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Sources of information, ecological media, and more

Women reading the newspaper at Museums Victoria.

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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How do I learn more about climate change? Where should I look for quality news and information regarding what’s going on in the world? Can I stay up to date with things through Plurality.eco?

We explore some of the best sites for ecological information, social critique, and solutions to the ecological crisis. If you have something you’d like adding to this page, please leave a link to it in the comments below!

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Ecological media from around the world...

Bon Pote (French site, also with an English version)
Critiques of society, information about the ecological crisis, and mythbusters on common misconceptions about the ecological crisis. 

Grist.org
A nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Based in the United States. 

British Ecological Society Journals
The British Ecological Society have multiple journals with information related to the ecological crisis from multiple perspectives. 

Carbon Brief
Indispensable source of information on global ecological crisis and carbon emissions.  A news website dedicated to the climate crisis.

Happen Films
A New Zealand film company producing documentaries and short stories about different ways of relating to the environment, caring for it, and restoring our natural ecosystems. 

The Ecologist
Ecological magazine from the United Kingdom. Regular publishing of articles on the ecological crisis, as well as different approaches and solutions to confront the problems.

Low Tech Magazine
A blog/media site from the United States about low-tech solutions. Site powered entirely by solar so sometimes offline.

New Zealand Geographic
Magazine and online review of nature, ecology, geography, and human experiences in nature. Focus on film and photo testimonies. Based in New Zealand.

Re: News NZ’s ‘The Planet’ section
For reporting from a social perspective on climate issues in Aotearoa, this media platform offers diverse perspectives and engaging video content.

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Sources of information on the ecological crisis

For beginners:

Nate Hagens’ 4-hour course for university students ‘Reality 101’ 
This offers insight into the climate and ecological crisis, with information he believes should be taught to all students. 

Climate Q&A
Created by Ekimetrics, Climate Q&A is a chatbot like ChatGPT which uses artificial intelligence to answer your questions about the climate with IPCC data.

NZAEE (Educating for Sustainability)
New Zealand’s Association for Environmental Education catalogues climate and ecological resources for teachers and students, as well as interested public, on their website. For use in all contexts, from early childhood education to adult education. 

For the science-minded:

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
The panel provides the most comprehensive overview of biodiversity and the state of the planet’s systems, whilst being composed of researchers from across the globe.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The United Nations’ body for assessing the science related the climate change, they have a great synthesis of information about what’s going on in different corners of the globe.

NIWA Monthly Climate Summaries
This indicates the changes in climate that we are experiencing in New Zealand, and provides a summary of the climate around the country.

Environmental reporting Ministry for the Environment NZ
The Ministry provides reports on the state of the country’s climate, freshwater, marine ecosystems, air, and terrestrial systems every six months.

Our World in Data: The Environmental Impacts of Food Production
Researcher Hannah Ritchie and others have put together an amazing array of information regarding the impacts of our food system. Not just limited to carbon dioxide, the information covers ecosystem changes too.

Performance indicators and real-time information

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI)
This site provides a yearly review of climate-change and emissions reduction policies of many countries around the world. 

NASA’s Vital Signs measurements
US climate and space agency NASA regularly tracks the carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, as well as global temperature increases, methane levels, ocean warming, and more. 

Podcasts

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We've spent a lot of time reading about ecology to find the best resources. Our information will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.

Why plurality.eco?

Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

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Copyright © Plurality.eco 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Greenwashing

eco-friendly packaging

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Greenwashing is incredibly problematic for the environment, consumers, and the ecological movement as a whole. Not only is it irresponsible and unethical, it values profit and brand image over real impact.

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We are in an economic market where brands, businesses, organisations, causes, and the government, all feel as though they must become virtuous – they must stand for something, promote or explain something, and act towards some social, economic, climate-related or other goal. Businesses need to be seen to be doing good, which often means that they also need to be seen to be good – to be virtuous. Whether big companies should be the promoters of virtue in our societies is another discussion altogether, but here we will focus on the virtue of being eco-friendly, which so many companies now claim to be.

Let’s start off by recognising a simple but sobering truth: the most eco-friendly product is the one you don’t buy. Every time you ‘consume’ something – whether it is eco-friendly natural organic dishwashing liquid, plastic wrap for your lunchtime sandwiches, or a new energy efficient toaster because the one you’ve got ‘seems old’, you are using resources which were grown or produced using fossil fuels, transported around the country or the world, set on shelves with lighting, heating or cooling systems, and eventually sold to you. If you had decided not to make that purchase, no resources would have been consumed. This is the basis of ecological sobriety in consumerism – only purchasing things that we really need, and when we do make purchases, knowing exactly what it is that we are purchasing.

All advertising is an attempt to get you to leave this realisation of non-consumption, and incite you to purchase something – whether you actually need it or not. Advertising creates desires, and then shows you how the particular product or service involved will meet this new desire. Therefore, to some extent, all advertising is taking you away from an eco-friendly standpoint, because it creates desires which you then fulfill by consuming things, which is not eco-friendly.

Some advertising, however, is not merely informative about the particular product. Labels are a good example of informative advertising: we can see the amount of CO2 emitted in the production of a good, we can see how energy efficient it is, we can see the ingredients in a food item: this helps us decide which product to purchase. Other advertising seeks to convince us that the brand is good, the company is virtuous, is looking after the planet, is concerned with its workers’ rights and health, etc. This advertising can be informative, but very often it is suggestive, making claims and associations which are only partly true.

Let’s take the example of Vanish stain remover products. Recently, the company has been advertising on television that huge amounts of textiles are going to landfill each year (link to the international version of the ad, the above is the NZ version). The company sees this part of the advertisement as a commitment to informing the public about the ecological impact of their actions. It’s advertising brownie points because they’re “showing” they “care” about waste. It also creates emotions: we don’t want to be wasteful, we want to save the planet, etc. We’re now more open to receiving their message.

The second part of the advert suggests that by using Vanish products, you can remove the stains from your clothes and stop them from going to landfill. Let’s think about this: when you last stained your white t-shirt, did you immediately think to just throw it out and buy another one? I asked around, and no-one I talked to said that this would be their first response. They would either just wear it stained, they would buy a stain remover when they’re at the supermarket next, they would upcycle the t-shirt and use it for something else, or they would give it away. Vanish seem to think that a large proportion of the textiles (not just clothes, remember) going to landfill go there because they have a stain on them that could have been removed with their stain removal liquid. This is nonsense.

Not only are Vanish trying to appear as if they care for the environment, they are also trying to make you feel bad for throwing away so many clothes which could have been cleaned with their products (which, most likely, you don’t even do in the first place). When you see the advertisement, you’ll either just ignore it, or you might think next time you’re in the supermarket looking for a stain remover that Vanish was the brand that was concerned with the environment, so you choose this one to ‘feel better’ about your consumption decisions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most Vanish products contain surfactants, which are highly toxic to aquatic life. Furthermore, the synthetic chemicals in Vanish products such as phosphates cause toxic algae to grow in waterways, starving all other life of oxygen and eventually killing the whole ecosystem. Their products are, therefore, far from ‘eco-friendly,’ and they might pretend to care about waste, but they certainly don’t care about the environment if they sell products which enter the water system and kill whole ecosystems.

This is greenwashing. The company have in this case made a true claim – washing your clothes keeps them from going to landfill – but it is so far removed from the everyday behaviours of most people that it just becomes ridiculous. Further, in order to divert attention away from the harmful effects of the chemicals in their products, they are talking about textile waste to appear as if they are virtuous and care about the environment. They forget that each time someone purchases a BOTTLE of their product, this bottle becomes waste, which in most cases in New Zealand, is unfortunately not recycled. So, they really aren’t contributing to the waste problem in any positive way. In the end, most people who see the advertisement will either ignore it, label it as greenwashing, or unfortunately think that Vanish really do care about the environment.

Why is greenwashing a problem?

Greenwashing is therefore any advertising or advertising message which leads a person to erroneously believe in the real ecological qualities of a product or service, or in the reality of the production process, lifecycle, sustainable development of the company, or any other ‘environmental action’ or commitment performed by the company.

Greenwashing is harmful to the ecological movement, to the consumer, and to the environment:

  1. Greenwashing means that consumers lose trust in companies, and this has a harmful impact on the companies who are actually engaged in climate-friendly practices, regenerative agriculture, and other engagements.
  2. Greenwashing has the opposite effect on the real state of the environment: if we believe that we are acting and we’re not, then the state of ecosystems and the pollution in the environment is just going to get worse.
  3. Greenwashing prevents real solutions from being developed and rolled out on a large scale: because we believe that we are already solving the large ecological issues through consumer behaviours which change very little, we stop innovating and stop trying to implement solutions that might have a larger real impact.
  4. Greenwashing makes us believe that we’re being eco-friendly, it makes us feel good, when in fact we are not having any real, measurable positive impact on the environment in our consumption choices. It also makes us feel like we’re already doing our part, when in fact we should and could be doing so much more.
  5. Greenwashing often diverts attention away from more problematic parts of a company, towards small and insignificant gestures, e.g. a petrol station selling organic coffee. What’s really important is forgotten.

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What laws are in place to stop greenwashing?

In New Zealand, like in the United States, there is a Fair Trading Act which is managed by the Commerce Commission, but no clear anti-greenwashing law. The NZ Environmental Claims Guidelines for companies say that “All traders, large and small, must make sure their environmental claims are substantiated, truthful, and not misleading to avoid breaching the Fair Trading Act 1986.” This is the same for any other claim made by a company. The guidelines focus on information-based claims, rather than suggestive or value-based marketing which tries to position a whole brand as ecological. Information based claims are scientific and fairly easy to prove or disprove, but are often not the basis for adverts that commit greenwashing. These guidelines are non-binding and interpretative – they are not law.

Moreover, companies must have reasonable grounds to make their claims. “‘Reasonable grounds’ means having evidence, research, test results or similar credible information to demonstrate a solid factual foundation for the claim being made,” according to the Guidelines. In the case of ecological and climate-based research, this is incredibly difficult, however. Just as we saw with smoking and cigarette-consumption studies by cigarette companies who aimed to spread doubt among the population regarding the negative impacts of smoking; it is equally possible to find a scientist to “prove” that your product or service is “good for the environment” – because what you measure and how you measure it matters. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway investigated this ‘doubt production’. We won’t discuss this in depth here, but a good example of this is the case of emissions and food products, and what we choose to measure these products against. A study can legitimately claim that eating pork is better than eating beef in terms of emissions. However, they haven’t compared all food types, and all the alternatives: eating vegetables, legumes, tofu, etc. is even better than pork and has a significantly lower impact than any meat source, but this doesn’t help someone trying to sell pork. Picking and choosing the measurement and comparison standards is a real practice for finding ‘scientific’ evidence for the ‘eco-friendliness’ of products.

New Zealand also have a Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), and an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I emailed the BSA to ask about greenwashing and their response was: “Since the BSA complaints process only covers programmes that have already been broadcast, we can’t look at programmes that haven’t been on yet, or stop content from airing.” They can only do something if someone has said something that breaks the code, AND if someone reports it. The responsibility is therefore on the watcher or viewer to report content that breaches standards, and not on the producer of the content. Furthermore, there appears to be very little grounds for recourse on greenwashing or irresponsible discussions of the climate in the media with the BSA: it’s simply not something they are concerned about.

I also emailed the ASA, who to date have not responded. In 2019 they removed the Environmental Advertising Code, in favour of a broad Advertising Standards Code, which includes only two clauses regarding the environment, both of which relate to factual claims, and not to advertising in its more broad sense of making connections between ideas, values and engagements, and the products that a company sells. The main way in which greenwashing occurs lies outside the code, and therefore many complaints would likely not be upheld.

The UK’s ASA recently cracked down on greenwashing, pulling several commercials from air including a Persil washing powder advertisement which is still broadcast in New Zealand.  A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in the United States, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) purportedly working on much tougher greenwashing legislation and a crackdown on greenwashing in ESG reporting. The United States also have an Environmental Claims Guidance, but again this is not enshrined in law, it is just a guide for companies.

In France, new legislation has been passed in the 2021 Climate and Resilience Law to specifically target greenwashing and give new regulatory powers and punishment mechanisms to enforce the law. This law added ‘environmental impact’ to the list of ways in which allegations, indications and presentations of products can be deemed false and misleading. They also added that the ‘environmental engagements’ of the company making the claim could also be considered misleading or false, and therefore warrant punishment. This change focuses specifically on impact and engagements of the companies in question, rather than simply on the factual claims about the composition of their products. It now means that greenwashing can be more effectively policed, and there are clear ways in which companies can be brought to task over misleading and false advertising.

France also changed the punishment for greenwashing campaigns, which is different to simply breaking their equivalent of the Fair Trading Act. Not only is there a fine, which is 80% of the spending on the advertising campaign, but the company must also inform its customers and media base of the incorrect advertising, and, for 30 days following the infraction, put a notice on their website indicating that they have breached the law regarding environmental claims for their product. This enables all consumers to be made aware that what they may have heard is indeed ‘a load of rubbish.’ For any company concerned with brand image, being forced to admit you have been making false claims should be enough of a deterrent to stop major greenwashing infractions before they occur.

In France, and many European countries, it is also forbidden to write “biodegradable” (everything is biodegradable, this is a natural process which takes between a few hours and several million years to be completed…) or “respectful of the environment” or any other equivalent on the packaging of products. Why? Because these things are “obviously confusing and/or too global for the consumer.” Lawmakers know that these general and meaningless statements may attract people looking for more eco-friendly products, but they lack any specific meaning when it comes to what these words and labels refer to.

In New Zealand, therefore, there would seem to be no binding legislation against greenwashing, no active attempts on the part of the Advertising Standards Authority as in the UK to crack down on greenwashing, and no specific punishments or deterrents to greenwashing. We must be quite happy in this ignorance, believing that we are doing a lot to help the environment, rather than facing the reality that our per-capita carbon emissions are consistently in the top 10 in the OECD (that’s really, really, bad).

Cardboard box with biodegradable label
Biodegradable packaging is great, but all packaging is biodegradable - that's how nature works. Image: Marcell Viragh on Unsplash

How to identify greenwashing

There are some key characteristics of greenwashing that are commonly found in adverts that make claims about the environment. Some of these are from Mathieu Jahnich, a writer for BonPote, a French environmentalist site, who has worked in greenwashing regulation for many years.

  1. Negative environmental behaviours are trivialised, or positive ones are knocked down. E.g. negative images of public transport in a car commercial.
  2. Disproportionate claims, hyperboles, and grand language are used. E.g. “this vehicle is ecological” or “responsible production” or “we care for the planet” or “better for the environment.” Basically anything that refers to a very large commitment which almost certainly isn’t true.
  3. Lack of proof, lack of precision, or an unclear message. E.g., “eco-friendly packaging,” when we have no idea what eco-friendly packaging might be, and no criteria to assess whether this is true or not.
  4. Association between the environment and something which is not essential or not the main product of that company, e.g., petrol stations selling organic coffee to make you forget that you are purchasing fossil fuels, and no, organic coffee won’t make up for that.
  5. Visual or auditory associations with nature. If the advertising includes landscapes, trees, nature, and anything related to the environment to make connections with their product, e.g. Toyota advertising their cars driving through natural landscapes, claiming they are developing better futures.

How to combat greenwashing

Greenwashing is not only bad for the environment, it’s also bad for the whole ecological movement. It means that people believe they’re undertaking meaningful actions when they’re not, which undermines efforts to change things on a systematic level. We cannot effectively respond to the ecological crisis simply through buying more eco-friendly products; we need transformative changes at a societal level, as the IPBES’ Biodiversity and IPCC’s Climate Change reports highlight.

Here are some ways in which we can act in order to reduce or stop greenwashing:

  1. Campaign for your local environmental organisation to put more pressure on the Government to stop or ban greenwashing. There are a lot of organisations out there with a connection to Government agencies and to people who are more able to change the way our systems run. By creating anti-greenwashing campaigns, and making anti-greenwashing law one of the pillars of your environmental movement, you will be helping the integrity of the ecological movement as a whole, helping consumers to make more informed choices, and keeping companies honest and responsible for their actions. Stopping greenwashing is a really effective and easy to implement policy, and can be built upon with environmental impact reporting, carbon emissions reporting, and biodiversity/ecological impact reporting too. All these things help people make informed choices and make sure that what we do has a real impact.
  2. Denounce greenwashing on social media. The worst nightmare of any company is bad publicity. When you point out the greenwashing publicly on social media, these companies are forced to respond and to retract or defend their actions. It also helps make other people aware that they are being misled, which hopefully will mean they adopt a more critical attitude towards greenwashing in the future.
  3. Learn about greenwashing and then stop making greenwashing claims, if you work in advertising, marketing, public relations, communications, or any other forward-facing department in your company. Refuse to work for companies who just want to make it look like they’re doing good without actually having anything to back this up. Require more of your clients if they are seeking to talk about nature, organic ingredients, biodiversity, waste, environmental impact, carbon footprint, etc. If you’re a student in marketing, communications, copywriting, or a similar domain, learn more about greenwashing and about environmental claims, so that you don’t go on to create adverts that greenwash audiences.
  4. Think about what you’re seeing if you see nature in an advertisement, or hear about the environmental impact or the eco-friendliness of a product or service. Ask yourself, how is it possible that they can make this claim? Is there any evidence to back this up? What are they actually selling and does the advert relate to this or is it trying to improve the ‘brand image’?

Right now, the burden of proof and the responsibility lies with the members of the public who have to report these adverts for any investigation to be made. I propose that we reverse the burden of proof and put it back on the companies who are producing these advertisements: in order for your advertisement to be broadcast, if you wish to talk about the environment, nature, ecology, biodiversity, waste, organic/natural components/ingredients, etc., in your advertising, then you must submit, with your advertisement, an analysis of your claims and the proof that lies behind them, as well as a consideration of the ecological impact of the whole company and production process, if the ad is not product-specific. This will then be assessed by a jury before the broadcasting company can broadcast any advertising. This way, companies will be made responsible for their claims before the advertising can reach a public audience. If this were the case, I’m sure we would see a lot less greenwashing, and more responsible company publicities and reporting.

 

Mathieu Jahnich, who has worked to regulate and assess greenwashing for more than 10 years, writes that the work of lawyers checking content before diffusion is very effective at reducing greenwashing in France. Yet, the control of adverts is very often still optional in France, and this means that often adverts are not checked and therefore are released without any verification of the message involved. New Zealand has no such control measures in place, yet due to its small size, it surely wouldn’t be too difficult to set up a regulatory body for this role.

As is the case in France, we should also ban the use of ‘biodegradable’ and other such meaningless terms which seek to sell products without any meaningful foundation. Other such measures could be adding compulsory disclaimers on products which are short-life or single use, alerting consumers to their high environmental impact; disclaimers on products where a local alternative is available that the same product can be found with lower emissions elsewhere; notices on all physical promotional material like flyers reminding people to recycle them rather than littering (this already happens in some cases); compulsory ecological impact tables on the packaging of all products, like the nutritional information labels on food products, and more.

 

Greenwashing is a real issue and a hindrance to the ecological movement and to our efforts to change our societies to respond to the ecological crisis that is developing. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the extent to which greenwashing occurs, and often those who are developing greenwashing advertising are not aware of the nature of the claims they are making, and the impact that they really have. It’s a problem that is quite easily solved through better regulation and more awareness and knowledge of the ecological crisis, which is why sites like Plurality.eco are incredibly important.

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It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

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Why plurality.eco?

Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

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A simple guide to the Global Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

A bee in a yellow flower

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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One of the best ways to learn about the ecological crisis is through the reports issued by collaborations between many international scientists. These offer a global and diverse perspective on just what is happening at each corner of the globe, as well as a synthesis of the many different articles published each week on the climate and biodiversity loss.

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The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has 123 member countries, and in 2019 released their 1,000-page report on the state of Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Part of the reason why these kinds of reports don’t appear in the news in most countries is simply because they are too large and too complex for any journalist without ecological training to understand. Even with the summary at the beginning, they tend to be filled with ecological terminology and scientific language which isn’t easily accessible for a wide audience.

What is the report about exactly? It’s a collaboration between different governments on the recent changes in the systems of planet Earth, caused by human activity. They look into what the causes of the changes to the Earth’s systems are, why and how the systems are changing, and what this might mean for us going forward. Instead of studying one particular ecosystem by a beach or in a field somewhere, this study brings together research and experience from across the planet to see what is going on, on a global scale. Much of the research has been done since the 1970’s, when world governments first became aware of just how bad things were getting.

The main idea is to see the trends over the past 50 years, and what these trends might mean for the next 30 years, between now and 2050, if we continue down the current path. The researchers also examine other possible scenarios based on popular approaches to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss at the global scale.

The good aspects of this report are its specific emphasis on indigenous and local knowledge systems, its inclusion of diverse perspectives and worldviews, and a gender-diverse team of scientists and researchers. Together they seek to explain the connections between humans and nature, and the impact that human beings are having on Papatūānuku Mother Earth.

The main conclusions

Over the past 50 years, the human population has doubled, the global economy has grown fourfold, and at the same time, ecosystems are increasingly struggling to keep up with this level of development, and are at risk of collapsing in every country on the planet, even with land managed by indigenous peoples. Biodiversity is projected to continue to decline, and human demand for natural resources is projected to increase.

The percentage of species of each type threatened with extinction
Red shows percentage of species critically endangered; the blue line shows the percentage of species threatened. Source: Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019.

The factors that have caused these changes in Earth’s systems have been changes in land and sea use (for forestry, agriculture, etc.), direct exploitation of organisms, such as hunting, fishing, etc., climate change caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, pollution both of the atmosphere and the soil and water systems, and what they call the ‘invasion of alien species,’ animals and plants that are not normally found in a particular landscape but have been brought in by humans and have taken over that landscape. All of these factors are directly related to human use of natural resources – both in order to meet our needs, and in some cases in attempts to sequester carbon into the ground, which also causes ecosystem disruption.

The direct drivers of natural decline
The different drivers of disruption to ecosystems and biodiversity. Land and sea use change and direct exploitation are the key causes of biodiversity loss. Source: Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019.

This disruption of ecosystems threatens their stability – if you start rocking a rowing boat side to side, you have a greater chance of capsizing – which is exactly what is happening here. Only, once we have capsized, or completely disrupted the systems that feed us and meet our needs, we have no idea how to restore them.

Another problem is that we are losing variety in our species of plants and animals, which is also threatening the ability of these systems to combat the other changes that are happening around them. This is called a loss of genetic diversity, and more generally, a loss of biodiversity. As a result, agricultural systems are less and less able to resist pests, pathogens, and the ravages caused by climate change.

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Progress made so far and trends for the future

The report has a frank and alarming conclusion regarding how we are currently faring with regard to biodiversity and ecosystem services: “Goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”

What they mean here is that if we continue as we are, adding small modifications to systems in place and pulling economic levers to solve the problem, we will not meet the Sustainable Development Goals (for 2030) nor the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (from 2020). Current ecological decline is projected to undermine progress made in 80% of the Sustainable Development Goals. We cannot solve the current problems by doing more of what we are doing now: it simply won’t work; we will just go backwards.

A table showing ecological progress on natural metrics
Current trends in the different measures of ecosystem health and biodiversity on the planet. Almost all indicators are in decline. Source: Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019.

These international and diverse scientists, using research published internationally, support transformational change. By transformational change, they mean “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

This is much more than just letting the emissions trading scheme do its thing. It’s also much more than increasing conservation efforts, and planting more trees. Systemic changes at the economic and social level means reorganising our systems of production and agriculture, it means consuming less and producing less waste, and ultimately, it means abandoning our “current limited economic paradigm of economic growth.” Growth cannot lead us forward and confront the ecological crisis, if we want to save our biodiversity and our ecosystems; the very systems that enable us to live on Earth.

What about the other projected scenarios? The authors state, “The negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystem functions are projected to continue or worsen in many future scenarios in response to indirect drivers such as rapid human population growth, unsustainable production and consumption and associated technological development.”

One of the major problems of technological development is the enormous amounts of energy and resources it requires to put into place. Even development such as renewable energy like solar and wind power are incredibly resource-hungry, and the only solution to reverse this ecosystem decline is to decrease our energy and resource consumption, not provide more energy in supposedly sustainable ways.

The most effective ways to change

There are many ways in which we can address the ecological crisis. The report states that according to many other studies done internationally, the following are effective ways to create large-scale changes:

  1. Promoting alternative visions of a good life
  2. Lowering total consumption and waste
  3. Unleashing widely-held values of responsibility towards the Earth, to create new norms for sustainability and action
  4. Addressing inequalities on the social/economic levels
  5. Ensuring inclusion of diverse perspectives including indigenous people in justice claims and conservation efforts
  6. Accounting for the environmental degradation caused by economic efforts, both locally and abroad
  7. Ensuring environmentally friendly technology, innovation and investment
  8. Education, sharing and generating new knowledge, and maintenance of different indigenous knowledge systems.

Lack of knowledge and resources is still a very large problem and barrier to acting further to stop biodiversity loss. There are still a lot of knowledge gaps, and areas where we simply don’t know enough, or don’t have enough certainty about the effects of current human action, and potential solutions, to be able to evaluate and design new courses of action.

Recent additions the report

In November 2022, some of the authors of the main report published a follow-up article about which factors were causing the greatest damage to ecosystems and resulting in the greatest loss of biodiversity: “The direct drivers of recent global anthropogenic biodiversity loss. The report looks at the research published after 2005, to provide an overview of the factors which are having the greatest impact.

Current discussions in New Zealand and on a global level focus almost exclusively on climate change, but as the report shows, climate change is the third most important factor causing ecosystem disruption.

Land and sea use change, mainly in the form of rapid expansion and intensifying management of land used for growing crops or keeping animals, was the number one contributor to ecosystem and biodiversity decline. The second greatest cause was direct exploitation of land, through fishing, logging, hunting, and the wildlife trade. These factors had a significantly greater impact on biodiversity loss than climate change.  

The article concludes that “combatting climate change will not be enough to prevent or possibly even slow the loss of biodiversity.” They return to the need for transformative change, by tackling the root causes of biodiversity loss, which are not just economic, but demographic, socioeconomic, and technological, as well as governance structures that keep these systems in place.

The relative size and importance of biodiversity factors
The relative importance of factors causing ecosystem disruption and biodiversity loss. Image source: Pedro Jaureguiberry et al. (2022) "The direct drivers of recent global anthropogenic biodiversity loss"in Science Advances 8:45.

What next?

The report is sober reading. It spells out the potential decline of the very systems that support life on Earth. If we lose the insects that pollenate our food crops, the water cycles that regulate and clean our water, and the plants that are resistant to pests and environmental changes, then we have very, very little chance of surviving as a population of 8-12 billion human beings. This is a serious and quite depressing conclusion.

All is not lost, however. It is still possible to conserve the biodiversity that we have – each and every plant and animal species is important, and the faster we can stop destroying ecosystems and begin to allow them to restore themselves, the more likely we will be able to continue as humans.

One of the things that you can do, if you’re really interested in gardening, is to ensure maximum diversity of plants in your garden, including heritage varieties of foods like tomatoes and beans, as well as planting flowers and cover crops to provide homes for insects and microorganisms to grow. This should be done in consultation with a local ecologist, who can tell you the best way to make your local area as biodiverse as possible.

For those who work in corporate environments, we should be asking ourselves, which of the levers for change above are we promoting and actively participating in, in our workplace and through our business? Are we lowering total consumption and waste? Are we looking after indigenous knowledge systems? Are we promoting alternative visions of the good life, that don’t mean more and more consumption, but something else? Are we accounting for the negative impacts of our business on the environment, and then trying to minimise this impact?  There is a lot to be done, but if each community, each business, and each person begins to change, then the transformative structural changes that need to take place will be much easier to put into place.

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Political Ecology dictionary

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to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Wondering what all these new words mean in political ecology? You’ve come to the right place! Words are ordered in alphabetical order.

New words are often added, so check back soon if the word you’re looking for isn’t here yet. Or, send us a message to let us know you’d like it to be defined here.

Click on a letter below to go straight to that section.

 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  

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A

Adaptation: The response to current or expected external stimuli, or to its effects, through adjustments made to a natural or human system, either to decrease the negative effects of the stimulus, or exploit the advantages.  Natural systems often adapt in spontaneous and reactive ways. Humans, however, adapt both with intention, will, and prediction, as well as in accidental and unpredictable ways. Humans (and other living beings) can adapt in groups or individually, and can adapt by changing themselves, or using external elements to their advantage (like technology).

Anthropocene: term used to refer to a new geological era, after the holocene, which is marked by the impact of humans on the earth. Exactly when the anthropocene might start is under debate – some say it is with the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, others say it’s more recent, around the 1950’s, with the beginnings of the Great Acceleration.

Anthropocentrism: refers to both a perspective on knowledge, and a moral position. As a claim about knowledge, anthropocentrism asserts that humans are at the centre of the world they inhabit: everything is seen through human eyes, rather than from the point of view of animals, rivers, etc. As a moral position, anthropocentrism refers to the idea that only human beings are capable of moral thought and judgement.

Apocalypse: often part of ecological discourse, an apocalypse is the ‘end of the world’. Which world, and just how much is destroyed, changes according to the scenario being put forward. People believe we are heading towards apocalypse often because of the lack of real measures being taken at a global and systemic level to combat the ecological crisis.

B

Biocentrism: a moral position referring to the fact that all living beings are deserving of the same rights and relationships as human beings. The Whanganui river being given the same legal rights as a human person is an example of biocentrism.

Biodiversity: often thought of as another way of saying ‘biological diversity’. This means that there are a large number of different species on the planet, each with unique characteristics developed over many years. In conservation biology, biodiversity is a way of seeing the world – a political and moral position. This position asserts that greater diversity is better for an ecosystem, and for the world, and thus we should combat the extinction of many different species. 

Biopower: a term by French philosopher Michel Foucault, used to refer to a type of power which is exercised when humans are thought of as populations, in statistical and controllable ways, rather than as individuals with specific and diverse attributes. The collection of population data, along with the control of bodily procedures, and public health campaigns are all forms of biopower.

Biosphere: refers to the fine geological, physical, chemical and biological envelope on planet Earth that supports all life. The biosphere is also the habitable zone – the place where things can live and thrive.

C

Capital: Ecological economics views capital as a way of discussing the different types of matter which are moving around the economic system. There’s environmental or natural capital, like trees and vegetables and soil; social or human capital, in the form of workers, relationships, etc.; and manufactured capital – the goods that are bought and sold on the market. The current economic system considers all these things as one type of thing, resources with the same qualities, and with the idea that the goal is to accumulate more of these things.

Capitalism: the practice of the indefinite exploitation of resources in order to generate more capital, and therefore have growth in the economy. In the liberal economy, capitalism is a way of organising the production and exchange of goods and services. This is possible because of private property and freedom of exchange in the market, which is supposed to lead to an optimal distribution of resources. The goal of this system is to accumulate more capital, or wealth, often in the form of money or property.

Carbon: carbon is an element with the number 6. It is the fourth most abundant element on the Earth. Often when we read about carbon in the ecological context, people are referring to carbon dioxide, which is a natural byproduct of respiration and a greenhouse gas responsible for the warming of the planet. 

Carbon budget: a carbon budget refers to the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents that a particular person, enterprise, or government can emit within a certain time frame. If we are to halt global warming, we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This means allocating a certain amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted to different parties.  

Carbon footprint: the carbon footprint is an idea created by the petrol industry to push the responsibility from the industry onto the individual consumer. A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents a person puts into the atmosphere through their activities in one year. This is measured in tonnes. For us to stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming, each person can only emit 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Currently the average New Zealander emits 15.8 tonnes.

Catastrophe (and catastrophism): When unpredictable environmental events cause already vulnerable societies to break down or collapse, this results in extreme events that we call catastrophes. Catastrophism, or disaster theory, is the idea that we must employ the principle of precaution – to prepare for the impending catastrophe that we may encounter, and therefore mobilise the resources of the society to do so.

Circular Economy: this is the idea of an economy without waste, where all inputs into the economy are used by those who need them, then they re-enter the economy to be transformed into another product, for another use. The circular economy is more than just recycling, but thinking about the ‘life cycle’ of a product, and what happens after the product is no longer used. 

Climate: the weather conditions of a particular location, such as wind, rain, temperature, sun exposure, etc. In environmental theory, the climate is something to be concerned about because it is responsible for the conditions of the planet which made life possible, such as fairly stable temperatures, predictable weather patterns, etc. 

Climate change: this term refers to the fact that the weather conditions on the planet are changing as a result of human activities. Weather is becoming more unpredictable, and more extreme weather events are occurring, as well as global temperatures increasing, and some places becoming more dry, and others more wet. 

Climate skepticism: This is not a scientific theory or a doctrine, rather a position taken up by certain individuals and organisations in order to deny the reality of climate change currently occurring, or to deny that this climate change is a problem worth worrying about. This position was common in the oil industry, where companies would create theories to sow the seeds of doubt among people, to be able to continue extracting fossil fuels and warming the earth. Nowadays, this position is popularised through sites such as Facebook, with groups dedicated to denying the reality we are facing.

Community: a group of people who maintain certain relationships because of where they live, their interests, their identities, or a shared belief. The antonym of community is a city, whereby people have relations based on impersonal connections such as the law, the government, the workplace regulations, etc. 

Conservation: the idea that particular parts or species are deserving of protection, and in cases where they are disappearing, deserving of extra help and resources by humans in order to reestablish themselves. The idea that landscapes hold a certain cultural, artistic, or patrimonial value dates back as far as the 1850’s. Today conservation is about protecting the different species of animals and plants in an area, and not doing anything to further destroy areas which are deemed important or fragile.

Cooperation: a political term used to refer to the fact that many countries in the global North, which are the rich countries, are giving financial aid to countries of the South, generally less wealthy countries, in the name of cooperation and development. In general terms cooperation means working together to achieve something, and on a global scale this is happening, but often to achieve things desired by those giving the money in the North, and not to achieve goals decided by the cultures of the South.

D

Degrowth: a term much more widespread in Europe than in the Anglophone world, degrowth refers to the fact that if we are to have an ecological economy, and respond to the ecological crisis, we need to become agnostic towards growth. That means that economic growth is neither good nor bad – it’s unimportant. For some time now, we have shown that increased growth is not a measure of the health, happiness, and wellbeing of a particular nation. Infinite growth also leads to the exploitation of resources, pollution and waste, and the destruction of the planet. The idea is that we should exit this society obsessed with growth for the sake of growth, and choose another objective.

Deep Ecology: a position proposed for the first time by Arne Naess in 1973, deep ecology refers to an intellectual current making use of spirituality, religion, myth and narrative to advocate for the protection of nature and a response to the ecological crisis. Deep ecology is opposed to shallow ecology, which is concerned only with problems of pollution and resources, and not with the relationship humans have towards nature. A position which has been criticised a lot, but is still maintained today.

Deforestation: refers to the change in use of particular areas of land, through the destruction and clearing of what was previously growing on this land, such as plants, trees, etc. and the subsequent loss of habitat for the creatures that previously lived in this area. Deforestation is happening across the world, and perhaps the worst example is in Brazil, where the deforestation of the Amazon will, if it continues, cause massive changes to the Earth’s water systems.

Democracy: a form of political society originating in ancient Greece, a democracy is a society in which the citizens, each equal in rights before the law, have an equal and regular say in public decisions made by the state. Democracy is often an important part of ecological politics, but it is often also criticised. Some say that a more authoritarian approach is needed to confront the crisis, by putting into place drastic measures in short time frames. Others argue that democracy, as the governance of the people by the people for the increasing wellbeing of the people, is not compatible with ecological politics, because we cannot keep increasing our living conditions with finite resources on the planet. Others still argue that democracy is at the foundation of any ecological politics, and we will only see change when people vote in and participate in an ecological politics. 

E

Ecocentrism: An alternative to anthropocentric thought, this current was developed in the 1970’s. Initially this approach was the opposite of technocentrism, which viewed the ecological crisis as a technical problem requiring the use of technology to solve it. Ecocentrists saw the larger scale of the problem and refused the reductionist approach of technocentrists. It’s not just about adding technical solutions, but also about modifying our economic system, changing our relationship with nature, and more.

Ecofeminism: A sub-current of ecology and feminism, ecofeminism sees the causes of the ecological crisis and the feminist struggle as being one and the same. Women are often the first to feel the effects, and the most vulnerable in ecological disasters. Likewise, the patriarchal system of governance and the imposition of traditional masculine values such as domination, colonisation, desire for growth no matter what consequence, etc. are root causes of the ecological crisis. Ecofeminism denounces the social and gender categories which consider human beings as all of one nature, such as ‘rational agent’ or ‘white heterosexual male from the West’.

Ecology: the science of the study of the relationships maintained by living beings with their physical and biological environment (other animal and non-animal species). Today, ecology refers to the quantitative and qualitative study of populations of living beings, of their equilibriums, and their variations in the natural conditions of life.

Ecosystem: a collection of plants, animals and other living beings living in a defined area with certain climatic and geological conditions.

Environment: strictly speaking, the environment is what surrounds a particular object, that which is exterior to it, that which is not the object itself. More commonly, however, the environment refers to something similar to ‘nature’ – trees. rivers, animals… the things which are not civilisation, not society, non-human.

Emissions: each time a fossil fuel is burned, like coal, oil or gas, this liquid is converted into a gas which enters the atmosphere. These gases, the product of burning fossil fuels, are called emissions. Emissions could also refer to all by-products of a particular activity that enter the environment.

Eurocentrism: the point of view which puts a white, Western viewpoint as the main perspective through which something should be considered, ignorant or unwilling to recognise other perspective such as indigenous knowledge.

Evolution: the idea that natural history progresses because of two things: the possibility of genetic modifications between different generations, and because of natural selection. That means that life forms change and develop because of random changes to the makeup of creatures, which makes them either better or worse at living in their environment. Charles Darwin (1809-82) is the common reference for evolutionary theory. 

Exaptation: the idea in evolutionary biology that a trait might change its function during the evolutionary process. For example, bird feathers helped to keep birds warm, then might have later developed the function of flight. An alternative way at looking at adaptation, because traits do not appear to serve particular functions, rather they appear and then later become useful for certain functions. The exception precedes the norm – exaptation precedes adaptation.

F

Finance (carbon): the approach of solving the ecological crisis through manipulations made to the economic market by incentives and schemes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This often takes the form of carbon credits, or quotas, which can be bought and sold. People can also compensate their cardon dioxide emissions by activities such as planting trees or purchasing other’s unused credits. This approach reduces the ecological crisis to a matter of accounting, and ignores the social and environmental aspects. 

G

Gaia (hypothesis): Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock developed the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970’s. This hypothesis postulates that the troposphere, the part of the atmosphere where we find life on earth, is a complete and self-regulated system. Conditions such as temperature, chemical composition, oxygen, acidity, etc. are controlled directly by the living beings of the planet. The planet is able to keep the conditions for life at an optimal and stable level through certain planetary mechanisms. This is just a hypothesis, and the idea that the whole Earth is capable of regulating itself in one big system is hotly debated. 

Geo-engineering: the idea that new technologies will and should be developed in order to control the environmental and climatic conditions such that life on earth can continue despite the ecological crisis. This view originated in military circles, desiring the complete control and domination over a particular environment, and looking for ways that humans could live in the most uninhabitable places. Such technologies that intentionally modify the atmosphere, and carbon-capture technologies, are part of geo-engineering projects. This projects often lead to enormous unintended consequences, which are not considered by those launching the project.

Globalisation: there are two types of globalisation – the increase in the possibilities for movement and exchange across the planet, and secondly the exportation of certain cultural norms and economic and political doctrines from countries such as the United States. The first is a good globalisation, the second is often not so appreciated. Globalisation also refers to the fact that, since we began seeing ourselves as all on one planet, we have changed our regard towards the world from a local perspective to a global one. Now it’s possible to think of all creatures on Earth, all humans on Earth, rather than just those which are in our immediate environments. 

Greenwashing: the act of making it seem like someone or something is acting in ways that support the resolution of the ecological crisis, when actually they are having the opposite effect. Companies and governments are the biggest greenwashers, and we need to be vigilant to question their claims of ‘doing good’.

Growth: Most commonly thought of in biological or economic terms, this idea is inscribed in all cultures influenced by the West’s modernity. To grow is to develop, to advance, to progress, to go further… all things which are seen as good and beneficial things in Western culture. Growth is inherently tied with ideas of ‘more’ and ‘better.’ Growth in biology simply means to increase in a particular measure, such as size. A plant grows, and this is neither good nor bad.

H

Habitat: the territory used for the reproduction of a species, its eventual acclimatisation, and its development. The place of dwelling. This includes all the conditions which are necessary for the development of this particular species, including food sources, temperature, other plants and animals, materials used for construction, etc. 

Homo faber: the development and use of the atomic bomb indicated a change in the power and scale of humans and their technological capacities. Instead of referring to ourselves as homo-sapiens (rational humans) an alternative proposition is homo-faber – humans who make things. Our intelligence is manifest because we transform our world, we seek to master it, understand and control it.

I

Individual: modernity installed in our societies a unit with an almost sacred value: the individual. Individuality, and individual expression, was deemed to be the highest possible form of society, where each human had freedom and was equally considered in the eyes of the law. This atomistic way of viewing people is not necessarily how they are in reality: humans are also social creatures, forming their identities through interactions and relationships, living in communities, and participating in larger projects than just those that benefit themselves. 

Inequality: the fact that there exists a difference between two things, often people, in terms of a particular measurement. Inequalities often refer to the fact that certain people are treated differently to others, have more resources than others, have greater chances in life than others, etc. Free-market economists will say that inequality is not a bad thing; others will argue that inequality is inherently bad. 

Investment (socially responsible): Responsible investing is an alternative route to the practices which led to the financial crisis of 2008. Recognising that investments have real-world implications, responsible investing means realising the social, environmental and governmental impacts of making a certain investment. Petrol companies for example would be evaluated not only on their oil reserves, but also their damage to the environment, their emissions of carbon dioxide, and the way they treat their employees and the people in countries where they are extracting oil.

J

Justice (climate): the field of research into how the costs, damages, and benefits of action taken on climate change will be felt and managed by people in different countries, economic groups, and localities. One group of climate justice thinkers advocate that those who have polluted the most should ‘pay’ the most, for example, the United States and other wealthy nations, resulting in these countries paying for the damage caused by climate change in other countries. Other thinkers argue that countries should be left to deal with the consequences of climate change by themselves. Others promote the idea that the atmosphere is a common space, no one country can pretend that they are doing ‘enough’ unless all countries are also pulling their weight.

Justice (environmental): this term appeared in the United States in the 1980s to refer to the actions taken by activists to redress what they believed were climate injustices, such as blocking streets, occupying land, etc. The first to feel the impacts of environmental mismanagement are often less wealthy and marginalised groups, who live and work in conditions with high pollution, and are employed to use pesticides and other toxic chemicals. These are also the groups who have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per person, and the often the least impact on the environment in terms of pollution. Environmental justice aims to point out that those who perpetuate the destruction of environments should be the ones to face the worst of the consequences; or, at least, those who are not responsible should not be bearing the greatest burden.

K

Kaitiakitanga: the relationship based on an ethic of care and kinship bonds between human beings and their environment according to Māori. Often wrongly translated as ‘guardianship’; more correctly referred to as ‘stewardship’, keeping in mind that reciprocity is at the heart of this idea.

L

Limits: the idea of limits first became popular in the 1970’s with the release of the Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome. At the time, common ideas of progress and growth were infinite – limitless. In fact, the planet has a finite number of natural resources; there is only so much fresh water, for example, or copper, or lithium for batteries. The idea of limits is central to ecological thinking, because we must recognise that nature and the Earth is not infinite, and all-giving, but a place with certain limits and restrictions. We cannot, for example, continue to pollute carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we are now, unless we want to become extinct. We must therefore limit our emissions, just as we must limit our consumption.

M

Management (environmental): the belief that the natural systems of the earth require the governance and decision making powers of human beings in order to function in their optimal way. Environmental management presupposed that humans can determine an optimal state for a particular ecosystem or piece of land, and then that they can achieve and maintain this state without other negative effects being had either in this system or in neighbouring systems. In 1995 a study by Holling analysed attempts to manage environments on small scales and concluded that “environmental management leads to less resilient ecosystems […] and sets the conditions for collapse.”

Market: for economists, the market is an abstract idea of the circulation of goods, services, and money. In this system, decisions are decentralised amongst the actors in the system, and because these decisions are supposedly in opposition, price becomes the means by which the market functions. In a more socio-economic sense, the market is the collection of institutions which, through their functioning, come to provide a regulated ‘space’ in which transactions can take place. An example of this would be the fruit and vegetable market, where growers and distributors can sell their food.

Modes of life, ways of living: When we speak of natural destruction, we also often speak of the erosion of ways of life too. These modes are archetypical ways in which people have lived and related in the past. Due to globalised capitalism, industrialisation, technological advances, and more, these ‘ancient’ modes of living are no longer possible to live, even if one chose to. Likewise, modes of life also refers to the ‘consumption society’ – you can choose to live a certain archetypical life, by buying certain goods and choosing to behave in certain ways. Life, and its ways, have become commodified.

Money: simply, money is a means of exchange between two parties to ensure a transaction of equal value. Money gains its legitimacy through social and political institutions and conventions, which are adhered to by the citizens in the society. There need not only be one form of money in a successful society – in the Egypt of Pharaohs, multiple monies circulated and this scheme lasted a long time. Ecological monetary theory looks into the links between the current lending and debt-creation system, and environmental destruction. Loans promote and encourage the growth-addiction that our economy suffers from, and this addiction to growth in the long term leads to environmental destruction. 

N

Nature: a hotly debated word in political ecology. Some say that nature does not exist, because nature is only defined in terms of what is not-human, what is outside society, outside the human boundary. Because human beings are a part of this ‘nature’, part of the natural systems on Earth, there is no such difference between ‘nature’ and ‘society’ or ‘culture’. It’s all one. On the other hand, Western societies (and others) have for many millennia reinforced a difference between humankind, and that which is not human, in the form of plants, animals, forests, clouds, wind, etc. 

Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism is a political ideology that gained in popularity after the 1929 economic crisis in Europe. Neoliberalism rejects collectivism and the recourse to the dogma of the invisible hand, letting the market regulate itself. In the 1980’s, this became a political programme and economic model with the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the U.K. and the U.S. Now, neoliberalism takes many forms: the globalisation of exchanges, global financial systems, flexibility in the labour market, commodification of the environment and natural resources, structural development plans in less-developed countries, and more.

NIMBY: an acronym meaning ‘Not In My Back Yard.” Used to refer to an attitude towards development often held by ecologists and non-ecologists alike. These people oppose the development of environmental dangers such as large waste sites, nuclear power plants, incinerators, transport infrastructures like roads, but also social infrastructure like social housing, refugee centres, etc., which are proposed to take place in close proximity to them. 

O

Overshoot: this concept first appeared in 1980 by William Catton. He advocated for an entirely new approach to sociology and thus a new ecological paradigm. He explains how occidental societies support their lifestyles through excessive consumption and environmental destruction. Instead of looking at the human effects on nature, Catton looked at the environment’s effects on society; namely, that there were only a certain number of resources that we could use before our ideas of development and growth, and the possibility for deluxe lifestyles, would fall to pieces. The term is now popularised by the Earth Overshoot Days, the point at which each country has used up its annual allocation of resources, sometimes only a few months into the year.

P

Permaculture: a contraction of the words permanent and agriculture, permaculture is a form of land use which diverse forms of agriculture are used in order to create lasting and resilient production systems, where the ecosystems and farmland are maintained in their quality, or even enhanced in the long term, by the diverse strategies used. This is in order to avoid the waste and environmental destruction caused by industrial agriculture, such as loss of soil quality. plants and pests developing resistance, etc. 

Petrol: for at least a century, petrol has been the most precious material to all of industrialised humanity. Without petrol, it’s unlikely that our standards of life would have improved significantly since the 18th century. However, because petrol is a resource provided by the earth in limited quantities, we will soon run out, and the grandeur of modern lifestyles will begin to decline. The burning of petrol emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is the principal cause of global warming and climate change. 

Political ecology: this term has a different meaning depending on the linguistic tradition. In English, political ecology refers to the empirical and interdisciplinary science which explains the different degradations of the environment by political and economic factors at different scales. In the French tradition, however, écologie politique refers to a movement: no-one will get together to support scientific information, so we must politicise ecology, and take back control of our destiny as human beings. Ecology becomes a political force.

Pollution: an unwanted product of a particular process, which enters an environment with negative consequences for the species living in that environment. Carbon dioxide pollution causes global warming; nitrous oxide pollution causes human health problems, pollution in the form of waste being dumped in rivers kills off fish and plants in the river ecosystems, etc. 

Population: a group of individuals that we put together because we believe that they have certain attributes in common, and they function together as a whole from an ecological, genetic or evolutive perspective. The viewpoint of population allows greater understanding of a particular species, but also promotes the idea that such a grouping of individuals can be controlled and managed according to certain criteria.

Principle of precaution: In the face of a potential future major disaster, it is necessary to put in place certain preventative measures in order to limit or stop the damage caused by this disaster. According to this principle, groups, companies, governments, individuals, have the duty to prevent potential major damage if they know a disaster such as climate change is coming. This principle is used by philosophers and ethicists, but also by the justice system and in law, to argue for the protection of people or places.

Progress: a grand idea forming much of the motivation for development in modernity, progress is the idea that things develop and grow along a linear line in time, and that each successive development is inherently better than the previous ones. This concept has religious foundations, coming from the idea of a positive infinity, the linear progression of time, and the destruction of the cosmic world for the scientific world after Galileo Galilei. The victory of abundance has reached its end; abundance no longer exists and the very idea of progress is brought into question in ecological politics. Just where are we going, how, and why?

Property: a three-way relationship between a thing, a person, and a group of others who agree to a particular relationship between this thing and this person. The state accepts to protect the right to ownership over particular things by individuals, companies, and other legal entities. This is what underpins the growth of capital – if I own something, you cannot use it, and must pay me for it. Property also underpins the legal system – I can bring a justice claim before the courts because I have a right to something which is exclusive, and when you breach that exclusivity, the courts see fit to punish you. Te ao tawhito, the ancient Māori world, did not function in terms of individual property, but rather in terms of collective property. Items did not belong to people; rather people belonged to nature, and items were given to them by nature to look after and use.

Prosperity: another big idea from economics linking growth to better living standards, prosperity is the idea that more is better. Ecological economist Tim Jackson is one of the world’s leading thinkers on prosperity without growth, and how we can create a new vision of a thriving human community which doesn’t depend upon economic growth and the ensuing environmental destruction.

Q

Queer: A concept often used in gender studies, but which has implications in ecology too. Queer refers to the blurring of boundaries between what has previously been defined as dualistic oppositions. Male/female is but one example. When we look at what ecology tells us about our place in nature, we see that in fact we are all interrelated, that both ecology and queer theory demand intimacy with other beings, and that ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are not clear places but rather perspectives that require a certain violence to uphold. For more on this connection, see Timothy Morton’s “Queer Ecology,” and the journal “Undercurrents.”

R

Racism: the belief that humans can be divided into specific entities called ‘races’, accompanied with the belief that some of these races are superior in nature to others. Racism is also the practice of discrimination based on the division of people by race. Anti-racism is ecological because the same mechanisms that supported a racially divided world, like colonisation and economic globalisation, and values of domination and control, are the same causes of the ecological crisis. Malcolm Ferdinand is one contemporary thinker pointing out the links between racism and ecology.

Recycling: the act of reforming a particular material, giving it another form and therefore another usage. Recycling is part of the circular economy, but not all of it. Often only very small percentages of our waste are actually recycled, and in the case of plastics, many can only be recycled a limited number of times. Recycling also requires large amounts of energy and water, which is not the case for reuse or for not consuming a particular thing in the first place. 

Refugee (environmental): someone who is displaced from their original home because their environment becomes dangerous or no longer able to safely be inhabited. The environment has always been a factor for human migration, but was for some time considered less important than social and political reasons for migration. However in recent times and in the future, environmental migration will become more and more commonplace. For the moment, environmental reasons are not considered by the Geneva Convention defining the notion of refugees. Many current environmental refugees are forced to move, but do not cross their national borders.

Resilience: a concept that is important in ecological science to describe the durability of particular ecosystems or species. Resilience refers to the capacity to return to a previous state, and absorb the shock of change, or modify and adapt as a result of a change. This can be of a particular object, but also of a system or collection of things, for example an ecosystem.

Responsibility: the ecological crisis brings up the idea of responsibility often, because many feel that as humans we have a duty to care for and not destroy the environment that supports us. Previously, responsibility was oriented towards the past, and the known consequences of our acts, however now we are also called to take into account and be responsible for the future consequences of our actions. This means that driving a car now produces polluting gases which will not immediately cause 2 degrees of global warming, but in the space of the next 20 years, will most certainly do so.

Responsibility (corporate social responsibility, CSR): most of the time, just another version of greenwashing, CSR promotes the fact that companies should take care of the social aspects and impacts of their business, as well as the financial ones. As companies began growing larger and larger, their influence on the environment and on human beings grew also. Because of this, companies were called on to take more responsibility for their business actions, because of these greater impacts. The growth of CSR means we have begun to question the role of private enterprises in our society: are they just businesses, or are they also social institutions governing parts of society? And to this end, can and should they be promoting moral viewpoints towards the world?

S

Sobriety: the opposite to a society of abundance, the society of sobriety is one where everyone choose to live in more frugal manners, reducing their consumption and their waste, and therefore stopping the destruction of the environment. Sobriety breaks the link between growth and prosperity, more and better, and instead suggests that less might be better. Often portrayed in a negative light by many on all parts of the political spectrum, sobriety might just become a necessity as we get closer and closer to a climate disaster, and slowly begin to run out of key resources needed to power our societies.

Sustainable development: a contradiction in terms – it is not possible to both develop, and be sustainable. Most commonly this term means a state of development which is able to be continued into the future, or a development which respects the environmental governance agreements of world governments. Sustainable development is often used today to justify continuing business as usual with some small modifications and a new report on environmental impact, without changing core components of a system or business. Development means growth, and because the Earth doesn’t have an infinite amount of natural resources, development is never going to be truly sustainable, because at one point or another, we are going to run out.

System: a system is a group of elements or components that work in interaction with each other, according to certain fixed or random rules, that form a moving structure, able to be isolated from a particular environment or exterior. The use of the idea of systems has grown exponentially, with the advent of computer science, and now almost all disciplines speak of systems. Strictly speaking, however, it’s not entirely clear if we can speak of natural systems in the way we speak of computer systems – it’s easy to see a circuit board as a system, but biological systems are all interdependent, and therefore to conclude that a particular point is the end of one system and the start of another is sometimes quite arbitrary, or is done according to certain criteria which were decided by humans, but may not necessarily be the case.

T

Technology: refers to a specific causal world view, as well as to the devices and tools that we use in everyday life. According to the first part, technology is an ideology, the development and implementation of these tools in social and economic life. Technology has at its heart the desire to master and dominate nature, because each form of technology is essentially the imposition of a human form onto a particular raw material. Technology means that we view the world not in cosmic terms, rather as a space in which everything can be transformed and changed, all problems can be solved, simply through the transformation of resources. Technological thinking sees a problem, applies a particular strategy, a “techno-fix”, and believes the problem resolved. The second meaning of technology is simply the devices that we use such as computers and smartphones, but also knives, bicycles, books… all human transformation of resources.  

Tragedy of the commons: originally developed in a celebrated article by Garrett Hardin in 1968, the tragedy of the commons is a situation explaining the destruction of resources in the absence of rules. When we follow the logic of “each for themselves” and “first in first served,” each person would follow their own interests, try to accumulate as much of a resource as possible, to gain as much as possible from it, and therefore the resource would be exploited and would disappear. Thus, the whole community misses out, and there is nothing left for anyone. The morale we often learn from this is that we should put in place rules to govern the division and extraction of resources. These assumptions above however, are not how everyone functions, but how economics presumes that people function.

U

Universal basic income (UBI): An amount of money given from the government to each and every citizen of a society, regardless of their job status, economic or social situation, etc., but because of their participation in the society and their being a human. On the left this is seen as a tool for social transformation, equalising the resources all people possess, and removing poverty and financial hardship, and the stress associated with work. The right view it as a liberalisation of the economy: if everyone has more money, then they can choose to spend it how they like, and are therefore more ‘free’ – by giving a certain amount of money to everyone, then they can better participate in social life. 

Utopia: a place which does not exist, literally, ‘no-where.’ A utopia is a place of dreams, a visionary place, one which we long for, and which contains the style of life and social systems which we desire. Thomas More first wrote about the island of Utopia in 1516, and since then, authors have continued to describe social, environmental and economic paradises. Ernst Bloch’s concept of concrete utopia is an important addition – he didn’t just want fictive places, but wanted to imagine real, possible utopia on Earth, taking the present conditions as his starting point.

V

Value (intrinsic and instrumental): Certain ecologists believe that there is an intrinsic value to nature, and this constitutes the basis of their position on environmental ethics. Intrinsic value is a particular importance or worth which is possessed by something internally, of itself, without any other reasons or justifications. Something is valuable intrinsically if it is valuable in and of itself. Instrumental value, however, is something which has value as a means to achieving something else. This is the common critique of capitalist and industrial systems of production: they value nature instrumentally, as a means to achieve economic growth and prosperity. 

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