by Dirk Campbell
The number of environmental movements to have emerged in the last two decades is quite dizzying. In the 1980s the Green party, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were pretty much the only players. Then as the century turned, more entered the field. Now there are so many we need a Which? report to make sense of them all. How do they differ? How effective are they? Which one should you support?
Like many people I’m active in several of these groups. They all have different functions and although there is plenty of overlap, I can distinguish four general categories: political, pressure group, direct action and solutions-based. I could add two more: spiritual (which would include festivals, therapy groups and religions), and business (which would include Lush, Body Shop and our own Depot Cinema) but I think I’ll keep to the first four for now. Maybe look at the other two another time.
Starting with the political category, the encouraging situation is that every major party in this country today claims green credentials. Politicians across the board recognise that the green agenda is at the top of the list of public concerns. They are all vying for our trust on environmental action. But that is the crux of the problem with elective democracy: trust. You can’t go out and change things yourself, it’s illegal. You have to elect someone and trust them to do it. And that’s where the system so often fails us, because even if the candidate you voted for gets in, agendas you didn’t vote for can take precedence over the ones you did. The only certain way to get green issues legislated on would be to have a Green majority government. Will that happen any time soon? Unlikely, but if we don’t vote Green in large enough numbers it’ll never happen at all.
Pressure groups include Friends of the Earth, Avaaz and all the plethora of email petition groups. As well as petitions they organise demonstrations. Mostly they rely on ‘clicktivism’ – getting you to click on their petition. Does that do any good? According to the New Statesman, most of the e-petitions that are signed each year fall on deaf ears. They allow people to feel as though they have taken action when they haven’t, potentially preventing individuals from pursuing more hands-on activism. Despite accumulating millions of signatures, not a single one of the online campaigns to the UK parliament has succeeded. So don’t bother signing online petitions? Actually you should, because even if they fail, they represent a measure of public opinion. The anti-fracking movement has amassed such a degree of public support that the government has gone silent on the subject and fracking is at a standstill, even though no debate in Parliament has resulted in anti-fracking legislation.
Direct action ranges from the one-woman occupation of a giant redwood to the anti-whaling interventions by Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, to the recent large-scale occupations by Extinction Rebellion. History shows that only 3½% of the population need be involved in a rebellion to bring about radical change (take for example the Russian Revolution). Civil disobedience has a long and distinguished tailback, from the Peasants’ Revolt all the way through to the Suffragettes, Ghandi and Martin Luther King. It’s different from revolution in that the aim is not to overthrow the ruling elite but to make the existing one conform to public pressure. XR’s non-violent occupation of central London grabbed the headlines enough for Parliament to endorse Jeremy Corbyn’s climate emergency declaration. Which shows it works, but a week is a long time in politics and further actions are planned. There is a local branch of Extinction Rebellion where you can find out more.
Finally to a group that avoids campaigning, pressurising or demonstrating: the Transition movement. Its aim is to create community resilience through local initiatives, working in partnership with local institutions. Transition is not primarily an environmental movement, but its solutions can’t be other than environmental, because local sustainability implies ecological sustainability. You can’t, for example, poison the land around you with agro-chemicals or use it to grow mono-crops and then expect it to support you. Transition methods are scalable and produce green outcomes, but the starting point is different. What Transition can do, because it bypasses the electoral system, is achieve fast results locally. It is non-adversarial and involves neither party politics nor complex administration, so it can be more effective in certain areas than local authorities or pressure groups. It doesn’t seek attention so it’s unlikely to annoy anybody.
What these four categories demonstrate, happily, is a fundamental convergence. They are different approaches to the same challenge, which is to halt, if not reverse, our headlong rush into ecological decline. All four operating together can, I believe, achieve the desired effect. If it were just a matter of, say, online petitions or street demonstrations I think we would be looking at a very long timescale. Direct action by the public can force regime change, as the 1987 collapse of communism and the 2010 Arab Spring demonstrate. But popular uprisings without proper planning produce dire outcomes. There are plenty of good minds concentrated on viable solutions, whether or not they involve conventional politics, petitions or direct action. Our own minds here in Lewes are among them.