Joshua Blackburn, published in The Guardian, January 18th 2006
It was one of those dark ironies that the launch of Stop Climate Chaos, the climate change coalition, took place just three days after Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans under 12 feet of water. It was a portentous beginning: if accounts are to be believed, the challenges of AIDS, poverty and disease will each find grim resolution in the end of life as we know it. This is one campaign we’ve got to get right.
There is concern, however, that it is not just the climate that is in crisis, but the environment movement itself. Facing their biggest challenge to date, friends and critics alike are asking whether greens are leading the way, or losing the plot.
Debate around the health of the green movement has been heated of late. A prominent paper published in America, The Death of Environmentalism, put the cat amongst the pigeons when it accused the green movement of lacking vision, leadership and strategic acuity. Closer to home, critics have accused environmentalists of being politically naïve, although for two contradictory reasons. Some point to the capture of green politics by the unreconstructed left while others say it has been suckered into Labour’s Big Tent and co-opted into oblivion. The truth is likely a bit of both, a reflection of its natural diversity and its growing confusion.
It is a long way from the halcyon days of the green movement thirty years ago. As Greenpeace entered the Mururoa Atoll in June 1972, they helped define a new era in campaigning, shaping the enduring myth of the environment movement: of David versus Goliath, right versus wrong, man versus nature. For over two decades environmentalists led the way as activists and policy makers.
Thirty years later and something seems wrong. At the G8, one was left wondering whether environmentalists were even attending the summit. While membership of green charities remains buoyant, their effectiveness is being questioned, with campaigns suspected of making more of a noise than a difference. Eurobarometer’s research in 2004 showed 78% of people were sceptical or unconvinced on environment issues and despite the millions of pounds spent on campaigning, there remains a mountain to climb before concern for the environment translates into meaningful action.
The environment agenda includes some of the most profound problems facing humanity but research paints a picture of a movement more concerned with the future of Dingle Copse than that of the planet. A report for the Environmental Funders Network on the allocation of over £20 million of green grants in the UK found that a mere 2% was allocated to climate change, while 40% went on conservation. As Sam Clarke, Chair of Friends of the Earth commented, “It’s very worrying if the funders aren’t switched on to what the real problems are, failing to focus on the issues that matter.”
Such doubts about the impact of the green movement have led to an emerging anxiety about its future. Aiden Rankin, writing in The Ecologist, described the “ethical, indeed spiritual crisis of Green politics”, while Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club, America’s largest environment NGO, said starkly; “The signs of environmentalism’s death are all around us.” In his speech to the Commonwealth Club, Werbach began, “I am here to perform an autopsy”.
Talk of death is a touch dramatic, but there is a certain malaise that has left the movement, if you will excuse the pun, a bit green: trapped by its own myth, culture and strategic choices.
Compare the campaigns of the green movement alongside its development counterparts. On one side, development NGOs stand to Make Poverty History or Make Trade Fair, seeking Trade Justice or a Global Call to Action. On the other, the public is asked to Stop Climate Change, Stop Climate Chaos, Stop Star Wars, Stop Bottom Trawling, Stop Esso, Say No To GM or Save the Whales. It all begins to feel like an international nagging movement and, as Adrian Lovett, Projects Director at Oxfam UK observes: “It’s the ability to be positive and creative that resonates most with people’s values, not always telling them to stop.”
Trapped in a binary language of ‘stop’ or ‘save’, environment NGOs are said to lack an inspiring vision. There is talk of ‘solutions’, but the message is lost amongst the endless campaigns and scientific wrangling of the movement. Tom Burke, director of the new environment group E3G, believes the big NGOs have been left in the 20th century: “They haven’t learnt how to win the battle of ideas”, says Burke, “They need to connect with the big issues outside of the environment agenda.” Philip Downing at the sustainability consultancy Brooke Lyndhurst, agrees; “We need to re-frame the issues and find non-environmental drivers of change – status, health, economics and quality of life.”
Facing these challenges has not been made easier by the culture of the green movement itself – its historical resistance to coalitions, its fear of evaluating the impact of its work, its caution towards the mainstream and its suspicion of anything with even a whiff of the corporate. It is a culture that creates the impression of being prescriptive and guilt ridden. Blake Lee-Harwood, Campaigns Director at Greenpeace, acknowledges that “Much of environmentalism has been defined as an oppositional force in politics”.
Such cultural issues are not exclusive to the environment movement and credit is due to the NGOs now addressing them, but green campaigning in particular has a reputation for its hectoring tone: opposed to development; opposed to consumption; opposed to human aspiration.
Over time, the combination of all these factors has made environmental NGOs more isolated than they needed to be and more ineffective than they should be. One consequence, however, is not so much the death of the environment movement as its displacement. John Elkington, chair of SustainAbility, believes this is already happening: “I don’t look at the green groups as being the centre of the movement now, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant.” Elkington sees the emergence of think tanks, business networks and new organisations like Transparency International as being of far more interest in the evolution of green politics than the latest Greenpeace campaign.
For some, this shift is not just inevitable but essential. The environment, argues Adam Werbach, is too important to be left to the environmentalists; “In order to stop climate change we need to stop the environment movement from talking about it.” As climate change becomes as much a priority for international development, human rights, labour and national security, the green establishment risks being marginalised on its home ground.
It is against this backdrop that the launch of Stop Climate Chaos represents such a significant opportunity. The broad nature of its coalition speaks volumes and one is encouraged to hear Ashok Sinha, the campaign’s director, say; “It will be very different to what the green movement has ever done in the past.” Sam Clarke believes it might also be a vital catalyst for the green movement itself: “It should galvanise green campaigners”, says Clarke, continuing; “If we can make this work then there is real potential to connect on other key issues too.”
The potential significance of this campaign cannot be understated. While critics of the green establishment might be happy to see the emergence of a new breed of environmentalists from within business, politics and the broader NGO community, others believe that Stop Climate Chaos and the ranks of campaigning NGOs still have a vital role to play.
But if 2006 is to be the year of environmentalists, it will require a radical departure from the familiar campaign formula of the past. Starting with a clear vision, they must find new and inspiring ways of reaching a consumer public that claims to care, but fails to act. And the first step? Please, stop saying “stop”.