Environmentalism: The Case for Radical Incrementalism

Clive Hamilton makes a strong case in favour of a radical environmentalism. Citing the suffragettes and the U.S. civil rights movement as precedent, he proposes a similar radicalism as the way forward for the environmentalist movement, and in particular for stimulating long overdue action on climate change.

There is much support for this notion: after decades of incrementalism, the world’s failure to deal with climate change does seem to call for radical action. And the history of civil rights movements and the struggle against apartheid provide ample precedent for the position that “asking nicely” achieves nothing whereas radically-democratic actions—including acts of civil disobedience—have a greater likelihood of success.

Nonetheless, a few questions remain that deserve further examination, in particular relating to the precedents cited by Hamilton. Although few would doubt the ethical integrity and ultimate success of the civil rights movement and the suffragettes, I am less certain whether they can serve as strong precedents for the situation presently confronting the environmental movement.

First, whereas the people driving the civil rights movement and the suffragettes were personally and immediately affected by the injustices they fought, the same cannot be said about current environmentalists. By and large, no one in the environmental movement suffers discrimination or physical abuse just for being who they are—and few Australians are personally harmed or injured by climate change as yet. This may deprive the environmental movement of the purely visceral motivating force that inspired other movements in the past.

Second, an important underlying emotion of the civil rights movement arguably was one of hope. Hope combined with the quest for justice. A dominant emotion driving the suffragettes likewise was hope. Hope combined with the quest for justice. Alas, the climate crisis has not evoked (much) hope. A recent CSIRO survey of 5000 Australians (Leviston & Walker, 2010) revealed that people who thought that climate change was not occurring or only part of natural variation (an attitude that was found to predominate among Liberal voters) responded to mention of climate change with irritation. Those who accepted the climate science (primarily Labor and Greens voters) responded with fear. Fear and irritation, unlike hope, are negative emotions and both are potentially paralyzing rather than inspiring. (To be sure, the same survey also found hope among frequently cited emotions, but it appeared to take a backseat to irritation and fear.)

Third, for the civil rights movement and the suffragettes, the path forward was clear: Outlaw discrimination, give women the right to vote. For the climate and environmental movement, the path forward is far less clear; the demand to “decarbonize the economy” is ridiculously more complex and fuzzy than “I want to vote.” And even among those who want action, there is debate about which technological path to pursue—there are some proponents of nuclear power and some who insist on alternative energies.

Where does this leave us?

Are we at the threshold of a new civil rights movement that ushers in an era of clean energy and a reasoned response to the climate crises and resource depletion? Or will irritation and fear gain the upper hand and unleash the beast of populism that seeks to blame someone for all real and imagined problems—from climate scientists to asylum seekers?

This appears to be an open question.

It also appears to be an open question how best to tip the balance towards action and away from static populism.

On the one hand, a small-scale incrementalism which is based on the notion that a few tweaks, a little bit of tax, and compensation for the coal industry can do the trick is utterly unrealistic in light of the magnitude of the problem.

On the other hand, radical action that is bound to alienate at least some segments of society may stoke the fires of populism while failing to achieve action—in part because of the three problems just noted.

This conundrum appears insoluble at the moment. However, perhaps incremental steps can at least shift the conversation to a different frame; from the current nonsensical and infantile noise in which fundamentals of physics are “debated” by anyone from broadcasters to Cardinals, to a different frame in which the noise has been replaced by baby steps of action.

Perhaps those baby steps can in turn instill the hope that is required before democratic radicalism can exert its legitimate role. But then again, perhaps the baby steps will remain just that— “green-washing” and a fig leaf behind which to hide inaction.


Leviston, Z. & Walker, I. A. (2010). Baseline survey of Australian attitudes to climate change: Preliminary report. CSIRO (Behavioural Sciences Research Group).