Environmentalism: From Fringe To Mainstream At Green Week, Brussels 2014


While the old environmentalism failed largely in mainstreaming environmental concerns, we see the birth of a new form of environmentalism emerging from its predecessor. James Murray from Business Green set the agenda for a breathtaking brainstorming event with high level speakers at the “New Environmentalism Summit”, 3 June 2014 in Brussels.

Janez Potočnik, the European Commissioner for Environment cordially invited high-level speakers and stresses his Directorate-General’s high commitment to environmental mainstreaming.

World renowned expert on so many of the environmental concerns Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute and Professor at Columbia University makes it very clear that immediate action by society as a whole is imperative. (image: courtesy of WWF / Lode Saidane)

As we are speedily crossing planetary boundaries, we will soon be facing dangerous tipping points in the earth system: Rapid loss of species, ocean acidification and overfishing, nitrification of soils and first and foremost the greatest challenge humanity ever had to face in history, namely climate change.


Janez Potočnik, the European Commissioner for Environment and Yann Arthus-Bertrand, film maker, photographer, journalist, reporter: Environmentalists to the core, source: Greenweek

From absent-minded dreamers to authoritative voices

Environmentalists in the past have been considered visionary dreamers wandering absent-mindedly in their local biotopes talking between themselves and complaining about bad companies polluting the natural treasures.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stresses the enormous achievements that environmentalists of former times made against all odds, until environmentalism has become the honorable and widely accepted obligation for society that it is today.

Rachel Carson and Chico Mendez are considered heroes, fighting for environmental concerns.

UNEP is now well established, and later this month a more authoritative voice on the global environment will be heard for the first time with the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA).


Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP highlights environmentalists’ success, source: Greenweek

China only recently invented a concept for “ecological civilization”, and the UN representative concludes that we are faced with a civilizational challenge today: our decisions will impact the next five generations to a high degree. It is in our responsibility if our descendants will live in glamour or gloom.

Magic moments create systemic change

Modern environmentalism is compelling, attractive and fun. Marco Lambertini, the new dynamic Director-General of WWF International showed the audience where the magic happens: The Earth Hour on 29 March 2014 actually provided an empowering worldwide platform, inspired young and old around the globe and served as a “digital umbrella movement” evolving far beyond the expected outcomes of WWF. These kinds of initiatives can generate change, and the next WWF campaign will be devoted to the oceans.


Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International, source: Greenweek

The lifelong environmentalist stresses that it is all about engaging people: “We need powerful influencers and change at scale. Systemic change will be triggered only by people. To face the climate challenge, we need a massive global mobilization initiative, and we need climate leaders to engage from the local to the highest political level of society.”

The power of movies

Around the globe, there are people engaged in solving global challenges – this is the way to go. Al Gore inspired many of us with his wake-up call “An inconvenient truth” in 2006, and this film motivated the famous film maker Yann Arthus-Bertrand to produce the famous movie “Home” about our amazing planet earth. The film maker and environmentalist believes in the power of the people and his solution for mainstreaming environmentalism is appealing: using powerful pictures. There is one major obstacle we have to overcome: We need to face reality.


Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Powerful pictures move the world, source: Greenweek

Bertrand states that we do not want to believe what we actually all know today. There are cynics and sceptics, and there are the winners of the fossil game who fear to be the losers of the new world. They are right. They will have to share their profits with the other 7.2 billion of us. And we need their help in safeguarding our very living resources.

Solving the climate crisis together

Transformational change is already happening now. Jeffrey Sachs stresses that we are in the midst of a “marvellours technological revolution” with vast progress in technology, information, data processing and communication. The paradox is: we do not use the potential for a sustainable economy that we possess. The renowned economist declares: “Within the next year and a half, we have the chance to set the course for truly sustainable development with the global common effort on designing the Sustainable Development Goal process, and towards a binding climate change treaty in Paris 2015. We need national decarbonization pathways, and we need leaders on all level of society relentlessly pushing for climate action.”

Some major questions still wait for response: How do we deal with the political capital? How could we turn the representatives of yesterday’s “legacy economy” into supporters? An ancient Chinese proverb says: “Tell them, and they will forget. Show them, and they will remember. Involve them, and they will understand.” This is the way to go.

About the Author Katrin Heeren

A professional expert in sustainability, sustainable energy and climate change topics, with over 15 years of work experience in various projects on sustainability and policy related issues, Katrin holds a M.Sc. equivalent degree in geology and completed a post-graduate environmental sciences course in 2010. Katrin worked on national climate policy for the German Federal Environment Agency, on international climate policy and carbon finance as GIZ consultant to the German Federal Environment Ministry, and she was involved in the intergovernmental founding process of the International Renewable Energy Agency in 2008. She is experienced in communicating complex subjects to diverse target groups and especially interested in creative writing and storytelling.

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