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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006, 21:59 GMT 22:59 UK
The end of the beginning?
John Manoochehri
John Manoochehri

Debating environmental issues is a great way to bring about change, but are we having the right debates? John Manoochehri, in this week's Green Room, argues that unless we move on from squabbling over the basics, people will not be inspired by the real solutions.

Asia-Pacific partnership protester (Getty images)
Everyone just gets depressed and disempowered hearing the same old cycle of criticisms
Environmental debates in the 70s and 80s were struggling to tell us we were at the beginning of the end. "The end of the world is nearly upon us!" they seemed to be saying.

Nowadays things have changed. Environmental communicators are struggling to tell us we are at the end of the beginning. The beginning of what?

The beginning - so the environmentalists think - of real political, industrial and social transformation towards environmental sustainability which is, or should be, taking place all around us.

But something seems to be blocking the light.

So, OK, the media is more or less onside with climate change (but how long did that take?) and other environmental problems.

Yet why is it so hard for the public debate to get serious about what is already agreed and available in terms of solutions?

Some of these Green Room articles seem to imply that the discussion is still about the details of what counts as environmental. This is misguided, surely?

Maybe plastic bags aren't so bad, maybe food-miles aren't such a good indicator, and maybe current recycling schemes are tokenistic. Maybe.

But we all now know that reducing waste, reducing the resource intensity of what we consume, and recycling efficiently everything we can, are principles totally essential to our own and nature's wellbeing.

In short, we all know that at some level the environment is not just a pool of resources and dump for waste.

It is this knowledge which makes people suspicious of extra packaging and transport-intensive food; in favour of recycling, and generally interested in environmental protection.

So why not focus on how to do it better, rather than nit-picking others' ideas?

Everyone just gets depressed and disempowered hearing the same old cycle of criticisms. Can we all not, finally, be done with the basics? Has the beginning of the environmental awakening really not ended yet?

To believe that we are finished, or should be, with the rudiments of environmentalism is not at all to suggest debate is not required. It is to imply that we need to get on with the important discussions.

More light, less heat

What we need to hear firstly is clearer presentation of the basic principles for sustainability which will enable people to make better decisions for themselves, and get excited about the possibilities of change, not petty critiques of how these principles may have been wrongly applied to a particular issue. More light, less heat.

Once a clearer view on the basic principles has been established, then we are indeed into the nitty-gritty of what's best to actually do: a no-holds-barred exchange, and ready helpings of egg-on-face and humble-pie for the fundamentalists of whatever sort.

Spider's web (Getty Images)
Where are the Green Room articles on the truly incredible technologies that mimic nature's own awesome design?

Every sensible person accepts that environmental issues need to be intensively debated - like any other feature of social change. But why keep debating the basics, indeed the negative issues?

Why not move on now to the specifics of what transformations are required and how to do them best?

If you look at how organisations like the UK-based Forum for the Future have pioneered a 'solutions agenda' for sustainable development over the past 10 years, tirelessly unwinding the old anti-environmental brickbats by focussing on what solutions are available; it is rather disappointing to see how reluctantly the media picks up the baton.

You will always find media-ready industry representatives with something to say about how, in fact, their product isn't so bad; just as you will always have scientists caution, we need more data and can't be sure or this or that.

But if we keep fumbling the basics which are broadly, if tacitly, agreed, and nit-picking whether the proposals from the environmental community are always precisely correct, we lose time in focussing on the best ways to implement change - on which there's not so much agreement, and we need lots of debate.

If you wanted to, you could debate anything. But do we debate the point of brushing our teeth? Or think instead about the most effective and pleasing toothbrush-toothpaste combo? Do we debate the necessity of school and education? Or focus on better systems of education and better access?

While the world and its citizens (indeed its politicians) seem to be in favour of sustainable development, it does seem odd to still be quibbling over whether it's desirable, or do-able, or economic.

Building on basics

So what are these basics? If the basics of the old school of environmental protection were reducing pollution, protecting species, and managing natural resource stocks, which maybe were fed by guilt and negativity; the new wave of sustainability starts with radical increase in resource efficiency of modern societies through innovation in industrial production and lifestyles, and moves up to developing new attitudes to nature - in all of which the focus is on excellence, creativity and quality of life.

Where are the Green Room articles on the truly incredible technologies that mimic nature's own awesome design; the inspiring stories of how conservationists and indigenous people have worked out ways of integrating biodiversity protection and sustainable livelihoods; the fascinating breakthroughs in economics and social science in unpacking the really deep-seated problems with our current ways of life; the every day stories of people quietly getting on with big lifestyle change?

President Bush at a hydrogen fueling station
All of us should look for solutions, says John Manoochehri

We must not let relatively trivial problems irritate, confuse and exasperate us. Instead, we ought to get inspired and happily brow-furrowed by the wealth of serious sustainability options opening out before us.

The party of sustainability solutions has started - and it rocks, sandals absolutely not allowed. But sometimes it feels like the mainstream media is still straining to read the invitation card.

Nowadays, it's not the environmental community who are the nay-sayers, nit-pickers, indeed fight-pickers. It is the media striving for a false "balance" and a contrary line, and quibblers with not-very-hidden vested interests in the unsustainable status quo.

Wised-up scientists, policy makers, industrialists, and active citizens just get on with creating, choosing between and implementing real solutions - and having challenging, fun and rewarding lives in the process.

While they don't pretend to have all the answers, at least for them the end of the beginning is finally - thankfully - truly upon us.

John Manoochehri is an Associate Fellow at Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, researching methods for measuring the resource efficiency of industrial societies

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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