the social movements after 911

Some reflections on environmental and social justice campaigning in the changed realities post September 11. (2002)

the social movements after 911

Hidden admidst the ‘year that was’ quizzes and analysis in the newspapers were a number of items that really deserved a lot more attention than they got. They are also perhaps indicative of the types of approaches that the environment movement needs to take after the terrible events of September 2001.

One news item noted the increased likelihood of dramatic sea level rise over the next century due to global warming. The other noted that at least 25,000 people died in ‘natural’ disasters in 2001, more than double the number in the previous year. This was based on a report by a leading re-insurer, Munich Re. These highlight two key considerations for the Australian environment movement in coming years; the fact that climate change will impact on the mega/ continental level (requiring a shift from the traditional site – by – site campaigning style of many environmental groups into a landscape-based approach) and the fact that, more and more, ‘environmental’ issues will be linked inextricably with social justice and human rights considerations. In many ways, and with significant exceptions, the environment movement in this country has traditionally been focused inwards to the domestic level, and current government and corporate funding trends are compounding a shift downwards to the local level. The global nature of climate change and the inter-relation between trade and resource consumption patterns means that we can no longer afford the luxury of only working at the domestic level. This globalisation of outlook has been happening over the last decade, but requires substantially more concious attention and effort in coming years if the movement is to stay on the cutting edge of social and political debate. In particular, it means that new concepts need to underpin our campaign activity – ecological debt, environmental space with equity, environmental refugees.

The events of September 11 have sent shockwaves through the global environmental community. The impact was initially felt directly on campaigns and activity. For instance, Friends of the Earth joined many other activist organisations in withdrawing from the planned protests around the IMF/ World Bank meeting scheduled for September 2001 (the meetings themselves were later postphoned). With the world in a state of shock and then with the US military response, many environmental NGOs modified the focus of their short-term campaigning, taking the pressure of the US administration in general and President Bush in particular. What quickly became apparent, however, was the fact that the ‘war on terrorism’ was providing an opportunity to advance a series of key elements of the Republican agenda, including opening up the North Slope of Alaska to further oil development. As George Monbiot noted in the Guardian ‘I believe that the US government is genuine in its attempt to stamp out terrorism … in Afghanistan… But we would be naïve to believe that this is all it is doing’ (1). With a simplification in the debate, and the shift in public opinion, especially in the USA, there are significant problems for the environment movement. The question we need to resolve is how we can continue to work on our day-to-day issues, without letting the USA get out of the media spotlight (for instance, the US role in hampering climate change and other international negotiations is almost gone and forgotten post September 11). There is also the fact that the new political climate provides an ideal opportunity for President Bush to achieve his long term political agenda, much of which will have detrimental environmental impacts. The US governments response to Greenpeace campaigners arrested protesting against the planned National Missile Defence program is indicative of the reality we will be working with. It will require a thoughtful and thorough internationalisation of activity by the mainstream green movement.

The attacks on the USA and subsequent military and political response will also influence the way we campaign. There is the very real chance that, on a global level, we will experience a situation where there is greater repression of civil society groups and NGOs under the guise of the ‘war on terror’. There is already a growing number of stories relating to harassment of environmental activists in the US and elsewhere, and draconian laws are being debated and passed in a series of western democracies. With the flow through into the ‘war on drugs’, more innocent people will probably die and environmental destruction will escalate (one small instance would be the US-funded ‘Plan Colombia’, which is ostensibly targeting coca production, but ends up impacting largely on farming communities and natural ecosystems through broadscale aerial herbicide spraying). The US drive for ‘fuel independence’ could well destroy significant regions of frontier forests and other endangered ecosystems around the planet, and undermine those responsible companies who are leading the way in creating viable energy sources based on renewables. It is no secret that Bush’s political agenda reflects that of the unreconstructed end of the oil industry (2). In this new climate, there is room for even closer political alliances between environmental NGOs and progressive corporations who are serious about engineering a shift to sustainable societies.

Within any crisis there is also opportunity. A key opportunity for the mainstream green movement is to speak to the root causes of terror and the inability of military responses to deliver social and political outcomes. There is a strong need for visionary analysis that is able to clearly identify what needs to be done to alleviate the root causes of terror. As noted by Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) after the attacks on the USA:
“When people are denied access to clean water, soil, and air to meet their basic human needs, we see the rise of poverty, ill-health and a sense of hopelessness. Desperate people can resort to desperate solutions. They may care little about themselves and the people they hurt.”
The green movement has the opportunity to talk directly to these underlying causes, to build links with other sectors of progressive society, including those within industry. It means taking on key aid and development issues (for instance, supporting calls for an increase in overseas aid assistance) and internationalising our campaigns in an unprecedented way. It means a fundamental shift from talking about the link between ‘environment’ and ‘social justice’ to incorporating this understanding into every element of our campaigns. And it means taking brave and principled positions on social and human rights issues, in effect, broadening our core business to include all of the human and non-human world.

(1) America’s pipe dream, The Guardian, 23 October 2001
(2) See, for instance, Bush, His Cabinet and their Oil Connections



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: