A quick google of “the environmentalist movement” and past the usual dictionary definition and Wikipedia entry comes a link to its history as written up by environmental organisation GreenPeace.
One of the first texts exploring the connections between humans and the environment was from Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, in his book De aëre aquis et locis. In it he discusses how environmental factors such as the quality of the water, – has it come from mountains or marshes? Is it salty or useful for cooking? – and the health of the soil. Fast forward to the 17th century and Mare Liberum is published by a Dutch lawyer arguing that the sea is common property to all and as such it should be protected for the use and benefit of all.
Jeremy Bentham (1748- 1832), an English philosopher, then advocated for animal welfare laws pointing out that animals are capable of suffering; he was not against all animal slaughter but against pointless and unnecessary cruelty to them.
Humans have been seeking to spread environmental messages in some shape or form for hundreds of years
By the late 19th and 20th centuries environmentalism had become a more established ‘movement’ within specific, mostly middle-class, lobbying groups, particularly those concerned with increasing urbanisation and what that meant for the environment and health. A turning point for the movement was the 1952 ‘Great Smog of London’. Five days of lethal smog coated London at the beginning of December and an estimated 4000 people died as a direct result. This led to a major rethink of air pollution policy and the passing the 1956 Clean Air Act to reduce the presence of smoke and particulates in towns and cities. Since then we have seen the rise of ‘green’ parties such as The Green Party (UK) or Die Grünen (Germany) who have specific environmental agendas at the forefront of their manifestos.
The point of this brief history lesson is to show that humans have been seeking to spread environmental messages in some shape or form for hundreds of years. Now environmentalism, like other prominent political issues has entered the online bubble.
For example, Cowspiracy: the Sustainability Secret, a some-what controversial 2014 Netflix documentary, looked at the impact of the meat and dairy industry on the environment. It’s main findings were that the energy and land required to raise animals, in particular cattle, is hugely detrimental to the environment. It received huge support online from the vegan and vegetarian community as well as an inevitable backlash, including anti-cow memes from those adamant about eating meat. Of course it was also hugely helpful in starting or growing conversations that should be had about the environment.
We need to solve problems, not simply be angry about them
This is where I think the greatest benefit of online environmentalism is: maybe you will read or watch something that will start a conversation in real life. Maybe something a viewer sees makes them make a small change, such as buying a reusable coffee cup. Or maybe it leads you to do some further research and reading of your own so that you can really begin to understand the challenges around climate change.
Which brings me to the main problem I believe that the environmentalist movement faces today. How to escape meme culture; clickbait soundbites – and instead engage in real debate. The difficulty is that the environment has become a very emotional issue. Even the rhetoric associated with Extinction Rebellion can be heard as negative, angry and giving connotations of engaging in a fight. Whilst people have such a strong connection to an issue, it is easy to find quick (although often distorted) facts about the environment. This is contrasted with the vegan, plant-based movement which can at times be overwhelmingly positive and tied into a seemingly compulsory need to have a positive outlook on life or be aiming to at all times of the day.
I am not convinced such emotionally charged rhetoric, which is often what comes across in very short clips or soundbites, is beneficial to the complexity around climate issues. We need to solve problems, not simply be angry about them.
As long as the online debate triggers conversations and changes in the real world, it is something we should appreciate
Trying to sort through the barrage of information related to veganism, sustainability, agriculture pollution and fossil fuels is, put simply, exhausting. But just because something is more difficult and complex, it does not mean the answer is to remove all complexity and resort to soundbites and short video clips. The environment is a vital concern – especially amongst young people. According to a YouGov poll 45% of 18-24 year old’s rate it as one of the nation’s most pressing issues.
I take this is a positive sign. It means there is genuine will power to combat climate change. Young people in particular have not ‘given up’. The difficulty will be in ensuring online environmentalism continues to be a positive influence in the challenge of climate change. As long as the online debate triggers conversations and changes in the real world, it is something we should appreciate. If it inspires people to put pressure on government and big business to introduce new laws and legislation, that is brilliant.
However if it falls prey to the information overload so often seen with other political issues such as Brexit debates and Donald Trump memes we may need to rethink how best to spread the environmental message.