Most people are familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  Despite this knowledge I think most of us are guilty of insanity at one time or another (myself regularly included).   However, I am concerned that the environmental movement has fallen into a form of collective insanity for a number of years now.

While we all had a good laugh from the Star Wars by Environmentalists skit, it raises a number of disturbingly accurate points.   We are persisting with tactics that clearly are not working and justifying our losses by media coverage.

Why? Partly because much of the environmental movement is built upon a romantic memory of the civil movements of the 60s and 70s.  While this approach may have worked for civil rights and democratic movements, sustainable development is an altogether different beast and we are in a different time.

Let us look to previous successes for guidance.  Youth have experienced their greatest victories through effective lobbying, such as the inclusion of informal education at Rio+20.  Similarly, the success of many corporations in stifling regulation has come through strong, unified and centralised media control and lobbying.

Hoaxes, protests and gathering public attention are all crucial, but they are often a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  Media coverage through activism is not a goal in and of itself, it is potential power.   Power that can be used to influence political processes through effective lobbying (and simultaneously build the relations needed to take these positions of power for our own).

More importantly, we need to fit our tools to the problem at hand.  Activism and civil mobilisation can be very useful tools at a domestic level, but their power in the corridors of negotiations is severely limited.   International conferences are truly the time for lobbying.  Yet, I’ve unfortunately seen numerous times in the final days of a conference where youth had a genuine opportunity to influence the process, but shied away from political controversy and focused on who to clap for, boo against and what the placards in the hallways would say.

We do need many different weapons, but we cannot stick with having activism as our central overriding occupation as is the case now.   We simply cannot have our business as usual approach of having myriad organisations go about their own projects in a mangled web of protests, letters and rhetoric.  Moreover we need to be aware of how our actions affect our image.  We need to present ourselves as the new generation of environmentalists- intelligent, professional and persuasive.

Credibility is a scarce resource, yet I fear we often act without any thought for it.

Diversity can be valuable, but it cannot be used as an excuse for fragmentation, a wasting of credibility or employment of ineffective tactics and strategy.

Even when our organisations have unified, we often do so under a misguided strategy.  We so often fall for the overly broad, grand ideas like ‘climate justice’ instead of being political, targeted and specific.  At COP15 the only clear points I could see NGOs standing together on was a “fair, binding and ambitious agreement”.  Now, I’m not even sure what exactly that means, but I can guarantee that it was not received as a well-reasoned political approach specially tailored for the situation of that conference.  We are not powerful agents, so we need to focus upon leverage points in the system (ahem loss and damages at COP19).   We have to be a surgical scalpel, not a shotgun in our strategy.

Many activists and organisations have begun to take a rhetoric of war.  Any military strategist will tell you that no-one has won a battle without a unified front, functioning weapons and a coherent strategy, but plenty have been lost without them.

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Featured Image Credit: JD Hancock 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.