change – or decay

Charles Secrett argues that Northern green groups must break out of their ‘white, middle-class ghettos’ to address the inequalities that drive environmental destruction.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development – Earth Summit 3 – is less than a year away. Global environmental problems such as greenhouse gas emissions, ocean plunder, the loss of old growth and primary forests, and wasted resources, lurch from bad to worse. The rich and powerful get richer and more powerful; the poor get poorer and weaker. Sustainable development looks good on paper, but in reality is little more than a tongue-twisting chimera. The environment movement worldwide needs to ask whether it is time to evolve to succeed.

The honest answer is: yes. The movement lacks the political strength to reverse these trends. The United States has the oldest, wealthiest and most diverse environment movement of any country. Most of its citizens believe that climate change is real, and that the United States must act to curb its emissions. Yet the combined might of the World Resources Institute, Sierra Club, National Resources Defence Council, Environmental Defence Fund, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and more could not pprevent the United States greatly increasing its emissions of greenhouse gases in the 1990s and then rejecting the Kyoto Protocal this year.

Shifting battle lines
A power struggle lies at the heart of every significant environmental choice, from energy use to forest or fisheries management to resource consumption. Who gains? Who loses? Who controls? Who profits? The battle lines shift ceaselessly between communities, companies and countries; between those who demand reform and those who defend the status quo. On the global stage, Southern countries are determined to secure the political authority and economic resources to meet their development needs. Northern nations are equally adamant about holding on to what they have got. It is inequalities between and within nations – the inequalities of political decision-making, of economic resource use, of standards of living – which environmental groups must convincingly address. These are the motors of environmental degradation and unsustainable development patterns.

Governments predominately believe that conservation undermines and competes with development, whatever lip-service they pay to policy integration and sustainability theory. Their overwhelming priority is to generate wealth to maintain standards of living for the middle classes and to pull people out of poverty. Tax regimes, subsidies and regulation are geared for economic growth and market share – not for future generations or environmental protection.

Soft issues
Most green non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are ill equipped for this arena, unless they reposition themselves, their agenda and strategies. Since the birth of the movement in the white, affluent middle-class communities of the United States and Europe in the 1960s, distinct strands of green NGOs have emerged. There are conservation groups, like WWF, whose identity is marked by education, fundraising and lobbying for endangered species protection. There are the animal welfare groups, like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who adopt a similar approach. Environmental groups like Greenpeace are known for a broader sectoral analysis (energy, transport, chemicals and so on), and choose from a range of campaign tactics, including peaceful direct action. One or two groups, like Friends of the Earth, have become sustainability campaigners, intent on securing social justice and greater economic welfare through environmental improvement, mainly using political action and media exposure.

The great majority of so-called environmental organizations, including nearly all the mass membership groups, are preoccupied with nature conservation and animal welfare priorities. Development and poverty are for other organizations entirely, organizations such as Oxfam, the World Development Movement and Christian Aid in the United Kingdom. This is the movement’s political weakness. Soft issues define their positioning, public support and influence.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the United Kingdom’s largest green NGO, with over a million members. It does excellent conservation work. Its staff are expert, and produce authoritative policy papers on hard sustainability issues like resource equity, fair trade, fiscal reform and poverty reduction. But that is not where its reputation, appeal or strategic impact lie. It is about birds and their habitats. When government considers energy or global trade options, for example, officials and parliamentary committees reflect the society’s position papers. But those million-plus armchair supporters are not the same as 1 million agitated constituents, and ministers know it.

Politicians respond quickest to those who can hurt or help them where it counts: in editorial columns, opinion polls and ballot boxes. NGOs who dance with policy makers down the corridors of power, or placard with passion but little strategic intent outside closed-door summits and boardrooms, cut little ice. Right now, winning the occasional incremental green policy improvement is about as useful as changing the colour of the curtains while the house burns down.

Wasted energy
Fifteen years of bitter climate negotiations would surely have concluded sooner if other international organizations had, alongside Friends of the Earth and the Global Commons Institute, incorporated equity and fair resource share considerations into their campaigns from day one. Southern nations were wary because they saw environmental constraints as the latest incarnation of industrial country imperialism. While the emissions of Northern countries rose, despite their obligation to cut back first, promises made in flows and technology transfers to help poor nations modernize their economies were broken. Northern NGOs banging on about global environmental limits and wildlife habitats at risk only aggravated the situation.
Green groups need to find common cause with other groups
Earth Summit 3 will not resolve other substantive environment-development conflicts, such as forest management, ocean use, mineral access or water conservation, until decisions are based on fairly sharing the Earth’s resources, with each economy strategically reducing environmental impacts to match ecosystem tolerances. The challenge for the global environment movement is to reorganize itself in order to generate popular demand for fundamental reforms. There are three immediate priorities.

  • First, green groups need to find common cause with other movements. Multi-issue global coalitions, linking environmentalists, poverty campaigners, subsistence farmers and others, have successfully blocked global free trade proposals like the Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment or the World Trade Organization’s new round in Seattle. By working with progressive governments, we have generated the political will to stop industrial nations and global corporations bulldozing through treaties which ignore environmental and poverty priorities.

  • Second, mainstream NGOs must reconnect with grassroots activists. The energy of anti-globalization campaigners and the mass citizen support for the global ‘Drop the Debt’campaign are admirable models. This is particularly critical in the United States, where long years of lobbying on Capitol Hill have atrophied the campaign muscle, activist support and strategic sense of the environmental establishment. The dynamism of peaceful direct action and green community politics is alive and kicking in the United States. But the Ruckus Society and Earth First just do not relate to highly paid lobbyists, no matter whose side they are on.

  • Third, the green agenda must encompass environmental rights, environmental justice and environmental economic modernization. It is the poor who suffer the worst effects of pollution, resource waste and deteriorating environmental quality. They cannot buy their way out of trouble. Their needs must be met. It is time that environmentalists broke out of their white, middle-class ghettos. The mixed race, community-based environmental justice movement in the United States and Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom show what is possible.

Sustainable development is about meeting the needs of all people, now and in the future, while ensuring the biosphere can maintain itself and the diversity of life. By addressing its own weaknesses, the environment movement can play a vital catalytic role in transforming the economic and political world order to realize the tangible dream

Charles Secrett is Director, Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

PHOTOGRAPH: Chris Hellier/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
Thilo Bode: Sea changes (The environment millennium) 2000
Ricardo A. Navarro: Unfair trade (Beyond 2000) 2000
Chee Yoke Ling: No sleeping after Seattle (Beyond 2000) 2000
Marcelo Furtado and Kevin Stairs: Not on planet Earth! (Hazardous waste) 1999