(Deepti Bansal Gage/George Washington University)
Opinion | Environmentalism is a new fad in the Western world, but we can make it last
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was established by a U.S. senator in 1970. What did this mean? The modern Western world had finally begun to accept the idea that the Earth needs to be protected, rather than ravaged.
The Western world in this context refers to the portion of the world usurped by colonizers, like much of Europe and North America, which has generally placed economic vitality above all. It’s astounding that it took until 1970, only 50 years ago, for many people in the Americas to start acknowledging the importance of the environment. What was happening before then? Those not in the Western world, and those whose cultures persisted prior to the time when colonization and globalization usurped their lands (often people of color), generally acted as though every day was “Earth Day.”
These cultures understand the concept of only taking what is needed from the Earth and playing an active role in contributing to their ecosystem’s health. These cultures see the world as common personhood inseparable from the individual, rather than a distinct entity from which resources are to be extracted.
For example, in their daily routine the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, a Native American group of California, have traditionally used native species for foods, sustainably use their local natural resources to create tools like baskets, manage the land through controlled fires, and “only take what is needed.”
Another ancient culture that still exists today, which also emphasizes living in-sync with the environment, is that of many Hindu people. Hinduism has at least 90 holidays each year celebrating various aspects of life and nature including changing seasons, certain animal deities, and harvest times demonstrating that some cultures have literally performed a celebration of the Earth at least two days a week on average. Many Hindus today have very modern lifestyles, heavily influenced by the Western world, yet still maintain environmentally friendly aspects of their culture like practicing vegetarianism, using herbal remedies, and using zero-waste clay and leaf containers.
In the Amazon, studies have shown that 11.8% of Amazonian terra firme forests are sustainably-managed anthropogenic forests resulting from the in-tune management practices of indigenous people over more than five millennia. These people gained vast knowledge over time on how to cultivate and sustainably manage forests to suit their needs while maintaining essential biodiversity. Within the first century of European colonization, the Amerindian population was slashed by 90% and over time the forests and wilderness felt the effects of their new “caretakers” who promoted unsustainable economic development. As such, between 1970 and 2014, we saw a 60% decline in the size of vertebrate populations worldwide, despite the establishment of Earth Day.
While Earth Day was certainly not intended to be a green-washing campaign, it has unsurprisingly turned into one. One day a year, the Western world gives tribute to the Earth but people fail to take enduring action for the Earth’s benefit. The result: false hope that sufficient change is occurring, which leads to continued environmental degradation and catastrophes that affects all of us as people.
We now see the detrimental effects of colonization as the starting point for its even more problematic grandchild: unsustainable economic development. One may argue, “The Western world isn’t the one cutting down trees in the Amazon and mining in Africa,” or “Look at how polluted India is.” However, in return we must ask, “What caused this destruction or pollution?” The actual root cause of the destruction and pollution is unsustainable economic development caused by consumer demand in the Western world, and with our exponentially increasing appetite for disposable goods that are produced in or use raw materials from those countries.
While the effects of unsustainable economic growth are environmentally detrimental, can we learn lessons through our globalized world from native cultures who are more knowledgeable given their millennia of experience in thriving in-sync with the environment? Wouldn’t it make most sense to follow their way of life and their relationships with the Earth? While the outlook for environmentalism seems dreary, following the teachings of these other cultures is the solution. These are the people who should be consulted in the conservation movement given their millennia of environmental leadership.
Take a moment to think about the top three environmentalists in the media. Perhaps people like Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Rachel Carson, David Attenborough, or Greta Thunberg come to mind.
Notice, likely none of the people you thought of are non-Western or even people of color. Upon pondering the idea further, it may even be difficult to come up with the name of a single famous environmental activist who is not from the Western world, despite the amount of land historically conserved by non-Western people internationally. While these individuals may not be as well-known as Jane Goodall, they should be.
The Western world must put an enduring spotlight on the people of cultures who have had resounding success in environmental conservation since the birth of humanity, often people of color, and learn from them. Otherwise, we risk Earth Day and environmentalism fizzling out as a green-washing fad, without any concrete action taken and — even worse — the destruction of our home planet.