophy and practice, often claiming that worship of Mother Earth is the only way to ensure ecologically sound lifestyles. Linked to that religious attitude is a sometimes contradictory relationship to Clementsian ecology -- on the one hand it is accepted because it shores up deep ecology's holism and view of fragile equilibrium, but on the other hand science is suspect because of its inherent links to imperialist domination of nature.

Political Ecology
Political ecology is an extension of leftist social and political philosophy to environmental questions. It is decidedly anthropocentric, concerned with the social justice impacts of environmental change and rhetoric. Political ecologists are typically highly critical of mainstream positivist science, though there has been some rapproachement in recent years as the usefulness of newer notions of disequilibrium ecology has been recognized. The environmental justice movement is the main lay component of this camp. There is a great deal of diversity within political ecology. The best-known divide is the one between Marxist and structuralist perspectives on one hand, and poststructuralism and postmodernism on the other. There is also a divide about the direction from which the nature-society boundary is criticized. Early on, political ecologists extended leftist critiques of the way the dominant powers would justify social relations by ascribing them to nature (e.g. claiming gender differences are genetic) -- for example, showing how "natural" disasters are really the result of capitalist expansion. More recently, motivated in part by 1) concern that criticisms of naturalization seemed to give aid and comfort to anti-environmentalisms, and 2) the increasing adoption of mainstream environmentalist ideas by powers such as the World Bank, the direction of analysis has been reversed. Political ecologists now often write about how people -- in particular, poor third-world people -- are blamed for natural environmental changes. (Note that these two positions are not necessarily contradictory -- the line may be drawn too far on the "nature" side in some situations, but too far on the "society" side in others.)

I'm not sure I'd classify myself as a "radical" environmentalist, but insofar as I am, my sympathies lie with political ecology. Political ecology has a lot of interesting things to say, and acts as an important check on our hubris. At the same time, I recognize the political pragmatism of the mainstream environmental movement. And I am a believer in disequilibrium ecology, which has yet to make as much of a practical impact as the older equilibrium ecology (though there have been some promising baby steps in the direction of adaptive management).


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