Environmental Activism – Power Without Accountability?
Posted on October 9, 2013
This article first appeared in The Guardian
Activists’ emotive soundbites tend to win the PR war over companies’ technical jargon. But while activism is valuable, it’s not always accountable.
Many of us often write about the imperative for business to exercise its power responsibly and to be held accountable for its actions. Yet few examine the same issues of power and accountability in another sector that has, over the past 50 years or so, built its own substantial power base – the environmental activist community and its interaction with the business world.
In 1994, Shell was planning to dispose of the Brent Spar oil storage facility by scuttling it in the North Sea. Greenpeace objected and took Shell on in an acrimonious public campaign. As a highly profitable, extractive company, Shell was an easy target. And the company was much less skilled than Greenpeace at firing public emotion and influencing public opinion. Where Greenpeace created emotive confrontation and had simple, easily-grasped messages, Shell fought back with facts and figures.
Shell argued that its studies showed that disposing of the facility at sea was the most environmentally responsible thing to do. Jochen Lorfelder of Greenpeace said: “But Joe Six-Pack won’t understand your technical details. All he knows is that if he dumps his can in a lake, he gets fined. So he can’t understand how Shell can do this.”
In other words, in the PR war, my soundbite is better than yours.
And this is the nub of the issue. In such a confrontation, what is the right thing to do takes a back seat to winning the PR battle. Activist groups can more easily generate soundbites that fire people up and paint corporations as great evildoers. Many corporations react to these tactics with surprise or frustration and find it difficult to fight back except with technical information that few understand and even fewer believe.
Shell capitulated. It changed its plans and dismantled Brent Spar on land. When the fray died down, many believed that the chosen option was, in fact, more environmentally damaging than the original plan. Under the guise of environmental activism and with strong PR skills, Greenpeace may have actually been responsible for forcing through a more environmentally-damaging option.
Greenpeace had the power to force the change but has never been held accountable or liable for the extra costs or extra environmental damage caused by its actions. Today, corporations would, rightly, not be allowed to get away with such actions but there are no mechanisms to hold activist groups to account.
Preserving the Value of Activism
Activism has become a valuable part of our social fabric. It has brought many issues to light. Protests have challenged the power of entrenched interests and forced important social changes. Women’s rights, civil rights, environmental protection and many others are all the fruits of initial activist activities.
Corporations are kept on the straight and narrow by the fear of activist backlash. So how does a society keep the benefits of activism without letting it descend into yet another collection of powerful but unaccountable interest groups? Only by finding such a balance can the benefits of activist activity be maintained without causing social damage and, in the longer run, undermining the credibility of activism itself.
Two current examples come to mind. The first is the protests againstfracking in the UK. The second is the protests against gold mining in Rosia Montana in Romania. The issues surrounding fracking are well known; suffice it to say that, as the debate gathers in volume if not in substance, the credibility of public institutions in finding a balanced way forward will come to the fore. The stance of the UK government, the unity – or otherwise – of government departments and the honest and open handling of legitimate concerns will be crucial to the outcome. So far, the government is struggling to offer a coherent stance.
An even easier target for activist activity is the proposed gold mining operation in Rosia Montana. This foreign investment project has the potential to improve living conditions for thousands of people – it promises to create 2,300 jobs during construction and 900 once completed – make a significant contribution to Romanian development and the country’s economy, and clean up the legacy pollution left from communist era mining operations.
Yet, cogent though these arguments might be, they start to fall apart when activist groups organise public demonstrations and talk of poisoning our water with cyanide (900,000 metric tonnes of which are already used worldwide according to the Chemical Economics Handbook). Combating such activism with a “cyanide will be used safely” message is nigh on impossible no matter how true the statement might be.
Once again, the outcome of such a battle will depend on the maturity shown by Romania’s political institutions. Can vehement activism through emotional messages derail a project that a recent poll says is supported by 68% of the Romanian population and one that promises to provide net social, economic and environmental benefit to the country?
If so, who will carry the responsibility and the liability – the activist groups who derailed it? Or will it fall on ordinary citizens and taxpayers to suffer the consequences? So far, the Romanian government has handled the issues responsibly. A commission has been set up to evaluate pros and cons and advise on a way forward. If such an approach had been followed in the Brent Spar case, maybe the outcome there would have been different.
The Complexity of Decision Making
With Brent Spar, Shell ran scared when threatened with a consumer boycott. It embarked on a course that was potentially worse for the company and worse for the environment. At that time, the role of public institutions as arbiters of what lies in the overall public interest was not well developed as regards environmental issues.
Things are different today. Public institutions are more skilled at evaluating the balance of advantages and disadvantages. Nevertheless political decision-making is complex when it is done in a fevered atmosphere and when different political factions are always calculating how a difficult situation can be turned to their own political advantage. For a government, like that of Romania, faced with environmental activists in the street on the one side and miners on hunger strike in support of the project on the other, the choices are not easy. The views and overall interests of the silent majority can get forgotten in the heat.
At a recent event, a well-known conservationist and environmental activist put it like this: “It’s not the activists’ job to find alternatives. Their job is just to draw attention to the problems.” That attitude is one of an exercise of power without responsibility or accountability. Our society can ill afford such an attitude if we are to preserve the benefits of activism while finding viable ways forward in what remain challenging social, environmental and economic times.
Fortunately, many activist pressure groups do not take that attitude and fully engage in contributing to exploring balanced policy approaches. They need to be encouraged as much as the raucous, destructive groups that only know the politics of “no” to almost everything need to be marginalised.