This article is the first 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 will look at the lessons that can be learned from the very organisations the movement works against.

Environmental mass mobilisation by itself is a dead-end. The inconvenient truth is that it does not suit our times or our problems.

The current approach of much of the environmental movement, particularly the Climate Justice Movement, relies upon non-violent protest to spark societal transformation.  The idea is that if we can get enough people marching in the streets a critical mass will be reached and current power structures will crumble beneath a populist groundswell.

It’s a lovely idea and the notion of ‘people-power’ is undoubtedly attractive, but it’s unlikely to work.  It is a strategy that does not match the zeitgeist (spirit of our times) of the current age.

The Big Shift Right

It doesn’t take much observation to see that unfortunately the masses are not with us.  On the contrary- despite worsening environmental trends- the public are not turning green.  Actually, they are filing towards the right and away from parties committed to environmental justice and sustainability.

Credit: Climate Shifts
Credit: Climate Shifts

Recent elections in both Australia and Norway have signalled a significant shift towards the right and away from climate action.  Worryingly, as polls in Australia showed, most people still believe in climate science but simply don’t see it as a priority for action.  They weren’t willing to change their vote over it, let alone join in on marches or sit-ins.  There is a similar problem with the ‘divestment’ campaign; research has shown that even when people are aware of the social and environmental impacts of their investments, their money will not follow their morals.

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we advocates and activists are not representative of the masses.

One problem is that the people are too comfortable.  They are not an angry mob waiting for the right spark.  They are an apathetic crowd that would prefer to stay within their comfort zone.

There is the old idiom of ruling ‘with an iron fist inside a velvet glove’.  The idea being that even the most rigid oppressive regimes will often appease their people with luxuries.  We are living in the time of the velvet glove of capitalism and it is the ultimate blocker to any mass mobilisation.   It is a glove that silently strangles the idealistic rage which drives revolutions.

This velvet glove also helps explain the swing to the right.  With the global financial crisis the public are more individualistic; pre-occupied with jobs and the economy rather than environmental or justice based issues.  Recent elections have shown that the people are happier to keep the velvet glove on rather than set it aflame when their own comfort is threatened.

An Environmental Mismatch

Credit: Virtual Victorian
Credit: Virtual Victorian

It is true that non-violent protest and movements may have worked in the past, but we are dealing with an entirely different beast.  The gold-standard of movements are non-violent rebellions such as the anti-apartheid and civil rights movement. More recently, the Arab spring has been held up as a bastion of grassroots civic power.  Yet these movements had conditions that made civil mobilisation possible; characteristics which environmental problems inherently lack.

Firstly, past movements were built upon problems that felt urgent and desperate.  Secondly, they had a clear oppressed and oppressor dichotomy that could be drawn upon.  The most affected did not have the soothing relief of the velvet glove and the conditions were ripe for a single flame to light the anger of the masses.

Environmental problems do not have this fuel.  The problems are diffused globally and intergenerational by nature.   Many people will take to the streets and risk imprisonment for their own liberation, but few will do it for a looming, indirect danger of their own making.

There isn’t just a mismatch in terms of the problem but also in the approach.  Our movement is not suited to the task at hand.  Successful movements rely upon strong leadership structures, smart strategy, and a compelling story to inspire the public.

Instead we have a movement that is mortally afraid of the shadow of any structure, automatically conflates leadership with tyranny and can rarely come to an agreement on a message, let alone a narrative.

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Credit: Alex White

The power of the movement is truly physical in nature.  It involves directly and consistently engaging with people and spreading a story and an idea.  Face-to face contact is needed to ignite the soul and have people commit themselves to the cause and take to the streets. But the onset of the digital age has brought with it a shift towards online-based movements. Nowadays online petitions on single issues have become the comfortable alternative to sit-ins and marches.  It’s become possible to be an activist (or ‘clicktivist’) while keeping the velvet glove firmly in place.

Non-violent protest once worked as the basis for a movement. But I fear that our times and our approach are no longer capable of making them a tool for triumph.

The Potential of the People

The power of protest is difficult to harness and it is ultimately only potential power.  It is an act of building capacity and leverage, not a solution in and of itself.

Even when non-violent protest is sustained and intense, it doesn’t always work.  The protests over the Iraq War in London 2003 drew over a million people.  They were the largest demonstrations in generations, but it wasn’t enough to change the position of the Blair government. Part of the reason was the lack of coherent political advocacy to engage with the government once the point had been made.

When they do work, it must eventually come to a stage of negotiation and compromise, as the status quo can’t simply be guillotined out of existence overnight.   That means working within existing structures as well as against them.

The inconvenient truth is that our time and our issue is not one conductive to the romanticised traditional movement-based revolution.  The velvet glove of current market capitalism suffocates uprising, especially on environmental problems.

Perhaps the more disturbing truth is that we as a movement are asleep to this challenge.  Blind belief in the myth of the movement has become a misplaced panacea and we can no longer recognise the challenges we face, let alone emerge victorious.


Featured Image Credit: glennshootspeople via Compfight cc

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.