Why the global environmental movement is failing

Queue for iPad 2 in Sydney: green activists targeting companies and governments should realise that those ‘enemies’ reflect the values of the money and consumption-hungry populace. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The recent news out of the RIO+20 summit is dire. No collective pre-agreement, no institutional change, no investment. The difference between RIO+20 and Kyoto was that at least Kyoto created an agreement that no one really abided by (and probably never planned to abide by). In the case of RIO+20 even that charade appears to be missing. The head of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, has gone so far as to declare “war” on the finance sector. As he told The Guardian:

we have been investing a lot of effort over the past couple of years to understand the industry and where the leverage points are and I think we are close to this point and finance institutions should be put on notice that not only Greenpeace but others are going to be putting them under much greater scrutiny.

The global environmental movement has been in existence in a truly organized form for possibly 40 to 50 years and during that period it has created a number of noticeable wins, both locally (in terms of environmental standards in many developing nations) and globally (such as in the ban on various waterborne and airborne pollutants).

However, the situation facing the global environmental movement today is different. There is no singular boogeyman to point to (except perhaps fossil fuels but banning those would be the equivalent of banning oxygen) and the problems being faced by the global society today are sufficiently large and distributed that no political or commercial institution can take them on alone. In the absence of obvious specific targets, the usual axis of evil - financial institutions and corporations most noticeably, but politicians as well - are invariably put on notice by activists that they will be targets for action and behavioural change. As Naidoo noted, “the real environmental criminals were the companies largely invisible to ordinary people, such as commodity traders”. In the new environmental war enemies are everywhere; wielding power and influence invisibly.

Greenpeace’s International Executive Director, Kumi Naidoo. The “real environmental criminals” are commodity traders and other financial institutions, he says. AAP/Greenpeace/Shayne Robinson

But the real issue that the environmental movement’s leaders have failed to grasp is that the reason there is such a lack of corporate and governmental action is that the consumers and general population do not believe and act like activists. While environmental activists ramp up the rhetoric to a war footing, ordinary individuals get on with their lives. Unfortunately, it is this ordinary individual to whom the “evil” corporate and “neutered” political representatives are beholden. The environmental movement has, in a way, declared war on everyone and its representatives.

For example, it is argued that pension funds are a key target of environmental activists because “it was simply unacceptable that pension funds invested money in activities that the owners of the money would not find acceptable”. But my colleagues and I recently finished a series of experimental studies on pension fund allocation by individuals in the US and Australia (with over 1,500 investors). What we discovered was rather disheartening. When given the chance, individual (ordinary mom and pop) investors actually under-allocated their funds to social responsible investment alternatives.

In other words, when faced with investment alternatives with identical risk-and-return characteristics, the non-social alternative was preferred to the social alternative (mainly because people did not believe that the investment returns could be sustained). Overall, the social alternative received 20% less investment than its non-social counterpart.

In addition, in our book, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, we showed that individuals are highly unlikely to respond to calls to consume in a more socially responsible manner if there is (a) a price to doing so, and (b) they believe that to do so compromise product/service performance. While niches of socially-responsible consumers exist, they always have been, and will remain, niches.

Finally, in a recently released report on the social, economic and political values of Australians, (What Matters to Australians: Our Social, Political and Economic Values we found that concerns about environmental issues have declined dramatically since 2007. Today, concerns about the environment are at best a middling issue for people and pale in comparison to concerns about public safety, equality of opportunities, and basic public services. This is true in all the countries we studied (e.g., Germany, the US, and the UK so far).

So while it is convenient to declare war on “evil” corporate criminals and weak-willed and morally compromised politicians, the reality is that these individuals are actually more representative of the society than are activists. Indeed, by engaging in extreme activities it is also possible that activist organizations alienate just the constituency that they need to engage.

Indeed, given our findings, we would argue that a better strategy would not be war but a winning of the hearts and minds of the average citizen by showing them the materiality of the environmental issues to their daily lives. Dire warnings of global catastrophe generally do not get through. Publicising how specific events as will change the daily lives of people is more critical.

Dire warnings of global catastrophe generally do not get through. AAP/Kellee Nolan

In this sense, it is perhaps better that activists work to convert people to their cause in the same way that Apple has made the iPhone or iPad a necessity rather just another technological gizmo (by making it seem essential to our daily lives). The alternative is the rhetoric and methods of warfare.

Most activists view themselves as political warriors. Hence they are likely to echo von Clausewitz in a belief that war is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means”. However, it is best to remember another of his statements, which may be more relevant:

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.

Comments welcome below.