Societies change due to what experts call paradigm shifts. American physicist Thomas Kuhn defined these shifts as “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” These shifts occur regionally and across the globe. However, when they are global, the reaction and impact are markedly different, and often contradictory.
The major paradigm of environmentalism began in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a necessary shift because it is logical not to soil your nest. But like all shifts, it was hijacked for profit or politics or both.
The ideas of environmentalism, of living with an awareness of nature, are not new. Almost all hunter-gatherer and pastoral societies practiced animism, a religious form of environmentalism. Animism is defined in two parts: the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, and the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.
Environmentalism is built into most other religions, with the major difference being humans’ degree of personal and group responsibility for the Earth. The modern Western idea of environmentalism has roots in the works of Gilbert White, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir. However, these idealists never considered the impact of their ideas on most people. As a result, they are only heroes in retrospect.
When a new paradigm is introduced, a small group, usually called innovators, seize the idea and exploit it for profit or power or both.
Another small group who deliberately ignore or even work to prevent adoption are sometimes called laggards.
In the middle are the majority who see some advantages in the new paradigm but are unsure of its implications.
People know that with change there are winners and losers, but don’t know who they will be, so, wisely they wait for greater clarity, asking, “It sounds like a good idea, but how far do we go with it?”
And that is the question that puzzled me: How do people who accept but don’t understand the wider implications of a new paradigm come to learn the limits?
I discovered the answer while trying to determine the role of extremists in society. I gradually realized that they are the ones who define the limits of new paradigms for the majority.
The realization emerged from watching the introduction of the other new paradigm in the 20th century, feminism. It was a necessary change, and there are still many changes required. Most people, especially women, realized it was necessary and would improve society.
Feminism was embraced by a small group and resisted by another, while the majority in the middle asked: How far do we go?
After the extremists took over, the majority said, “That’s going too far. Now we are losing more than we are gaining.” Meanwhile, several of the laggards were pressured to adopt and adapt.
Early environmentalism was an idea before its time. But as Victor Hugo said, "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”
A report by Simon Fraser University confirms that people are creatures of symbolism. They say:
The publication of Rachael Carson’s best selling book "Silent Spring" in 1962 was a first turning point in the emergence of environmentalism.
The idea was reinforced by another powerful symbol a few years later: the composite photographic "Earthrise" image from pictures taken from Apollo 8.
The picture is from 22,000 miles above the Earth, and there is no evidence of humankind at all. The image made people conscious of the finiteness of our planet.
The idea of limits became the major theme of the environmental movement. Three books of influence were Paul Ehrlich’s "The Population Bomb" (1968), Dennis Meadows' "Limits to Growth" (1972), and the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future" (1987).
Groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Suzuki Foundation emerged to exploit the idea, primarily to acquire political power. They controlled by eco-bullying from the moral high ground.
Gradually, a few people began to question the claims made. Aaron Wildavsky’s book “But is it True?” (1995) examined all the claims of environmental catastrophe, including Carson’s charge against DDT.
However, the public remained unaware because the media ignored problems with the claims or agreed with the eco-bullies. Environmentalists also launched personal attacks on any who raised questions. Critics were easily marginalized as “skeptics”, “deniers” “conspiracy theorists” or on the payroll of fossil fuel companies.
Many other people, in contrast, accepted the ideas of environmentalism. Emboldened by this success, environmentalists began to impose their ideas on other cultures, just like modern missionaries. Paul Driessen identified this practice in his book with the devastating subtitle "Eco-Imperialism: Green Power Black Death." The “black death” refers mostly to the estimated 100 million Africans who died unnecessarily because DDT was banned thanks to Carson's book’s false claims.
Gradually, as the false threats, claims of disaster and all the lies are slowly exposed, the final phase of paradigm adoption emerges. You can admit the error and make amends, or you double down and become more extreme.
With paradigms, the latter is always the choice of those who exploited the idea. Ironically, as they become more extreme, they further define the limits of the idea for the majority.
As people lose jobs, economies falter, and they learn that there is no credibility to the stories used for leverage, they adapt and adopt the necessary new paradigm and consign the exploiters to the scrap heap of history.
Unfortunately, these exploiters are never held accountable for the communities destroyed, the industries and businesses eliminated and the lives disrupted or even lost.