Sacred Cows and Mainstream Movements: Are Environmentalists Ready for ‘Third Wave Green’?

Great movements must constantly reexamine themselves if they are to evolve and survive over time. They must self-generate their own “waves” – like feminism’s First, Second and Third – to progress in an often hostile, reactionary world, to “make it” into popular culture. To count outside the cult.

It’s time to ask what this means to the Green movement.

While others have spoken about “third wave environmentalism” in different contexts, the way it makes the most sense is to look at it in terms of the feminist model. Beginning with woman’s suffrage, that movement’s First Wave took on many “officially mandated” inequalities, its Second added to the mix “unofficial” inequalities and lifestyle issues, and its Third is now embracing diversity within the movement and has taken a hard look at some of the shortcomings of earlier incarnations.

Consider First Wave Green to have been 20th century activity surrounding basic environmental laws and practices, such as the establishment of national parks and the advent of wildlife preservation, addressing the most easily identifiable deadly chemicals and carcinogens in the environment, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The current, Second Wave has targeted the consumer, focusing on lifestyle issues such as green consciousness and health choices made by individuals. It has also included the radicalization of the “Green left” and the rise of independent green media. But the evidence shows that green still hasn’t fully tapped into the mainstream; indeed, 2010 has seen consumer and political backlash. For scientists, progressives and the everyday citizens who read sites like this one, it’s both maddening and mind-boggling. Why? Is it time, if not money? Or something else?

It would serve us well to begin to discuss what a Third Wave would look like.

Why now? As we enter the second decade of the new century, many green assumptions are coming under increasingly brighter lights of scrutiny and (sometimes justified) attack. This is in part due the movement’s successes, which  are heroically generating such harsh and determined backlash from the very greatest powers that be – a money- and power-motivated science-denying corporate and pseudo-religious axis that would have the movement die at the next turn.

And here’s some more Why Now: Because green is still niche and has failed to grip the national consciousness in a thoroughly broad-based, mainstream way – something that needs to happen to manifest the kind of change required to “save” our planet. And ourselves.

So what makes a third wave work?

Third Wave Feminism provides an excellent model: It works when a movement has the courage to both embrace its diversity and look critically at previous incarnations and current paradigms – and then has the courage to evolve. This means accepting gains made and respecting the zeitgeist of past efforts, while – and here’s the tough part – deconstructing assumptions to find more resilient truths.

What we’re talking about is taking a look at some of our closely held beliefs and asking ourselves some hard questions: Are things what they appear to be? Have we been making assumptions that might not be based on objective reality? Are we taking important conclusions for granted? What Third Wave Green would embody is the examination of the movements “truths” about what’s good for ourselves and our planet and ask if they are, well, true.

The are many examples of “Green conclusions” that call out for reexamination to help the movement inch closer to more accurate and, if you will, sustainable truths. These sacred cows include environmentalist bedrock, from organic food to green technology, from no fur to no nukes, from recycling to “buy local.” Not even the movement’s core supposition of “environment-first” action should be spared scrutiny. While many of these ideas will hold up to a second look, the reality is that each of these now iconic assumptions have their counterintuitive antitheses that need to be addressed – and in some cases be invited into the Big Green Tent.

Mature movements, like feminism, can withstand unflinching self-examination and criticism from within. Otherwise, it’s a toddler with a tantrum, and the adults are bound to shut the door.

If the Green movement is to survive its continued savaging from the outside as a result of its progress, and in fact enjoy a Third Wave, it must open its arms to diversity of thought and practice from within, even to those points of view that might be outside the norm – for now.

Next week we will look at 10 of the most common green assumptions and their counterintuitive alternatives.

Image: Davichi

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at