Environmentalism Beyond Activism

Posted on April 9, 2013

During the past decade, sustainability has started to mature from narrow activist fringe to broad-based mainstream concern.

Ten years is but the blink of an eye in the sweep of human history. However, in the life of a young movement like “environmentalism,” it represents a period of significant change. We have witnessed a decade of success; our relationship with the environment in which we live, and on which we depend, has become increasingly incorporated into our social fabric. In most countries, “green” political parties have been electorally unsuccessful, not because their message is ignored but rather because significant parts of it have been incorporated into the platforms of other parties.

While the last decade has been one of single-minded activist success, in the next decade, the environmental movement will mature—that is, it will move beyond activism and become a more integral part of the mainstream public and political debate.

The first article tackling environmentalism that I could find on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site, “Going Head to Head,” was written by David P. Baron in 2003. It addressed the question of activist action and argued that boycotts and other such activist initiatives were sometimes counter-productive. The author describes in some detail the Greenpeace campaign against Shell, which resulted in abandonment of the idea of scuttling the Brent Spar oil platform to dispose of it at the bottom of the ocean. The description of that episode shows both the strengths and weaknesses of environmental activism. The strength is clear. Shell was forced to back down and change its plans. The weaknesses are, however, worrying. The article describes this conversation:

The chairman of Shell Germany said that studies indicated deep-sea disposal was the best alternative for the environment. “But Joe Six-Pack won’t understand your technical details,” Lorfeldern [of Greenpeace] shot back. “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.”

And herein lies the problem. Activism is a confrontational attitude that always risks descending into the wish to win at any cost—even if winning is detrimental to the cause. The reported conversation suggests that the Greenpeace individual quoted was less interested in whether scuttling Brent Spar was actually the most environmentally sound solution and more interested in who was going to win the media war. Later investigation showed that disposing of Brent Spar at sea would have been the best environmental option and, according to a representative of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the whole activist episode was “a circus sideshow that distracted from the big environmental issues affecting the world.”

Mark Dowie’s article, “The Hidden Cost of Paradise,” written in 2006, tells us the story of conservation refugees, a story he describes in more detail in his book. He describes how indigenous people were driven from their homes and left without a means to make a living so that natural protected areas could be created. He describes how this model of “fortress conservation” was ineffective and undermined support for conservation. A Maasai leader is quoted as saying “We were the original conservationists, now you have made us enemies of conservation.” Western, science-driven conservation policy swept away centuries of local knowledge and people’s rights—and largely failed.

Getting beyond activism

The missteps described in these articles are the result of the activist mindset—a beleaguered and marginalized mindset, it argues that direct action and public confrontation are the only ways forward. Many will argue that these episodes reflect the past face of environmentalism not the environmentalism of today. This is only partially true. The acceptance of social injustice as the price of environmental protectionremains alive and well—and not only with regard to protected areas. In Germany, the much-vauntedEnergiewende (energy transformation) has, through misdirected government subsidies, become one of the biggest programs of wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy. Performative activism also persists; though it may be becoming more performative and less activist. A recent “civil disobedience” event was invitation-only and closely co-ordinated with the police, with “arrests” that were pre-planned and pre-agreed. As one sociology scholar commented in email correspondence, since this event was “police pre-approved and limited to high-status actors who pre-agreed to the media-centric strategy … would anyone think that this kind of protest would be effective?” Maybe we can consider this type of action more of an art performance—one that preserves the form, but not the content or reality of civil disobedience.

But why do we want to preserve the form?

I suggest that the success of the environmental movement has been to make the activist activity of its past less relevant to its future. Whether we like it or not, activism is associated in people’s mind with fringe movements—those that can’t get attention any other way. Environmentalism has moved beyond that point. Sustainability is a mainstream concern, and activist behavior risks dragging it all back to the fringes in our collective consciousness.

Similarly, the time is—or should be—long gone when environmentalists could ignore the social justice implications of their proposed actions. In his recently published book, America the Possible, Gus Speth urges the environmental movement to broaden its sphere of concern beyond its traditional narrow focus. He follows up with practical steps, starting by trying to find common ground with the labor movement. And in a previous article, “Environmentalism Refreshed,” I argued that we need to stop looking at the world through green spectacles and learn to look at environmental issues through the broad eyes of our societies. If environmentalists are to be taken seriously, they should be just as vocal about the adverse social consequences of some pro-environmental policies as they are about policies that do not take sustainability into account.

Ten years is a long time in the life of a young movement. Today, many of those concerned with issues of sustainability are achieving results through mainstream, constructive engagement. They have learned to look at the bigger picture and help devise policies that mesh environmental protection with human well-being and social justice. All of this builds on the successes achieved by the activists and single-minded campaigners of the past, and it represents the encouraging face of tomorrow’s sustainability debate.

This post was first published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of the reviews commissioned on the occasion of the journal’s 10th Anniversary

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