Environmental justice and community campaigning

Some observations on the environment movement in Australia. (2000)

Environmental justice and community campaigning
– some observations on the environment movement

“This is not going to be a respectable campaign – it is born out of a great deal of frustration and anger. We are fed up listening to politicians and companies telling us that the environment is a middle-class preoccupation and that they have got better things to think about. The people who are living next to opencast mines and the stink of landfill sites are let down by that kind of attitude.”
– Kevin Dunion, Friends of the Earth Scotland

The election of the Kennett government in 1992 marked a pronounced shift in the political landscape in Victoria. This was most noticeable for the community sector as schools were closed, services privatised, and new developments pushed through. The gung ho attitude of the government, which resulted in a vast number of ‘developments’ being approved (usually over strong community opposition) created a new wave of community-based activism. While many of these groups were resisting projects which had dramatic environmental impacts, most of them were not necessarily seen as being part of the ‘mainstream’ environment movement. Given that most of the new groups exist outside the membership of the ‘traditional’ mainstream environment movement and have mobilised large numbers of people not previously active, they represent a new manifestation of environmental activism. (1)

During these years, established groups attempted to support local initiatives as best they could, but they were generally busy with their own battles, especially with the election of the Howard government in 1996, which unleashed an almost unprecedented wave of environmentally destructive projects at the national level. Australia’s national political landscape has been dominated by struggles over uranium mining at Jabiluka in Kakadu and elsewhere, the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process and sidestepping by the Federal government of climate change imperatives.

At a state level, Victorians became politically active by necessity, as they bore the brunt of government disregard for transparent processes, democracy or meaningful community involvement in urban and regional planning decisions.

Some groups, such as the Werribee Residents Against Toxic Dump (WRATD) developed into a more broad-based environmental group after their specific campaign was over (in Werribee’s case, a fantastic victory against both CSR, who wanted to build a toxic waste dump, and the Kennett government, who attempted to bulldoze through community opposition to the dump). WRATD has now developed into the Western Region Environment Centre. As these local struggles unfolded, mainstream groups slowly but surely sought to support local groups. To give one example, Environment Victoria, the state conservation council which is an umbrella group for local environment groups, organised a state-wide gathering and skill-share for local groups in 1999. However, to a large degree, the day-to-day activities of these groups fell outside the sphere of activity of the mainstream state and national level groups.

Aware of shifts in the political and cultural climate of environmental activism over the last decade, Friends of the Earth (FoE) Melbourne has sought to work ‘behind the scenes’ with local groups wherever it could. With the election of the Kennett government in 1992, FoE received increasing requests for assistance from individuals and groups who were active in their local area. The demand for campaign support far outstripped FoE’s capacity to help. What was apparent was a groundswell which was developing outside the usual parameters of environmental activism. This groundswell was mobilising sectors of the community rarely represented in the membership, staff, volunteers or management of the mainstream environment groups.

The Kennett Government assault on community rights cut across almost all class lines. The Save Albert Park and Save Our Suburbs campaigns – conducted by ‘leafy suburbs’ communities – are reminders of this fact. These groups have often been able to mobilise remarkable numbers of people, such as WRATD, who had around 15,000 people attend public meetings. They often frequently involve sectors not commonly active in the mainstream movement: farmers, local community identities, and people working in the manufacturing sector, to identify a few.

One outcome of this mobilisation has been the creation of a broad-based and loosely defined ‘movement’ of local groups which operate independently, yet often strongly support each other. WRATD and the Quarry Action Group at Niddrie are examples of this. Save Albert Park activists have built up an almost legendary reputation for sending representatives to many community actions and events in Melbourne over the last five to six years. While some groups and the individuals within them are certainly ‘NIMBY’ (‘not in my backyard’) in their motivation this is certainly not the case in the majority of instances. Common reasons given for involvement in local community issues include: concerns about democracy and government process, concern for community, issues of community and environmental health, and direct impacts on the environment. In contrast, the mainstream environment movement often addresses issues that relate most directly to biodiversity and quality of life. Except for the Green Bans of the early 1970s, the classic high profile environmental campaigns have been over issues such as the proposed dam on the lower Franklin River in Tasmania, woodchipping in native forests and uranium mining in Kakadu. Needless to say, many of these struggles have occured in relatively remote areas, away from day-to-day life of most Australians.

In contrast, local activism, focussed as it is on immediate threats to human community and local environment, has brought local concerns into sharp focus and under the spotlight of substantial media attention. This is certainly not to suggest that there is not a long history of local activism in Australia. As the Geelong Community Forum recently noted ‘there has always been a core of people … who care about the environment, employment, social justice and participatory democracy’. What is different is the sheer numbers of groups and individuals who have become active over the last seven years.

The question remains whether these disparate and geographically dispersed groups have enough in common to coalesce into a force for change. The traditional environment movement also needs to ask itself how it can work with these new groups. As government and corporate agendas lead to increased privatisation, winding back of government involvement in regulation, and increased ‘self regulation’ by business, the environment movement has engaged in considerable reassessment of its role, function and political positioning in order to respond to new political realities. Since the late 1980s, it has focussed to a large degree on a ‘professional’ approach to campaigning and lobbying and there is less emphasis on grassroots mobilisation than in previous decades. There are many instances in recent years where political campaigns focussed on lobbying government have not been placed in the context of grassroots campaigning or mobilisation. These developments raise questions about the future direction and niche of the mainstream groups. Do they become, in effect either think tanks or consultancies (either for big business or government departments) or do they maintain a broad-based mobilisation role. Is this drift from grassroots activity indicative of a loss of direction, or is it an evolution of the movement? While the movement has always been evolving (and has been through various identifiable stages) what is noticeable in recent years has been a withdrawal of some key mainstream groups from the day-to-day activities of the rest of the environment movement, and a strong sense of the ‘environment movement’ being separate to other social movements.

During the early 1990s, most large green groups began to lose membership and there was a massive increase in the number of local issue-specific groups. This pre-dated the activism directly created by the policies of the Kennett government and occured for a number of reasons. It did, however, raise questions about the on-going role of the national environment groups. In addition to this, the Federal Coalition government has attempted to ‘liquid paper’ advocacy/ campaign-based green groups out of the picture in favour of more manageable and less troublesome Landcare and ‘Friends of …’ groups. The controvesy over the partial privatisation of Telstra was sweetened by the environmental package offered by the Coalition in the form of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT). Many projects contained in the NHT were more like agricultural assistance than real environmental iniatiatives. Recent trends within larger national groups, where some groups have decided that environmental outcomes will occur through close collaboration with conservative governments and joint ventures with industry also pose interesting questions for the future direction of the movement. The last few years have witnessed a turn around in the decline in membership of large groups, demonstrating that people active in local issues remain concerned with ‘big picture’ environmental politics.
It appears that the rise of the new environmental constituency offer possibilities for those green groups prepared to change political direction.

Environmental justice

Around the world, ‘environmental justice’ campaigning has gained a higher profile in recent years. While this has its origins in the opposition of African American, other non Anglo, Indigenous and working class communities in North America to the siting of dangerous industry in local environments, it has also been in response to the threat posed by globalisation to environmental values and working and social conditions. As corporations become more mobile in search of resources and lower production costs, there has been a corresponding globalisation of community resistance movements. Increasingly there is a broad-based movement which has ties across all continents operating in a system of interconnected alliances and contacts without any centralisation of power, resources or infrastructure. The defeat of the Multilateral Agreement of Investment (MAI) was widely greeted as the first victory of the internet in terms of the increased capacity of groups to mobilise massive numbers around the world simultaneously in search of common goals. More recently, massive community resistance at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle and at similar forums has highlighted the new alliance-based organising models now being used. These events are not necessarily mobilising large numbers of new activists. But they have created opportunities for previously disparate groups and constituencies to work together to greatly increase their impact and effectiveness.

While international forums like United Nations meetings and the negotiations over trade agreements provide opportunities for many of these groups to meet and strategise, the bulk of the work of groups occurs at the local and grassroots level. There remains a strong need to bring international perspectives down to the local level in a meaningful way. As noted in a recent book by Tim Doyle (2000) ‘Australian environmental politics has been dominated by domestic concerns. There has been much talk of global ecology but insufficient external focus.’ In an era of globalisation, this is a luxury we can no longer afford. There is also an increasing onus on traditional environment groups to move away from their tendency to isolate themselves from other social movements.

The umbrella concept of environmental justice can provide the framework for such a shift to take place. The agendas of many of the current State and Federal governments provide the perfect conditions for this model to be both useful and effective. Given the recent defeat of the Kennett government it will be interesting to see what happens to community groups which have been, until recently, fighting unpopular developments (for instance, the State ALP has announced an end to current plans to locate hazardous waste dumps in a number of locations around Melbourne).

International perspectives

To get a sense of some immediate possibilities for established mainstream green groups, it is worthwhile looking at what is happening in other over-developed countries:
In a marked departure from ‘traditional’ environmental campaigning, Friends of the Earth Scotland has begun to describe itself as an environmental justice organisation. Operating under the banner of ‘no less than a decent environment for all; no more than a fair share of the earth’s resources’, the group announced a new direction at a major campaign launch in Glasgow last year.

FoE Scotland has decided that it is time to ‘take off the gloves’ in the struggle for a cleaner and sustainable future. At it’s heart is the realisation that the poorest in society tend to suffer most of the disadvantages of pollution, bad transport and sub standard housing.

Speaking at the launch of the campaign, which is calling for decent living conditions for all, the director of FoE Scotland, Kevin Dunion, said “this is not going to be a respectable campaign – it is born out of a great deal of frustration and anger. We are fed up listening to politicians and companies telling us that the environment is a middle-class preoccupation and that they have got better things to think about. The people who are living next to opencast mines and the stink of landfill sites are let down by that kind of attitude.”

“Of course, it is obvious that poor people live in poor conditions …. we want to expose what we all know is going on; that landfill sites, mines and polluting factories go where the land is cheap because the people there are considered cheap.”

The creation of the Scottish Parliament coincided with the 21st birthday of Friends of the Earth Scotland and was the occasion for the launch of the campaign. FoE has created a 16 point plan of action for the Scottish Parliament. This includes a call for a freedom of information act which will allow local people to know why decisions have been made, a publicly funded advice service for people and communities fighting unwanted developments, and a right of appeal for the public against local authority planning decisions (at the present time, only developers can appeal).

FoE has recognised the advantages of working in formalised alliances. One recent example is the Greengairs Environmental Forum, a group of residents in North Lanarkshire who have been opposing the dumping of toxic waste in local landfill sites. With support from FoE, the group blockaded the Shanks and McEwan site last year, forcing a backdown by the company and securing changes in the rules governing toxic dumping in Scotland.

The use of the environmental justice perspective is based on recognising two injustices:
1.    that communities who live with the worst environments tend to be those with least power, due to poverty, unemployment or isolation.
2.    that consumption of limited resources in the ‘developed’ countries is much higher than would be a fair share of ‘environmental space’, to the detriment of communities in the ‘third world’ and future generations.

FoE Scotland has started two environmental justice projects which are aimed at the empowerment of local communities: Resources for the Future: community action and education for a sustainable Scotland is an information pack aimed at community groups, community education workers and activists, and comprises eight booklets of activities designed to encourage the participation of communities in sustainable development.

FoE Scotland is also running a community action training project called Catalyst which is aimed at communities facing local environmental problems. The project is designed for communities trying to prevent environmentally damaging and unsustainable developments in their locality, ranging from opencut mines, quarries, toxic dumps, landfills, incinerators, mobile ‘phone towers and polluting factories. Training is tailored to the needs of communities, and is set in the context of sustainable development (to avoid NIMBYism) and ongoing community development (to encourage capacity building). FoE offers this training to groups throughout Scotland free of charge.

Where to from here?

There is no doubt that the environment movement in Australia is in a time of change. As always, change is an opportunity to seize the advantages inherent in the current circumstance and to move and adapt. There is an onus on the ‘mainstream’ environment movement (the international, national and state-level groups and representative bodies) to react to the new environmentalism. Inherent in this is the need to move into a more grassroots approach to community activism which seeks to channel resources and information to these groups.
Some of the larger groups have clearly decided that their best chances for ‘outcomes’ are to align with conservative government or corporate forces. There is an unspoken sense of ‘movement solidarity’ which often stops us from arguing in public about our positions and politics, for fear this will be used against us and provide opportunities for the media to focus on inter-group disagreements rather than the issue at hand. Recent developments, such as conflicts over negotiations on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill, have created the situation where there is considerable internal discussion about what groups are actually the ‘membership’ of the environment movement. We are now at the stage in our development where we need to articulate who we are and where we stand. The action of some groups has created a situation where a political split between the ‘nature conservation’ movement and the ‘environment movement’ is argueably a beneficial option. It would allow the two constituencies to each continue their work and seek new alliances without being constrained by the increasingly untenable demands of ‘movement solidarity’.

This would allow for divergence of groups and create a climate where more progressive green groups can formally align themselves with other sectors of society, without feeling the need to maintain ‘solidarity’ with the more conservative elements within the movement. The question of who stands where is fairly simple, and is defined by the political outlook of each group. For instance, there is the question of whether we would be happy with a model ‘sustainable development’ that is created by mining giants like Shell or Western Mining Corporation? A simple question, but an important one in choosing our allies.

The environment movement will also need to see itself as part of the broader social movements. It missed an important opportunity at the time of the initial sale of Telstra (1996), when it decided, in effect, that it’s priorities were more important than those of many other sectors in society. It provided tacit approval for the sale of Telstra because key groups believed they stood to gain benefits from this result (there was also the issue of ‘pay-back’ against the ALP for it’s substantial failure on the environment – and particularly forests – while it was in power). Groups did what they did for a variety of reasons, but the result was clear: as a whole the movements silence was a form of consent for the Coalition governments ‘privatisation by blackmail’.
It is highly arguable whether ‘sustainability’ will ever be able to be created within existing economic and political structures, based as they are on the need for endless economic growth. We will need strong community-based activism which demands change and maintains active community engagement in decision-making at the local level, while maintaining strategic intervention at the state, national and international levels to ensure appropriate controls and regulation.

We will need a shift to steady-state economics and a dismantling of ‘corporate rule’. This is in direct contrast to some mainstream environment groups who see hope in ‘greening capitalism’.
Parallel to this process we will need strategic campaigning which protects local communities and ecosystems. The mainstream environment movement is locked into existing political structures and, by and large, is not displaying a willingness to work with the new environmental justice movements, although there are clearly many exceptions to this generalisation. Conservation Councils have always worked with local groups, larger entities such as the ACF have long histories of collaboration with the Trade Unions and the social sector, and the new manifestation of ‘corporate activism’ brings different allies to environmental struggles. Even the Natural Heritage Trust Fund has provided opportunities to place ‘biodiversity’ on the agenda for rural communities in a way that was unthinkable ten years ago. However, many of the mainstream groups remain locked into a model of reality which does not focus attention on achieving social change.

However, the fact remains that those groups most willing to embrace a strong and broad-based social philosophy are best positioned to seek new alliances and opportunities. There are many exciting possibilities for those groups prepared to step out of the models of the last 50 years and start working towards environmental sustainability and social justice.

‘Traditional’ and ‘mainstream’ environment movement here refers to international, national, state and local environment groups that tend to operate on ‘nature conservation’ and biodiversity issues.

Author: Cam Walker
Source: Environmental Justice: community campaigning in Australia. Published by FoE Melbourne, July 2000.


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