Strategies for Environmental Groups
Protest action such as demonstrations, blockades, pickets, protest marches and meetings are the traditional method for groups of people to get their message across to the wider public. It is used as "a method for involving people in a meaningful experience in challenging unjust laws or actions; a way of demonstrating to others the depth of commitment felt by a group about an issue; a means to obtain publicity and apply pressure on politicians."
Greenpeace use actions or stunts such as blocking pipes as a means of gaining publicity. Such actions tend to be symbolic and theatrical, aiming at the television cameras rather than any real disruption. The aim is to raise public awareness about a particular environmental issue by focussing on the worst examples of it. Because of the nature of the media, it does little more than this. The details and information that accompany the reporting of such an action tend to be simplified and scarce. The message that television viewers get is something like "this company is polluting the environment illegally and the government is doing nothing about it." It doesn't require any depth of understanding of issues to perform an action or to get the message from the television set but it is highly effective at drawing attention to an environmental problem and promoting public discussion of it.
In its extreme form activism includes "ecotage" and "monkey wrenching" which involves the destruction or disabling of machinery and property. Such actions are generally condemned by mainstream environmental groups but are used by groups such as Earth First! in the United States to hinder and disrupt environmentally destructive activities and to make them expensive. Christopher Manes, a member of that group, believes "property damage in defence of the environment is a justifiable, even potentially heroic action." He argues such actions follow from a deep ecologist viewpoint.
"If our selves belong to a larger self that encompasses the whole biological community in which we dwell, then an attack on the trees, the wolves, the rivers, is an attack upon all of us. Defense of place becomes a form of self-defense, which in most ethical and legal systems would be ample grounds for spiking a tree or ruining a tire."
For most environmental groups non-violent civil disobedience is preferred. Such disobedience is used by a range of groups from the most conservative resident action groups who are protesting about a development in their neighbourhood and for a range of purposes. Brian Martin points out that the blockades by TWS in Tasmania were mainly used to gain publicity and apply pressure on national politicians rather than a "grassroots" approach aimed at mobilising 'ordinary people' to promote social change by changing their behaviour. Similarly Greenpeace actions such as pipe blocking have been viewed as being aimed at raising funds rather than changing behaviours. Hazel Notion writes of Greenpeace;
"To put the activities of Greenpeace into perspective one has to see them as becoming increasingly a lighter shade of green but with dark green roots. The shift has occurred with the maturing of the small upper echelon of original leaders who still hold power. As a light green organisation integrated into the new environment industry one can see them as packagers and marketers of a new product; environmental theatre. This product is sold by subscription to suburban householders who use it as a palliative for environmental anxiety. Regular doses appear to allow suburbanites to continue normal producer/consumer lifestyles."
Nevertheless, even activists of the lightest green complexion are by their actions being confrontational and for a person or group to choose such a strategy, it generally demonstrates a lack of faith in the society's decision-making structures and/or a lack of access to formal communication channels with decision-makers. Protest action is the resort of the weak and for that very reason. It is the action of those outside of the power structure and as such protestors are unable to influence the way governments will respond to the pressures that they help to heap on them. For example, when Greenpeace blocked pipes at BHP, Port Kembla in 1990 and drew attention to the fact that BHP was exceeding its licence, the State Pollution Control Commission loosened the BHP licence.
It is the frustration of such losses and the feeling of powerlessness that has led to growing tensions in the environment movement. For some the route to power and funds is through compromise and negotiation. The willingness to make deals and accept trade-offs, and to tone down on the confrontation, allows entry into the decision-making process. For Linda Siddall, Director of Friends of the Earth, Hong Kong the route is through corporate sponsorship;
"In Hong Kong we take the view that, while confrontation may have been the only posture available to environmentalists in the 1970s, times are changing and so too are industrial attitudes. We have therefore sought to establish a relationship with industry which is suited to the present.
For others the route to power is through involvement with government. For example, Aynsley Kellow argues that for the environmentalists to be incorporated into the policy process they must be willing to compromise and have faith that institutional reforms are both desirable and possible; "Unless the environmental movement in Australia can achieve this political maturity, it will remain tangential to the processes of social change in Australia..."
This is an attitude applauded by those who subscribe to the dominant paradigm. When the ACF decided to continue working with the Government on Sustainable Development despite the Government's commitment to Resource Security, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised:
"...the ACF jumped the right way yesterday when it decided to stay with the task force. The alternative was to set a course that would have taken the ACF from the difficult world of negotiation and compromise and back to the relatively simple life of propagation and protest... the conservation movement must come to terms with complexities of the trade-offs confronting Federal and State Governments. The ACF's decision to stay on the task force seems to recognise this."
Clearly those who subscribe to or are sympathetic to the dominant social paradigm, those on the light green end of the spectrum, are more likely to advocate getting involved with the existing power structure in order to bring about reforms and influence decisions. They view the current social system in Australia as satisfactory provided the government and industry can be persuaded to change some of their practices. However, for many dark green environmentalists the existing power structure is itself the problem and they cannot see environmental problems being solved whilst that system remains in place. To endorse corporations or products made by corporations whose first priority is profit and who use their power to ensure that environmental reforms do not inhibit their ability to make profits is alien to them. To endorse political parties whose first priority is economic growth is similarly seen by them to be short-sighted pragmatism.
Activist Ally Fricker has criticised the ACF and TWS for their willingness to work within the system in this way:
"This conservation grouping is dedicated to the system as we know it, but desires minor modifications and reforms. They promote a world of nice, sensitive developments: well-managed and striking a perfect balance between greed and need. They are dedicated to going 'hand and hand' with developers but not into the wilderness... they criticise economic growth but bend over backwards not to be categorised as anti-development."
Of course any one environmental group will have different types of people as members and it is not so easy to characterise large groups as light or dark green. However Timothy Doyle points out, organisations such as the ACF and TWS tend to be dominated by an elite, often professional environmentalists employed by these organisations. Doyle argues:
"The professional elite speaks the language, utilises the same arguments and is beginning to think in the same way as the governors of our society. No more arguments about wilderness; no more talk of scientific diversity; instead the game is mainstream politics: deals, bargaining, pragmatism and money."
The tensions within environmental groups arise because the two modes of operation, activism and negotiation, are increasingly incompatible. Negotiation requires a degree of compromise and trust, as well as shared goals and assumptions between the negotiating parties. Activism is confrontational and is therefore not an option for those who wish to maintain respectability and gain the trust of decision-makers. Negotiation is not an option which is available to more radical environmentalists. Leaders of environmental groups who are attempting to form links and alliances with the power structure will be wary of those in the group who undermine the group's "respectability" with activism that challenges and confronts that power structure.
Source: Sharon Beder, 'Activism versus Negotiation: Strategies for the Environment Movement', Social Alternatives, Vol. 10, no 4, December 1991, pp53-56.