Green Power

Green Power; The environment movement in Australia

Green power or green co-option?

Reviewers name: Cam Walker

Author: Tim Doyle: Green Power; The environment movement in Australia (UNSW Press, $37.95)


Green Power joins a number of recent histories about the environmental movement in Australia. Each has reflected the experience and politics of the author and, collectively, they give a broad analysis of ‘the story so far’. Perhaps the greatest addition offered by this book is its willingness to look at contemporary issues within the movement. Many others have avoided the issues that have arisen since the election of the Howard government in 1996. Within the movement itself there is generally an unwillingness to address internal conflict or political differences, for a variety of reasons. One of Doyles strong points is that he is willing to look at internal differences and debate, clearly seeing this as being necessary for a healthy movement.


While much of the book focuses on the history of the last 30 years, and, in particular, the anti-uranium and wilderness movements in Australia, Doyle also addresses recent developments at the national level. In particular, the professionalisation of the green movement, the current political situation under the Howard government and specific events such as the controversy surrounding the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. This saw a small grouping of green organisations enter into private negotiations with both the Coalition and Democrats to push the legislation forward. Other groups were explicitly excluded; in the short-term leading to considerable internal conflict, but perhaps more significantly in the longer term, indicating a perceptible shift to the Right amongst a number of green organisations. With the political reality of a Coalition government, which has launched a dramatic expansion of Australia’s involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle, on-going destruction of native forests and an appalling effort at the climate change negotiations, green organisations have been faced with a difficult choice. When the Coalition proposed selling Telstra in order to fund environmental initiatives, the movement was effectively split over what to do. Since then, a number of groups have realised that they are comfortable working with the conservatives currently in power. Groups that were seen as being aligned with the ALP have been squeezed to the margins, while others have achieved high levels of access to the current powers-that-be. This is against a boackdrop of federal Government attempts to ‘liquid-paper’ out the advocacy and campaign orientated green groups in favour of less problematic ‘hands on’ environmental groups. Tim addresses a number of the changes this has caused within the movement.


In addressing what constitutes ‘the movement’ he draws the net widely, rather than including only the formal, mainstream organisations. The informal networks of activists, who constitute a large part of the active people in the movement, yet are often largely ignored in other histories, are included in this analysis. Tim also looks at the role of personal contacts and networks in movement politics; again, another significant aspect of how decisions are made and broad directions of the movement are set. He addresses the ‘myth of the common goal’; the assumption that those in the movement have particular, shared values and objectives.


The book starts with a reflection on experiencing the movement in the Philippines, where resistance is based on community-based organising and environmental and social struggles are often literally a matter of life and death. In contrast, the movement in Australia is increasingly engaged with corporations and conservative governments. A key premise here is based on the observation that any sense of ‘community’ is eroded in Australia. But Tim also points out the fact that green groups in Australia are counciously seeking engagement with large corporations as a way of securing funds and defining new, ‘positive’ niches for themselves.


Tim describes the three stages of environmental activism since the late 1960s, which has seen a corresponding shift from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’ politics. The current stage, which deals with the EPBC Act and relations with the Coalition government is informative for anyone interested in understanding where the mainstream environment movement is placing itself politically. Tim notes that the environment movement is the “most powerful dissenting social movement in our society”. So, any shift to the Right will have ramifications for other social movements. In the wake of broad social struggles like the MUA dispute and the s11 protests in Melbourne, there is a growing tendency for social movements to work more closely with each other. However, an observation of the mainstream green groups sees a slight but perceivable shift in the opposite direction, from opposition to conservative political forces to concious engagement with them. Green Power gives a useful insight into this shift. This analysis has, of course, made the author unpopular in some parts of the movement.


Like other books on this topic, there is a fair dose of social theory and summaries of the various ideologies that inform different parts of the movement. It also looks at the types of tactics used. The book itself is sometimes factually incorrect, but its strength is its ‘big picture’ analysis rather than the case-by-case summary of events. As in previous histories, certain key people and events are left out, but like the earlier books, this is probably a reflection on the fact that Tim is an activist as well as an academic; hence his writing reflects the networks he works with most closely.


As mentioned above, perhaps the most useful contribution of this book is its analysis of current events within the movement, including the sale of Telstra, relations with the major and minor political parties (this can be read in conjunction with The Victory, Pamela Williams, Allen & Unwin, 1997), the impacts of corporate money on green groups, co-option through consultation, and the shift from grassroots mobilisation to a more ‘professionalised’ movement. With the current dynamics in the movement, the brief assessment of ‘free market environmentalism’ is also timely and useful. Doyle notes that the current government advocates “free market radical libertarian solutions to environmental problems” and is bringing in US-style “wise use” legislation. He notes the rise of right wing think tanks, ‘dirty tricks’ campaigns, and anti-green front groups. Taken collectively, the wise use proponents and their government allies are essentially the economic rationalist forces being opposed by social movements and the Left all around the world. For green groups to align themselves with these conservative forces (or even to be seen to do so) sets them against the growing progressive forces currently mobilising on trade, labour and environmental issues. Tim’s solution is similar to that proposed by Tom Athanasiou (Slow Reckoning: the Ecology of a Divided Planet, Secker & Warburg, 1997): a re-vitalised and grass-roots focused movement which has a strong internationalist perspective and a much greater emphasis on social justice. This would make the movement more able to work with broader social movements, but is in contrast with the direction being taken by many of the key groups in Australia at the present time. Some of his other recommendations include: the need for more emphasis on Indigenous issues and a stronger community orientation in our campaigns, with urban issues coming to the forefront.


Neo Liberalism currently pervades the “operational and strategic reality of the environment movement in Australia (p221)”. Post modern analysis has allowed the movement to understand the world in more complex ways than just dualisms; yet amongst the larger mainstream groups there is a simplification of ideology, which has made it easier for organisations to work more closely with conservative governments and corporations. But there is a huge diversity within the informal radical networks which form the basis of the green movement. The mainstream groups must accept the value of these networks and find ways to nourish and support them. Finally, we should not confuse government funded networks (such as Landcare) with ‘community’ activism. Notions of activism need to be located in ‘place’: and to do this, the large mainstream groups need to engage with community activists.



Cam Walker is the campaign co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne.

Originally published in Overland Journal



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: