The disruptive environmentalist

This week I did a podcast for a great new blog by Rob Wreglesworth, the so-called ‘disruptive environmentalist’. I also met another disruptive environmental champion for breakfast this week, and for regular readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me, I certainly fall into the category of disruptive too. For those who like my opinionated blogs and tweets, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to calm down in the next few months as I am working closely with Defra (a hard task for me!).

As I was doing the podcast, I was trying to think what is meant by ‘disruptive’. At breakfast with the unnamed environmental champion, we discussed that disruptors were better than agitators. Agitators try to antagonise for no good reason, but disruptors try to blow a hole in an argument or a way of doing things, but have the capacity to enable it to be rebuilt. Disruptors challenge, but are always willing to provide solutions. This is vitally important – I see far too many academics/environmentalists criticise without providing any evidence-based solutions.

What might environmentalists want to disrupt? Well, the obvious starting place might be existing ways that society interacts with nature, which is leading to biodiversity loss. We might try to identify problems here and propose solutions to overcome them. But what about trying to disrupt narratives put forward by environmentalists? Is that a good target for disruption, or hadn’t we ought to be challenging these if we are also fellow environmentalists?

Well one of my lines from the upcoming podcast might tell you what I think. In a discussion about whether environmentalists are finger-pointing too much and talking ‘down’ to people who don’t share their values, I exclaimed – ‘absolutely, environmentalists are very good at sitting in their hipster cafes eating smashed avocado on dry toast and pretending that they’re holier than thou’. Sure, they are eating a vegan breakfast, but they’ve only done the two international academic conferences this year, and a backpacking adventure round Thailand. Before you send the Twitter mob, read this paper . Environmentalists rarely ‘walk the walk’ in terms of reducing their carbon footprint, so let’s stop the finger-pointing towards other people. In a democratic society, it’s perfectly acceptable for someone not to put the environment at the top of their agenda – but we are getting terribly good at saying the electorate are stupid for making decisions that the so-called ‘intellectual’ community don’t agree with.

There has always been a certain element of surrounding ourselves by the people and views that we relate to – e.g. choosing which newspaper we read and who we socialise with. It’s the same now with social media, we choose who to follow and whose views we want popping up on our feed. But there can be little doubt that polarisation is getting worse. We are getting very bad at having intelligent debates about the environment, and very bad at disagreeing well. We are getting to the point where we finger-point immediately – shooters, bad people, intensive farmers, bad people etc. etc. – this is hardly a good idea when we need everyone to be stewards of the environment.

I’m excited for the podcast to come out. The point I wish to stress is that while we can certainly aim to disrupt the processes that are leading to environmental degradation, we can also be reflexive enough to criticise our own behaviour. Some of this behaviour, particularly the finger-pointing and the tendency to dismiss other people’s values, is not helpful to the conservation cause. Sometimes, therefore, it is our own behaviour that needs to be disrupted.

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