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The future of environmentalism includes a focus on humanity’s well-being

We don’t need to trade a healthy environment for a thriving economy.


To some people, the term “environmentalist” seems to be a dirty word. In their minds, it denotes starry-eyed zealots who chain themselves to trees.

Or perhaps they envision out-of-touch elites who care more about spotted owls and humpback whales than people, self-centered activists who want to tell others how to live their lives, run their towns, and operate their businesses.

But that’s a wildly out-of-date assumption. Today, environmentalism has evolved into a much more helpful and engaging field. It’s a diverse community that looks to improve the lives of everyday people, as well as safeguard the natural world and our collective future. In addition, over the past couple of decades, rather than merely harping on the environmental problems facing the world, environmentalists have shifted more of their attention toward practical solutions. And they have done that by keeping the focus on people and their collective well-being.

Caring about the environment goes toward our ultimate mission, and we should give it the importance it deserves. As a humanitarian organization, we’re obligated to talk about it.

Why Climate Change Is Rotary’s Business,” April 2019

While it’s important to recognize the challenges facing the environment — and there are many — it is even more important to shine a light on the potential solutions to those challenges, especially those solutions that can benefit society by creating jobs, improving health, and making people more prosperous and resilient. That’s where the future of environmentalism lies. For example, addressing climate change will spur deep investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, improved transportation systems, smarter buildings, better materials, a healthier food system, and more sustainable forms of agriculture. All of these have the potential to create new jobs, foster new economic opportunities, and generate huge savings and new sources of income.

In the future, as we address our environmental challenges, we can build smarter, more efficient ways of doing everything. We can build more efficient homes that save energy and money for everyone. We can design smarter and more efficient vehicles that emit no pollution; save fuel and money; and are safer, cheaper to run, and more fun to drive. We can reduce food waste, promote healthier diets, and help farmers become more sustainable and more profitable, even as we help to repair our broken food system and curtail its negative impact on the environment.

The idea that we need to trade a healthy environment for a thriving economy is simply wrong. In the future, we can improve the environment and the economy through bold new thinking, innovation, and collaboration. It’s essential that we do that. As Gaylord Nelson, the former senator and governor of Wisconsin who founded Earth Day in 1970, famously said, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

Nelson was absolutely right. At the most fundamental level, our economic systems are built on the environment. Clean water, breathable air, a stable climate, abundant resources, places free from toxins: These are all requirements for a healthy economy. A world where water and air are polluted, or where storms, fires, and heat waves are frequent, or where basic natural resources — water, food, fiber, and fuel — are running out, is a world headed to economic ruin.

Rotary has a new area of focus: protecting the environment. Learn more about our commitment to keeping our planet and its resources safe.

Illustrations by Greg Mably

Improving the environment is crucial not only to the well-being of the planet but to the health of the billions of people who inhabit it — another shift, over the past few decades, in the focus of environmentalists. Let’s step away from our focus on solutions for a moment and look at some examples of the tremendous challenges we face as we move into the 2020s. Look at the impact of the recent fires in California and Australia on the health of tens of millions of people, forcing entire families to take shelter inside for weeks as a precaution against dangerous air pollution levels. Or consider the devastating toll that toxic drinking water can take on all the residents of a single town, as we saw — and continue to see — in Flint, Michigan. And look at the effect of severe and prolonged heat waves on our most vulnerable neighbors, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

A degraded environment doesn’t just degrade our health; it also undercuts our security. In a world where extreme weather events and natural disasters are more common and more lethal, growing environmental pressures, including those resulting from climate change, may force large numbers of people into extreme poverty or send them fleeing from their homes into other countries as environmental refugees. Such shocks could overwhelm entire nations and cause severe instability in numerous parts of the world.

In short, without a healthy environment, and without a long-term commitment to maintaining that healthy environment, we cannot have a healthy and thriving society. But let’s take a positive approach to this: If we are smart about it, addressing the most critical environmental issues facing us today is an opportunity for us to reinvigorate our economy and our communities. As Rotarians embark on a bold program of new environmental initiatives, it is crucial to keep this in mind. Solving environmental problems is a welcome chance to fix some of our out-of-date and broken systems and replace them with ones that are safer and fairer. In the process, we can create a world that is healthier and more prosperous for us and our children. Can there be any better future than that?

Jonathan Foley is the executive director of Project Drawdown, a leading resource for climate solutions. A climate and environmental scientist, educator, writer, and speaker, he was the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award for the Environment.

Read more perspectives about where Rotary may be headed — and what to expect when we get there.

• This story originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.