Never has an effective environment movement been more necessary. In fact it is the only force standing between us and massive climate disruption. While environmentalism has had some very substantial successes, all of the gains are now jeopardised.
The difficulty and importance of the global warming campaign is many times greater than every other struggle. Eliminating carbon pollution requires a wholesale industrial restructuring and defeat of the most powerful industry coalition ever assembled. The ruthlessness of big carbon is known to all those who have watched the “greenhouse mafia” at work. Its influence is apparent in the draconian laws against climate protests passed in Victoria, urged by Martin Ferguson and under consideration in other states.
When I think about the state of environmentalism in Australia I keep coming back to the events of May 3, 2009, because what happened on that day encapsulates the impotence of the environment movement in this country.
The Rudd government’s emissions trading policy — the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — had been coming under heavy attack from everyone concerned about climate change both for its feeble targets and the obscene giveaways to the worst polluters. But the government sensed that the environment movement could be split.
After a high-pressure meeting in Canberra, in which the government dangled the carrot of a 25% cut in Australia’s emissions, the Southern Cross Climate Coalition — comprising the ACF, WWF, the Climate Institute, ACOSS, and ACTU — agreed to support the government’s scheme.
How could major environment groups back a scheme that was so compromised and inadequate to the task — a scheme that handed out billions of dollars to coal-fired power plants, endorsed a strong future for the coal industry, allowed offshore compliance and would deliver, according to Treasury, no reductions in Australia’s emissions until 2035? All this was agreed by the ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute in exchange for a hypothetical 25% cut in emissions that Blind Freddy could see was never going to be delivered.
I think there are three reasons that explain how these groups could support such a travesty.
First, like most Australians some environmentalists find it hard to accept what the climate scientists are really saying. They do not believe, in their hearts, that things could be as bad as the science indicates. Like all of us, they are prone to filter the science to rob it of its sting, to engage in wishful thinking, and to cling to false hopes.
The second reason is the spread of incrementalism. The tension between radicalism and gradualism has defined progressive politics for two centuries, but the victory of free-market ideology in the 1980s saw political radicalism pushed to the very fringes. As the main parties converged on neoliberalism, many NGOs abandoned their interest in a different type of society and came to believe that incremental change to the existing system was the only path.
The third reason for the failure of mainstream environmentalism lies in the professionalisation of environmental activism over the past two decades. Within the main political parties professionalisation has seen a sharp decline in party membership and the rise of a “political class” of career politicians, staffers, spin doctors and apparatchiks. Mass parties have gone and patronage has replaced ideological difference.
Some environmental NGOs have conformed to this new landscape. The “political class” have become the new targets of their activities. To get to them NGOs have felt the need to employ all of the techniques of lobbying and media management that industry groups have perfected. So they become dominated by people with lobbying and media skills, and the conservative political outlook that goes with it.
In other words, they become insiders, remote from their members (or like the Climate Institute with no members at all yet treated as part of the environment movement) and whose attention is focused overwhelmingly on powerful political players and journalists. And as they become more distant from their members they pay more and more attention to their big donors, rarely known for their radicalism.
As insiders they are subject to all of the pressures and inducements the powerful can mobilise. They can have access to ministers, be consulted, and see their opinions reported in the press. In short, they can become “players”. It’s intoxicating.
These three forces — the penchant for wishful thinking, political incrementalism and the professionalisation of NGOs — came together to enable ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute to endorse a policy that, as a response to the gargantuan threat of global warming, was a mockery. Yet the government could now say “major environment groups back our plan”.
In contrast to the capitulation of those groups, it is important to point out that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and several smaller groups did not succumb to the pressures and could see with clarity that the deal was hopelessly compromised.
Because of the failure of the big groups — either because (such as ACF) they have become conservative, or because the old campaigning methods have run out of steam — new, grassroots organisations have sprung up in recent times. For example, Climate Action Groups, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Rising Tide are trying to reinvent activism, and more power to them.
It is perhaps no surprise that the most obviously political segment of the environment movement, the Australian Greens, should have been most implacably opposed to the milksop responses to the climate crisis put forward by the main parties.
The Greens’ genuine radicalism — based on a willingness to confront the full facts of climate science and a deep understanding of how power works in this country — separates them from the incrementalism and opportunism that dominates segments of the environment movement. That is why the Greens rejected the CPRS as an utterly inadequate response. The barrage of attacks on the Greens for that decision reflects outrage at the party’s refusal to go along with the power structure, to play the game whose rules are set by the established order.
The most committed defenders of the established order are also those who most fear the Greens — the “greenhouse mafia”, the right-wing ideologists of the Liberal Party, and their apologists in the media. The editorial offices of The Australian are a hot spot of Greens’ hatred, but we should at least thank editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell for declaring so candidly that his paper wants to see the Greens “destroyed”.
In general, conservatives understand environmentalism better than most environmentalists. They see it as a profound threat to the structure of the world they are committed to — the world of free-market capitalism, limited government, unlimited consumption, and the subordination of nature.
Against this, much of the environment movement has no real political understanding of the world. They mistake the superficial argy-bargy dished up by the daily news media for political analysis, and do not truly comprehend the forces they are ranged against. They see environmentalism as merely wiping away the blemishes on the prevailing system, rather than challenging it. And until environmentalism fully grasps its historic mission, it will continue to be found wanting in its greatest test.
So we urgently need a new environmental radicalism; one built firmly on a full confrontation with climate science and its meaning; one that understands the need to defeat big carbon rather than seek a detente with it; one that resists pressure to conform to the prevailing political structure.
We need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line; because no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.
This is an extract of a speech delivered at the Sustainable Living Festival as part of the debate Environmentalism is Failing.