Green and sustainable have become almost meaningless. A powerful, practical alternative could move us forward.
Our current global environmental crisis is the result of countless acts of violence. These acts may be catastrophic, like the 2010 Gulf oil spill, or they may be mundane, like littering. But each of them harms living things, directly and indirectly, now and in the future. Recognizing environmental transgressions as acts of violence enables us to see our environmental crisis in a new way, one that currently popular terms like green and sustainable can obscure. Even more importantly, it provides us with a powerful method that can help us heal our hurting planet.
What does it mean to be green?
Green and sustainable are ineffective guides for our environmental behavior because they have lost their original meaning. Green? Too vague. What does it mean when we have everything from green cars to green pesticides? Sustainable? Too idealistic. Only nature is truly sustainable; we have yet to invent a single product, system or technology that is truly self-sustaining. I prefer the term environmental nonviolence because it is more precise and more meaningful.
But before we trade in green and sustainable for a new term, perhaps they deserve a fair trial. After all, even if we can’t seem to agree on their meaning, don’t they at least offer some direction to our environmental behavior? The problem with green and sustainable is that we have divorced them from their original meanings while failing to attribute clear new meanings to them. As a result, they have lost their power to guide us. The same fate has, for example, befallen the word dope. It means cool, except when it means someone who isn’t, or what they smoke or glue their model airplanes together with.
The vagueness of green has been so taken advantage of by advertisers that it is now almost meaningless. Greenwashing, the spreading of false claims of environmental integrity by the makers of “green” cars, “green” chemicals and even “green” oil refineries has rendered it useless as a reliable measure of environmental quality. Green also has the disadvantage of being, no pun intended, either black or white. Products, systems and technologies get branded as either green or not green, when in truth there is a considerable gray area between the two. Are electric cars green? What if their electricity comes from coal-powered plants?
Like green, sustainable has become almost completely detached from its true meaning. Sustainable systems are those that, like nature, sustain themselves over time without the degradation or harm that would lead to eventual self-destruction. No human-made product, system or technology can make this claim. Even the best of them require energy, use resources, and return less to the earth than they take from it. Calling a human-made system, technology or product sustainable is a contradiction. We are not yet capable of making things that can sustain themselves over time, or that can help sustain the earth.
Ironically, while sustainability in the true sense lies beyond our capabilities, the term as we currently use it (sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, etc.) has become, like green, almost useless. As one British planner laments, "The definition of ‘sustainable’ is notoriously woolly, and different local authorities will inevitably interpret it in different ways. Once conflicting precedents are set, the waters will quickly be muddied."
Environmental nonviolence – ahimsa in action
The muddy waters created by terms like sustainable and green have undermined our efforts to improve our environment, spreading confusion as they fail to define either shareable principles or agreed-to practices. Environmental nonviolence offers a more accurate and meaningful term grounded in the social justice tradition of nonviolence.
The modern nonviolence movement is founded on the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and millions of other less well-known figures. Nonviolence is, according to the Metta Center for Nonviolence, “a powerful method to harmonize relationships among people (and all living things) for the establishment of justice and the ultimate well-being of all parties.” Like Gandhi’s, their practice is founded in ahimsa [ital], a Sanskrit word meaning “love in action”. But, as its practitioners are quick to point out, ahimsa is not simply the absence of violence; it is a potent and positive force for good.
Environmental nonviolence applies the concept of nonviolence to our environmental behavior, giving us a powerful method to harmonize relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all. It is achievable, and it defines a clear benchmark against which we can measure our productions—houses, cars, everything we do or make. But before delving into its specific applications, let’s take a closer look at environmental nonviolence as an idea, one that can help us act with shared purpose and compassion to restore our planet.
Environmental nonviolence is not just a philosophy, but a powerful method. And it is a method that contains a self-guiding principle: to harmonize relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all. The aim of environmental nonviolence is to harmonize relationships, just as all of nature continuously strives to harmonize relationships. Predator populations grow too large and some die of hunger, allowing prey populations to increase, which supports more predators—a continuous balancing act. Nature’s striving to harmonize relationships is the very meaning of ecology, the science of relationships between living organisms and their environment.
Environmental nonviolence aims to harmonize relationships among all [ital] living things. We are human, and it is perfectly natural for us to focus on our own survival and wellbeing, both individually and as a species. But focusing exclusively on ourselves at the expense of others has not served us well, and neither has focusing exclusively on our species at the expense of nature. Now we realize that in order to survive we must harmonize our actions with nature. But we can be “green” or “sustainable” and still see ourselves as separate from nature, treating it as a broken machine that we need to fix. Environmental nonviolence balances the equation, maintaining its focus on people even when we apply it to the environment. It reminds us that we are “not man apart”, but an integral part of the web of life.
Environmental nonviolence recognizes the unity of all living things, seeking to achieve not only justice among people, but the ultimate well-being of all living things. This is where the anthropocentric attitude of the past several centuries broke down. We failed to consider the wellbeing of all parties on the planet. We believed we could hunt species to extinction, polluting and destroying habitats without jeopardizing our own wellbeing. Now we see that we must treat all parties to life on earth fairly in order to ensure our own survival.
Practicing environmental nonviolence
This is the principle, the idea, of environmental nonviolence. In practice, it may encompass a wide variety of actions. It could mean taking the less environmentally harmful path—carpooling instead of driving alone, or eating more local foods. It could mean abstaining from environmentally harmful activities, or standing up to them and saying “no!”
When eco-activist Tim DeChristopher disrupted a federal oil and gas lease auction (an act that cost him two years in prison,) he was clearly applying the social justice model of nonviolence to the environment. But environmental nonviolence encompasses much more than civil disobedience. Researchers like Ana Cummins and Markus Ericson live it as co-founders of 5 Gyres, a research organization dedicated to stopping ocean plastic pollution; businesspeople like Ulrika Mensch, founder of the Ethletic footwear company making Fairtrade and Forest Stewardship Council certified organic sneakers are making business less environmentally violent, as are a growing number of citizens and consumers doing everything from reusing cloth grocery bags to walking instead of driving.
What weaves these diverse actions together is their common aim to harmonize relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all. Products, decisions and actions based on the standard of environmental nonviolence must meet this benchmark. We can still argue about what constitutes the ultimate wellbeing of all, but it is a far clearer standard than green or sustainable. Of course, as human activities and artifacts become more complex, total environmental nonviolence becomes harder to achieve. A house—even Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond—uses materials and energy and causes some disruption to its site. But even as our productions become more complex, we can hold total environmental nonviolence as a goal against which we can measure our performance.
And environmental nonviolence is not just the absence of violence; it is a positive force. By refusing to harm our planet, we preserve it for future generations, and we preserve life. That is, quite simply, the noblest aim of all. Specific acts of environmental nonviolence may have the immediate effect of conserving resources, reducing pollution, or any other of the positive impacts already well documented in environmental literature. But environmental nonviolence is ultimately about preserving life, life not just as survival, but as the right to thrive.
Environmental nonviolence has changed how I live. When faced with a decision I know will affect the environment (and what decisions don’t affect the environment?) I now ask myself, “Which alternative will result in more harmonious relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all?” For big decisions I use my Seven Stars strategy, meditating on the matter and looking at it from far, far away. My decisions are grounded in direct experience of nature, which I practice through walks in the park, hiking or mountain biking through deeper woods and, as often as possible, longer expeditions into the wilderness. I then carry that feeling, the wonder of nature’s ceaseless balancing of wellbeing for all into my daily activities, letting it guide me so that my every action becomes, as much as possible, an act of environmental nonviolence.