Environmentalism: The Case for Radicalism

By Clive Hamilton
Posted on 6 May 2011
Filed under Culture, Politics, Understanding people's beliefs

The difficulty and importance of the global warming campaign is many times greater than every other environmental struggle. Controlling carbon pollution requires a wholesale industrial restructuring and defeat of the most powerful industry coalition ever assembled.

Yet in the face of this challenge, I think it is true to say that environmentalism in Australia has lost its way. I have put forward three reasons for the failure of environmentalism.

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 can be as bad as the science indicates. Like all of us, they are prone to engage in wishful thinking and cling to false hopes.

Secondly, some environment groups have opted for incrementalism, the belief that small step-by-step changes are the only way forward because the political system and the public are unwilling to accept major changes.

Thirdly, over the last two decades environmental activism has been professionalised. The professionalisation of politics has seen a sharp decline in membership of the mainstream parties and the rise of a “political class” of career politicians, staffers, spin doctors and apparatchiks.

Some environmental NGOs have simply adapted to this new landscape. The “political class” have become the new targets of their activities, so NGOs have abandoned activism for the techniques of lobbying and media management and are now dominated by people with lobbying and media skills.

In other words, they have become insiders. As insiders they are subject to all of the pressures and inducements the powerful can mobilise—access to ministers, consultations, the attention of journalists and so on.

In the face of the failure of mainstream environmentalism to achieve significant progress on the biggest issue it will ever face, we need a new environmental radicalism. Many in the environment movement are fearful of radicalism because they believe it will turn off voters. Yet given the cavernous gap between the far-reaching actions demanded by the science and the tokenistic actions the public is willing to support, Australians need to be thoroughly shaken up.

I was watching an episode of the TV serial Mad Men, set in New York’s Maddison Avenue in the early 1960s. Betty Draper is the beautiful and self-absorbed wife of the show’s main character, advertising executive Don Draper. Betty arrives home to find her black housekeeper Carla listening to the radio from which the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. can be heard giving a moving speech. Carla quickly turns the radio off.

“Who was that?” asks Betty.

“That was Dr King speaking at the funeral of the little girls”.

In 1963 four black girls were killed in Birmingham, Alabama when their church was bombed by white supremacists.

“It’s a terrible thing”, says Betty. “I am not sure America is ready for civil rights just yet.”

After a strategy in the first half of the 20th  century emphasising public education, litigation and lobbying politicians, in the 1950s the civil rights movement embarked on a campaign of mass civil disobedience—marches, boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and nonviolent resistance. They directly confronted racism in all its manifestations.

Their activities alienated large segments of the white population, who felt threatened and enraged. Their protests and actions created crisis situations that the authorities didn’t know how to handle, but which often played to their advantage. Like Betty Draper, most white Americans may not have been ready for civil rights, but that did not diminish the urgency or rightness of the cause and the strategy. Americans had to be made ready for civil rights.

The same pattern defined the early women’s movement. In Britain, after women’s suffrage bills were defeated by the main parties in 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, many activists became frustrated with moderation and reasonableness, of working within a system controlled by men.

Some moderate women’s groups, accepting that many people believed married women already had the vote because “their husbands voted for them”, decided to be pragmatic, to take one step at a time, and advocate voting rights for single women only.

Declaring a commitment to “deeds, not words”, Emily Pankhurst and the suffragettes engaged in direct confrontation with oppressive institutions at every turn. They attacked the major political parties, and refused to become the lap-dogs of powerful men.

For their militancy, they were reviled by the defenders of the old order, denounced by the press, and criticised by many who said they supported women’s rights. Members of the Liberal Party assaulted Pankhurst and her supporters, blaming their radicalism for a Conservative win in a by-election.

So there were plenty of timid people telling the leaders of the civil rights movement and the suffragettes that they must not push too hard or demand too much because society was not ready for change. But it was only by pushing hard that the civil rights radicals and the suffragettes made society ready for change.

Naming Emily Pankhurst one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, Time magazine wrote: “She shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back”.

That must be our strategy. In the case of climate change, gradualism is fatal. For women’s suffrage and civil rights the price of gradualism was perhaps two, three or four more decades of discrimination. In the case of climate change the price of gradualism is the battle lost, because a delay to doing what we must for another one or two decades will lock in our fate for a thousand years.

The women’s movement and the civil rights movement had history on their side and were always going to succeed sooner or later. The environment movement also has history on its side; and something more tangible, the relentless force of scientific facts.

Yet incrementalism reinforces a political system that acts above all else to maintain the structure of power—a system dominated by parties that always put the interests of the economy, economic growth, and corporations first, parties that have shown themselves to be dragging the chain at best, or actually taking us backwards.

When Carla turned off the radio after her mistress arrived home unexpectedly, Betty Draper said “It’s OK. You can listen to your program”. I was reminded of this by an astonishing headline in the business pages of the Sydney Morning Herald:

“In a blow to environmentalists, the International Energy Agency forecasts world energy consumption will continue to rise sharply and CO2 emissions will jump …” (11 November 2010).

As long as newspapers think accelerating carbon emissions are “a blow to environmentalists” we know we are losing. One thing is now very clear; in the case of climate change the public has adopted a range of strategies to avoid the truth. They don’t want real action on climate change; they only want symbolic actions that require nothing of them.

Sometimes coaxing the public to your point of view reaches an immovable barrier. Sometimes people must be jolted out of their complacency by militancy, even if that means a period of rancour, turmoil and danger. The task of environmental campaigners is not to pander to public evasions but to make those evasions untenable, to blast away the pretences people use to blind themselves to the science, to make them see what is coming down the road.

A wave of environmental radicalism, of uncivil disobedience, will have succeeded when the conservative press begin praising Bob Brown and Christine Milne as voices of reason and moderation, as indeed they are.

The most committed defenders of the status quo are those who most fear environmentalism— the mining corporations, the defenders of the establishment in the Liberal Party and the ALP, and their boosters and apologists in the media. These conservatives see environmentalism as a profound threat to their world.

Unfortunately, the threat posed by environmentalism is not nearly as great as they imagine, and is diminished by the actions of pale greens everywhere who believe that working within the system and massaging the public can save us from climate catastrophe.

In the 1990s and early 2000 there was some justification for an incrementalist strategy. But climate science now shows that the situation has become so urgent, and the forecasts so dire, that only radical social and economic transformation will give us a chance of avoiding dramatic and irreversible changes to the global climate.

So let me leave you with a final thought. The historic responsibility of environmentalism cannot be overstated. Beyond women’s suffrage, beyond civil rights, its mission is nothing less than saving humanity as a whole. Today’s environment movement is no place for the faint-hearted.

(This is the transcript of a talk presented by videolink to the National Climate Action Summit, University of Melbourne, 9 April 2011.)

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