Eco Movement At The Crossroads


The showdown that occurred in the Wilderness Society (TWS) at a meeting in Canberra on the weekend demonstrates one of the key challenges currently facing Australian environmental organisations.

While it’s not yet certain if this bitter internal struggle in one of Australia’s most influential conservation groups may turn into a fight between the factions in court, one thing is clear: for TWS to become once more an effective and charismatic organisation that fires the imaginations of Australians it will need to face certain realities, especially the retreat of all Australian governments on key environmental issues. And for that, they will have to re-learn how to campaign.

Almost all of the national environment groups, like TWS, are right now suffering a problem that all social movements have to address. To be effective, non-government organisations (NGOs) must professionalise their operations and negotiate with government for outcomes, but, in doing this, they almost invariably at some point lose connection with their base, become overly bureaucratic and, all too often, find themselves dancing to the tune of business and governments.

Certainly, social movements often need to ally with wider sections of society or lobby government, but the leaders of a movement must keep in sight the fact that the power they had in the first place rested on public support which they gained by campaigning around very important issues, and they must take the public with them. If they get too far from their public support base, they risk leaving themselves with no one to turn to when they inevitably come under sustained and bitter attack from their enemies, especially those in the resources sector and the conservative media.

This is the dilemma the Australian environment movement currently finds itself in. Desperate for wins after the miserable Howard years, the big, national conservation groups are now disciplined by state and federal governments who know how to keep NGOs "in the tent" and compliant. They have become risk-averse, fearful of activism, dominated by fundraising imperatives and locked into support for pathetic government policies like Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

With the failure of international attempts to address climate change and the determination of State and Federal Governments to turn Australia into a simple, resource exploitation economy, the stage is set for environmental actors to step forward and take on the agents of destruction, some of whom are among the most powerful corporations in the world. They have an excellent argument, since what’s at stake is the future of the planet.

Unfortunately, Australia’s big, national environmental NGOs, and especially their leaderships, are not up to the task. When the times call for community education and mobilisation, activist training, direct action and a host of other, newer forms of grassroots activity such as internet-based campaigning and viral messaging, the leadership is incapable of acting as anything other than a powerless insider. A quick look at the larger, national groups will show what I mean.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Climate Institute have joined up with the ACTU and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) in the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (SCCC). In order to be acceptable to the ACTU (and business), the ACF and the Climate Institute had to support the Rudd Government’s CPRS — a policy which was little more than a pollution incentive for business. When the Copenhagen Conference on climate change collapsed and the Rudd Government backed away from any attempt to address greenhouse gas reductions, the two environmental groups were left with no viable strategy and serious questions arose about their future direction.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is a slightly different case. It has always been a conservative organisation, friendly to business and with no activist base whatever, but with excellent scientific and research back-up. During the Howard years the WWF became quite unpopular with many conservationists who thought they were far too close to the Coalition government. Nevertheless, the WWF has a capable governing body with a wide cross-section of expertise and experience and will undoubtedly continue to play an important role as an environmental NGO.

Meanwhile, for Greenpeace, the relationship between management and its public support base is more complicated. Locally, Greenpeace has pizzazz, resources and the capacity to carry out well-organised direct action as well as the other, more conventional things a big environmental NGO does. Greenpeace Australia is currently in transition between CEOs so it is not certain at this stage what role it will play in the next few years. However, one thing is clear: Greenpeace will do what Greenpeace management decides it will do and much of that will come from its international organisation.

And that brings us to the Wilderness Society itself. TWS has grown into a feisty, well-resourced organisation that knows how to back up its lobbying of government with solid community-based campaigns. It grew out of the failure to stop the damming of Lake Pedder and led the campaign to stop the same happening to the Franklin River. Nevertheless, it has been affected by the same bureaucratic tendencies as the other NGOs.

It does have a very large membership (about 45,000), and includes state offices (Campaign Centres) across the country. However its fundraising is mainly run out of its national office and members are increasingly isolated from participating in the overall direction of the organisation. It does retain the loyalty of many of the more active environmentalists as well as those members of the public who admire its determination to protect wild places. The current internal conflict between its national office and its campaign centres about future campaign direction and a loss of confidence in its senior leadership have caused a hiatus in much of the group’s campaigning and if a new leadership takes over it will be interesting to see where they take it.

The other national environmental organisation is Friends of the Earth (FoE). It is much smaller than the others and, while it is currently recruiting some promising young activists and has played an up-front role in certain campaigns, it has not yet grown into a major player.

All of this would be of interest only to academics or insiders in the conservation movement if we were not facing the most dangerous and defining environmental challenge of our era — climate change and global ecological destruction.

However, all is not lost. Around Australia, hundreds of local climate action groups have set up and are networking. Farmers and other rural dwellers are taking on the big corporations wanting to mine their high-quality agricultural land and dot the countryside with gas wells. The very size and urgency of the environmental challenges presented by these developments and the inevitable failure of governments to regulate them in the public interest will ensure widespread popular resistance.

The new movement needs to capitalise on the fact that it is not restricted by the old Left/Right political binary, especially since neither conservative nor social democratic governments are capable of separating themselves from the powerful resource corporations. Also, the class-based character of the old Left and the productivist nature of most of its base in the trade union movement will make it difficult for them to be relevant. Only a movement that asks people to take sides on the sustainability/resource exploitation divide can provide a meaningful framework for these struggles and for the environmental crusade to come.

Such a movement will still require large national groups who can connect with political power, add coherence to a campaign and provide scientific, policy, research and financial backing. If there is one thing to be learned from all the great wilderness campaigns of the past, it is that the chances of success are greatest when the movement has many foci — direct action affinity groups and professional lobbyists; grizzled community organisers and polished media performers; policy wonks and IT nerds — all part of a seemingly chaotic and potentially hostile mix but also a highly effective one.

To embody this movement, the national environmental organisations will need to go through their own internal revolutions, but essentially these changes will involve a power shift away from management and towards the membership. There is no point expecting this from groups like the Climate Institute and the WWF since these two have no hope of becoming member-driven organisations. There are only two environmental NGOs that can lead the new wave of environmental activism. These are the ACF and the Wilderness Society, being the only ones that have a large membership base possessing, at least in theory, the potential to drive their organisations.

Both of these groups also contain organised dissidents who oppose the bureaucratic inertia, the fear of campaigning and the narrow focus on government that characterise each. These internal dissidents wish to change the internal culture and the leadership, but the issues are much wider than a few individuals; they go to the heart of the movement’s strategies and its ability to mobilise an effective resistance to the forces of environmental destruction.

That’s not surprising — it is always questions of strategy that most fundamentally divide the Australian environment movement. In the case of the ACF the strategy for the past 10 to 15 years has been to largely ignore its social base except as a source of funds, to focus on building alliances with powerful forces in Australian society and to persuade the ALP to enact the better part of the ACF’s policies.

Now, with the failure of this strategy and a new, more dangerous era for the Australian environment emerging, both organisations need generational change — but not just generational change. They need to re-discover the power that lies in inspiring, motivating, mobilising and empowering thousands of new environmental activists who will carry the movement forward.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.