This article is the third in a series authored by Luke Kemp, looking at how the environmental movement could and should reform to learn from their enemies and achieve environmental justice. The first two articles look at the problems surrounding the current approaches of activism and advocacy, and the final articles look at the lessons that can be learned from the very organisations the movement works against.

The environmental movement must change its culture to one which prioritises outcomes and unity over all else.

The environmental movement has been happier to place movements of the past, such as the civil rights movement, upon a pedestal and attempt to mimic their strategies and culture.  The results so far would suggest that it hasn’t worked.  But there is another example we can draw upon, one that has and is still experiencing success in the current world.  It may make many of us feel uncomfortable but we need to learn from the culture and the strategy of our nemesis – the political Right.

Unity in Values, Value in Unity

Right-wing think tanks, politicians and academics have spent decades carefully crafting an identity and a vision which has been remarkably successful. As such, the word ‘conservative’ now has a succinct list of policies and values imprinted upon it:  smaller government, fewer taxes, more power for businesses, and protection of the traditional familial and national identity.  We may not agree with what they stand for, but they clearly do stand for something.

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In contrast it’s hard to see what exactly the environmental movement or the wider political Left stands for, beyond protecting the environment and stopping climate change.  In the lead-up to their political massacre in the recent Australian elections, the Greens were labelled as a ‘party of protest’, while Labour (our centre-left party) was simply left with the question of ‘what are you a party of then?’   People don’t vote or join political movements just on issues or policies.  They vote and act on the basis of identity, within which those issues and policies sit.

The environmental movement and the political Left needs to develop a core set of values and a vision which they can rally around.  As Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue “Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defending themselves against conservative values….. without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own.”  The Right are succeeding and we have been put on the back foot because of their vision.  It’s time to begin the counter-attack and we have the perfect opportunity.   The political Left has a vacuum in terms of morality.  If the environmental movement can integrate itself into the core of the left then we can become something more than just another interest group.

But before we can do that, we need to have the base unity to field a common vision.

tea-partyThe Right in many ways works as one holistic machine.  Right-wing shocks jocks spout the same phrases and policies to the masses that conservatives preach in the parliament and that business lobbyists appeal to in the corridors.  The tea-party demonstrators in the US don’t question and deliberate over the policies of their political counterparts.  They accept them and move on with their role as acting as the auxiliaries of the Right.  The “Golden Fist” has been so effective because energy companies have been united in their lobbying efforts and they definitely don’t spend days debating over who ‘owns’ a message or campaign.  Their unity and division of labour is the basis for their common vision and effectiveness.  Without it they could have neither.

We need both and we need to change our current culture in order to do so.  Our protestors need to learn that sometimes advocates might just know more about policy then they do, and our advocates need to learn that the mass mobilisation movement is an important source of potential power.  Both need to learn to put aside their differences of approach and work together under one narrative and one strategy, perhaps even under one structure.   We need to learn that the message is perhaps not as important as the unified execution of the campaign.  Once our two movements[1] can learn to operate under one tale then we will stand a fighting chance.

But it won’t be an easy process. For a while we need to be willing to let go of our radical fringes and accept a level of resistance to change as we build a new narrative and new common structures.

Once we have that common story and if we can connect it to the wider political Left then we could begin to fray the Velvet Glove.  Once we have that unity and that alliance along with the political and financial resources that come with it, then we could begin to strike aside the Golden Fist.

The Ends

Underlying the vision and unity of the Right is a deeper philosophy.  The Right are consequentialists; they value the outcomes more so than the morality of a process or action in and of itself.  In doing so, people sitting along the political spectrum on the right can put aside differences in approach, reasoning or belief behind to achieve their shared belief or goal. They can create unity in many cases because they prize the ends over the means.

Conservative governments such as the Howard regime in Australia or the Reagan administration in the US have governed on their own grounds.  They often didn’t care if they had majority support on certain topics or not.  The overriding priority was the fulfilment of their vision and yet it ironically led to their re-election.   In contrast, the recent drop in Republican popularity in the US has been due to the stubborn obstructionism of the Tea Party.  The Right has strayed from prioritising outcomes and has turned to opposing the Democrats out of a misplaced emphasis on actions, and it has cost them.

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Yet on the Left we have come to value procedural justice and holier-than-thou idealism over any pursuit of consequences.  One recent article by a commentator from the political Left came out to attack comedian turned revolutionary Russell Brand.  The fact that he has struck a public nerve was not important.  What was important was his implicit sexism and celebrity status.  This kind of reaction and the following quote from the article summarises why our culture needs to shift- “Yes, we will continue to struggle against vanguardism and sexism and so many co-constitutive problems within ourselves and each other. We will fail and fail better and fail.”

I don’t know about everyone else but I’m not in this movement to fail, and I’m certainly not here to strive for some kind of perverted structural perfectionism.

I’m here to win.  I’m here to win because there is no other choice.  I’m here to win because ultimately it’s not about me or anyone else in this movement.  It’s not about us.  It’s about future generations and it’s about Earth.

But in order to win we need to abide by this truth of consequences and shift our culture.  We need to begin to value outcomes over procedure and unity over sovereignty.  We need a critical mass from the centre of the movement to free itself from the shackles of our current ideology and forge ahead with a new vision.  It may very well mean ceasing to be a movement of our own and instead becoming a central part of the narrative of a rejuvenated political Left.  It will definitely mean embracing leadership and structure.  It will also mean letting go of our traditions of consensus and pathological tall poppy syndrome.

Yet there is a kind of poetic beauty in that by learning from the Right, we will be in turn doing what is right for our movement and for the future.


[1] For people reading this article without having read my previous articles, this reference to ‘two movements’ refers to the split in the environmental movement between proponents of activism vs. proponents of advocacy. The relevant articles can be found here and here respectively.

Featured Image Credit: KeepCalm-o-Matic

Written by Luke Kemp

Luke Kemp

Luke is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University and Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project. His current research focuses upon institutional reform of international environmental governance.When not criticizing consensus or writing his thesis he enjoys meditation and plotting world domination.