Greg Worden

Entrepreneur and Adjunct Professor of Sustainable Business, Worden Associates

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Are environmentalists bad for sustainability? How can we collectively create a vision for the future?

In their book, Breakthrough, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue that the language of environmentalism is inherently negative. We have to stop doing what we're doing, use less, do without, don't. For instance, we have to stop driving big comfortable, capable SUVs in favor of Priuses. Or we have to stop building on that land and conserve instead.

Clearly environmentalism has been important for the world. Did we really want to see Cleveland's rivers burn? It used to be said in Maine that we could tell which kind of paper was being made that day by the color of the river. The pollutants were dumped directly into the rivers that ran directly into the prime salmon fisheries of the East Coast. Now, those fisheries are gone.

But Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on to say that perhaps that negativism has run its course. Now, we need a collective, positivist vision of the future. What can we accomplish when we combine environmentalism, science, technology, and business together? What does that future look like? Is it Star Trek where we have incredible new technologies such as nuclear fusion (check out: and therefore protect the Earth and each other? Or is it simply doing less with less and going backward to an agrarian lifestyle?

What do you think? Are environmentalists bad for a future vision of sustainability?

How can we collectively create a future vision?

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    Mar 1 2011: For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
  • Feb 28 2011: I think the thing that environmentalists really need to do, is get off their backsides and actively live their ideas. Then spread the word of what they are doing. Actions speak massively louder than words.

    This, incidentally, is what I plan to do when I finish my education ^^
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      Mar 2 2011: I think the question then becomes, what are their ideas? Is it simply to ban SUVs and large trucks? Go back to an agrarian lifestyle? Everyone live in 240 sq ft? That's certainly the message of some environmentalists. Do less with less!

      But there are other ways too. Bill Gates is backing a potentially revolutionary new nuclear power plant concept. The National Ignition Facility is making real progress on fusion reactions. Nanotechnology, smart buildings, renewable energy, aquaculture, and more all point to a bright and brilliant future.

      My complaint is that those ideas are being pushed forward by technologists, not mainstream environmentalists. In Maine recently, environmentalists were laying down in front of bulldozers that were trying to expand an existing wind farm. Others are blocking smart meters in the electrical grid because of radiation fears!

      Somehow we need to get mainstream environmentalists past the language of No, Less, and Stop and focused instead on the language of a brilliant future.
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    Feb 27 2011: I think certain types of environmental discourses are indeed counter-productive. There are some environmental movements that make absolutely no concessions to their vision of a green world and therefore paint a picture of what the world should be that is just too improbable to come about, even with massive popular backing. A strong, but pragmatic approach (may it be underlined with negativism or positivism) is what is really needed. Being negativist and then presenting an idealistic solution will only push people into adopting a fatalistic attitude regarding our environment.

    We also want to rid ourselves of any discource that promotes hindering scientific an technological progress, an attitude too readily associated with environmentalism by those who think that nothing should be done.
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      Mar 2 2011: I completely agree. We have enormous opportunity with coming technologies. Of course, there's no reason to think that we won't have future environmental problems as a result of some of those technologies but that should not be a reason to shun them, rather to simply be careful and prudent with them.

      My preference is to look toward a Star Trek future rather than an attempt to go back to an agrarian past. We can do More with More that will not only help promote social justice but also environmental responsibility.
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    Feb 26 2011: No, they are the most conservative of all human causes though.

    We must mash together organizations like TED, Google, and Augmata Hive to install a collective vision.