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Environmental protection in the sign of evolution

Environmentalism: An Evolutionary Approach
Forfatter: Douglas Spieles
Forlag: Routledge (Storbritannia)
In the worst case, the romantic view of nature can stand in the way of adaptable environmental protection work, claims environmental studies professor Douglas Spieles in a new book.


Can environmental protection be understood as an evolutionary feature of humanity? Will such a perspective provide new insights into the inner contradictions of green politics and at the same time help us think through what environmental protection should be? Professor Douglas Spieles is ambitious in Environmentalism: An Evolutionary Approach. It takes a bit to grasp what he is trying to achieve, but the patient reader is rewarded with important insights.

According to Spieles, our willingness to take responsibility for other people and for the non-human world is a foundation both for modern civilization in general and for the idea of ​​environmental protection more specifically. However, this responsibility has been understood in various ways, both philosophically and politically. What we are facing is therefore not unambiguous, but rather ambiguous and moving. This has contributed to the inner contradictions of the green movement. Is man above nature, or are we part of it? Should our relationship to the natural environment be understood in materialistic or spiritual terms? Is the motive for protecting the environment human-centered or eco-centered? Should our actions be rooted in the individual or in the collective, and should ours orientering be local or global?

Mankind's ambiguous responsibility

This lackluster and ambiguous landscape is undoubtedly complex to deal with. The effect of the contradiction is that green people with shared commitment can have completely different perceptions of what we are facing. Many find their anchorage early, and from this they derive oblique lines of argument. It is therefore demanding, but all the more important, to establish a position that safeguards different perspectives.

We just have to acknowledge that it is not nature as such that we should save, but our own living conditions.

In this respect, my green authorship and Douglas Spiele's book resonate. It may seem that my own writing project has opened me up to the value of his perspective. He says that humanity, through sociobiological evolution, has developed both a willingness to cooperate and the ability to create different scenarios (which means that we can mentally understand the difference between past, present and future). These factors have been decisive for the emergence of environmental thinking where we seek to curb changes created by ourselves. At the same time, sociocultural evolution, with its norms and mental constructions, has brought us from hunter-gatherer societies through the cultivation of land and the extraction of minerals to industrialization and a gradually more synthetic mass society. Our capacity to change the natural environment has become increasingly powerful, while we are increasingly registering the effects of our activities.

Through the presentation of our biological and cultural evolution, Spiele highlights both the development of humanity and the ambiguities it has been characterized by. The landscape becomes no less complex as the book moves further into the socio-economic evolution, which is discussed via themes such as capitalism, work, growth and environmentally harmful externalities. This is followed by chapters on socio-ecological, socio-spiritual and socio-aesthetic evolution. The willingness to listen in several directions is a clear guideline throughout the book.

The socio-ecological evolution

There are many nuances that could have been addressed here, but let's concentrate on the socio-ecological evolution. Since the 1800th century, Western thinking has been characterized by the insight that our social development is rooted in an ecological context that we simultaneously influence and will always influence. However, this insight is not a closed truth. On the contrary, the understanding of ecology and ecosystems has been marked by upheavals, and it has changed over the years.

According to Spieles, our willingness to take responsibility is a foundation both for modern civilization in general and for the idea of ​​environmental protection more specifically.

For a long time, ecological thinking was characterized by a holistic-romantic perspective. One envisioned a natural nature characterized by stability, balance, equilibrium and cooperation, which we should do everything we could to let live without our influence. A good part of the environmental reflection of the 1970s, with Arne Næss and deep ecology as a central example, was formed along this line of thought. Untouched wilderness is in a way the ideal in such thinking. The challenge is that this perspective is hardly professionally sound. Ecology can just as easily be described as random collections of species, within a natural environment that is constantly changing, where wrestling and struggle are as prominent as mutual interaction. Therefore, we should refrain from seeing an ecosystem as an idealized society, and rather consider it as a temporary collection of varied entities. This means that there is no natural nature to apply back to, only an infinite number of new adaptations.

Offset Phase?

To the extent that the romantic view of nature has become entrenched in our thinking, it can in the worst case stand in the way of adaptable environmental protection work. Such a statement must not be interpreted as meaning that the stressors we add to ecosystems are unproblematic. We just have to acknowledge that it is not nature as such that we are to save, but our own living conditions. When we develop new technology and adjust our way of life, it is most of all about reduced carbon emissions, increased biodiversity and better relations with the natural environment being able to strengthen human society's ecosocial sustainability.

I am writing these words at the same time as my next book is being prepared for printing. What I clearly see is that my text has moved in about the same direction as what Douglas Spieles advocates. Could it be that the green movement is in a phase of shift, where we environmentalists are in the process of changing who we are and what we seek to achieve? 

Svein Hammer
Svein Hammer
Hammer is a dr.polit. in sociology and regular reviewer in Ny Tid.

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