The green movement in the 21st century

The last few years has been a time of significant renewal of energy and focus for the left in Australia, and the most recent manifestations of mass movement organising, such as S11 and M1, have been analysed and debated at great length. However, during this time, some significant political shifts have also occurred within the mainstream environment movement which, as yet, have received very little public attention and only limited internal debate. In many ways, it seems that much of the mainstream environment movement is actually moving in the opposite direction to the broader social movements which are mobilising against neo-liberal globalisation.

The green movement in the 21st century

Natural capitalism, climate justice & consulting with the enemy

The last few years has been a time of significant renewal of energy and focus for the left in Australia, and the most recent manifestations of mass movement organising, such as S11 and M1, have been analysed and debated at great length. However, during this time, some significant political shifts have also occurred within the mainstream environment movement which, as yet, have received very little public attention and only limited internal debate. In many ways, it seems that much of the mainstream environment movement is actually moving in the opposite direction to the broader social movements which are mobilising against neo-liberal globalisation.

Amongst many of the mainstream green NGOs, there has been a pronounced tendency to work more closely with corporations over the last four to five years. This has occurred partially as a result of reduced government funding since the election of the Coalition, and partially as a result of a subtle but significant ideological shift which has seen the decision makers in these groups move towards neo-liberal/ economic rationalist models.

The basis of this is a tendency to consciously or sub-consciously operate within a framework that suggests that a ‘greening’ of capitalism will be sufficient to achieve a sustainable and equitable future. Inherent in this is the assumption that existing production patterns (increasingly dominated by transnational corporations) and economic and political structures (in Australia, driven by economic rationalist ideologies) can ‘deliver the goods’ in terms of environmental outcomes. This is, of course, a pragmatic and understandable position for NGOs to take if they do need to engage with hostile governments and profit driven corporations. It is also based on a perceived need for green groups to stay on the ‘cutting edge’ of politics. Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill is only one of many who have claimed that “we’re all environmentalists now”, and that, to stay relevant, green groups need to get on with the job of environmental protection and restoration. The argument goes that the time for criticism is over, and the traditional oppositional politics of the green movement must change with the times. Of course, this is convenient rhetoric for a government with the environmental track record of the Coalition, easily challenged on many grounds. However, this sentiment has still been influential. In practical terms, it does mark a failure of both courage and vision on the part of the movement, and, in an era of globalisation, effectively relegates the mainstream environment movement to being a minor partner in the designs of global capitalism. To achieve real change, we will need to work in alliances with other political forces. But the question must be asked: if we are to chose ‘partners’ in moving towards solutions, why have so many groups thrown in their lot with large corporations?

A core question here is whether ‘sustainable’ capitalism is possible or whether it may simply provide ‘breathing space’ until a more sustainable system can be put in place. Many of the advocates of green or natural capitalism believe it is the solution, either out of conviction or simply from a sense of there being no other viable option. An observation of the green movement in Australia over the last few years identifies two key weaknesses: a desire to ‘be taken seriously’ at the expense of real or perceived independence, and a failure of courage whenever a principled political intervention is required (for instance, the sale of Telstra, the struggle in East Timor, and, more recently the protests against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne. In this more recent example, Friends of the Earth and the Australian Greens were the only mainstream green groups who were willing to publicly support the protests). Much of the movement, and especially many of the national groups display a lack of commitment to social justice, internationalism or solidarity. The tendency to ‘not rock the boat’ makes them perfect partners for corporations and governments who want to align themselves with ‘reasonable’ environmentalists.

It is instructive to note that at least some within the progressive end of the corporate world have also embraced the concept of ‘natural capitalism’ (1). To quote Mary Jane Patterson (2) ‘the central premise behind ‘natural capitalism’ is that we have the technical capacity to use the planet’s resources much more efficiently, allowing us to maintain and even enhance our material well-being while sharply reducing resource extraction, waste discharge and associated damage…. The motivation for ecologically sound ways of doing business would be economic rather than altruistic because efficiency measures would save money.’ This is effectively also the premise behind ‘Natural Advantage‘, which outlines the Australian Conservation Foundation’s proposal for a sustainable Australia (3) although, significantly, government regulation remains a fundamental part of the ACFs vision. The suggestion that market forces can be trusted to achieve ‘sustainability’ is a key issue in the debate. This notion has also become more widespread as former employees of various green groups move into environmental consultancies, blurring the lines between the NGOs and the corporations. On a day-to-day level, this means that more and more environmental campaigners are allocating more time to attempting to influence corporate behaviour. A political backdrop here is provided by the fact that many transnational corporations (TNCs) continue to argue for voluntary self-regulation of their activities instead of government-regulated regimes. This ties in perfectly with the ‘responsible corporate’ world view of green capitalism. As noted by Patterson, ‘the reality is that the conditions for Lovins’ brand of natural capitalism are unlikely to arise from the market itself. They will have to be imposed by co-operative, collective action – by governments and other organisations of civil society’. In other words, a framework for sustainable societies will be developed through an intensely political struggle, not through a benevolent, green ‘invisible hand of the market’. There is a great danger in neglecting to acknowledge this fact.

However, the fact remains that few groups are prepared to actually name the problem: growth-based economic systems that are ruled by transnational corporations. Any suggestion that ‘the corporations are the problem’ leads to instant marginalisation. In a quest to be accepted in government and corporate circles, many green groups have quietly lost much of their intellectual and moral bravery. Those who dare to challenge either corporate defined globalisation or its underlying philosophy (economic rationalism/ neo liberalism) are quickly dismissed as fringe dwellers. This is an issue flagged in a recent Friends of the Earth (FoE) International document on sustainable economic systems:

Despite a panoply of theoretical and practical drawbacks, it appears to be completely taboo to criticise neoliberal economics in most governmental and academic circles)” (4)

The reality is that we need to challenge both the ideology and manifestations of economic rationalism if we are serious about achieving just and sustainable societies. The trade/ environment/ sustainability program of FoE International has recently released a vision paper which is the result of a two year dialogue between FoE groups in 30 countries. As such, it represents a global, rather than first world view of both the problem and solutions of the environmental crisis, recognising that it is impossible to separate the purely ‘environmental’ from the ‘social’. In addressing the issue of identifying the ‘problem’, it says:

Neoliberal economic globalisation is failing people in many different ways. We live in a world in which inequality is on the increase and many millions are unable to meet even their most basic needs. Forests are being clear-cut, minerals strip-mined and fossil fuels exploited at completely unsustainable rates to provide natural resources for the ‘global economy’. Democracy is being eroded as power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Biological and cultural diversity are dwindling at an alarming rate; and hard won social and environmental standards are threatened. (4)

If we continue on this course, the prospects for both current and future generations seem grim. The real challenge for human-kind will be in providing a decent quality of life for a predicted population of 10 billion people in 2050, whilst reducing environment impacts to sustainable levels. Neoliberal economic globalisation is increasing the scale of that challenge, through increased demands on resources and natural ecosystems.

The official line is that ‘there is no alternative’ and debate on alternative models of economics is actively discouraged in mainstream forums. Even within the movement itself, there is very limited attention given to this. For instance, the World Social Forum meeting held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, which saw 10,000 participants from 120 countries and 1,000 organisations attend in order to develop plans for a ‘peoples’ globalisation’ was almost completely ignored by the Australian environment movement.

It will require courage to challenge ‘business as usual’ style politics, especially where it seems that there are gains to be made through working within the current dominant ideology. From a global perspective, it is not too far fetched to say that we are on the verge of seeing effective control of economic systems being handed to transnational corporations. There is a corresponding groundswell of public opinion which is opposing this process – as has been expressed in the mass scale protests in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague and elsewhere. The movements behind these protests are, of course, incredibly diverse and have no single vision of a desired future. The next few years will require a lot of work to define alternative models of corporate, national and global governance. Inherent in this is the growing power of civil society (and hence the backlash against NGOs from conservative entities such as the Institute of Public Affairs). As outlined by Patterson, the struggles currently occurring are not relying on benevolent market forces: they are intensely political processes that draw on a range of traditional and post-modern political frameworks. In neglecting to engage with these social movements, many mainstream green organisations are effectively siding with the corporate forces who are also the architects of trade liberalisation and the on-going erosion of working and living conditions through the implementation of new right ideologies. In this, they have decided to side with conservative forces rather than with the rising voices of civil society.

This is, of course, a simplistic analysis of the situation, but it does flag some of the issues that are and will arise if many mainstream groups continue on their current trajectory. There are many inherent dangers in close corporate relations between environmental NGOs (ENGOs) and large corporations, even when these are with ‘progressive’ companies. This is often in two key areas: where a company engages with an NGO on particular environmental projects, yet continues with unsatisfactory workplace relations, union busting, etc, and where the companies use their joint projects in one place to gain green ‘credit’ elsewhere where they do not deserve it. A classic example of this latter category would be Shell Corporation and its close links with certain green groups. (5) A significant number of resource companies (especially oil and gas and some car manufacturers) are greatly increasing their level of support for community environmental initiatives For example, Toyota and Planet Ark working on National Tree Day (advertising poster: Oh, what a feeling! It’s tree day!), or Shell funding Conservation Volunteers through the Shell Conservation Volunteers program or the BHP Revive our wetlands program. While this provides excellent opportunities for cash-strapped community groups, it is hard to not judge many of these projects as being simple ‘green washing’ on the part of the corporations themselves, as the fundamental core business of the companies remains unchanged. BP’s high profile re-positioning as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ won the company credit for being environmentally progressive, yet even BP admits that Beyond Petroleum means “being a global leader in producing the cleanest burning fossil fuel: Natural Gas.” (meanwhile, spending just 0.01% of its portfolio on solar as it explores for more oil and gas). (6)

A third possibility is the danger of either co-option or perceived co-option. For instance, at a recent mining information seminar in Melbourne hosted by Oxfam/ Community Aid Abroad, a representative of an ENGO gave a glowing analysis of a particular company but neglected to mention that there was a financial relationship between his organisation and the company in question. It is quite likely that this connection did not influence the ENGO assessment. But there is certainly the possibility that people will infer co-option. It should be remembered that one of the great strengths of the environmental movement in the eyes of the public is its perceived independence from political and economic forces.

A fourth concern relates to global solidarity. It is easy for green NGOs in first world countries to engage with TNCs. But we should not do so without considering possible impacts on communities in other parts of the world. One of the tactics used by many resource companies has been to appoint green groups to verify the environmental claims of that company. There is no doubt that this can help push them along a path to better environmental management, but there is also a political dimension to this. To take one example, local communities in Pakistan have been opposing plans by Premier & Shell Pakistan BV (incorporated in Holland) to explore for gas within the Kirthar National Park. These communities have sought outside support from ENGOs. In a response sent to NGOs in Australia, the company stated that ‘internationally accredited NGOs ….. are witness to the impeccable environmental standards employed in our past operations in Pakistan’ (7). Leaving aside the question of whether there should be exploration and production of gas within a National Park, there is the broader issue of whether ‘environmentalists’ are seen as being on the side of local communities or mega corporations.

Any development of links with particular companies must also be seen against the backdrop of the counter attack against activist organisations. Since the early 1990s, we have witnessed front groups, PR campaigns, legal cases and dirty tricks against activists. Various authors, notably Bob Burton and Sharon Beder, have tracked these campaigns. Now, we are witnessing a new stage in the attempts by companies to re-claim public sympathy and support. The tactic now seems to be a generic attack on the legitimacy of NGOs (in Australia, spear-headed by the Institute of Public Affairs, interestingly an NGO itself). This is coupled with a ‘work with those you can’ model, which effectively separates many larger NGOs from the more activist orientated and politicised networks and organisations.

We are at something of a nexus. A cursory glance at the activity of many mainstream NGOs would increasingly link the mainstream movement with the ‘progressive’ corporations and a world view which embraces a benevolent capitalism. This is what some opinion-polling says ‘the public’ wants. But in an era where there is unprecedented power being taken by TNCs, and, arguably, an equally unparalleled globalisation of resistance to this power, there are some questions the large green groups must ask themselves. The mainstream green movement does not generally see itself as being part of a broader movement. In fact, there is often a lack of internal solidarity amongst the green groups themselves, with allegiance going first to individual organisations. This creates a sense of opportunism, which becomes pointed in a time of a hostile federal government. Groups will continue to make choices which benefit their organisation and which they think will deliver the best environmental results. In making these decisions, the groups should be under no illusions about who they are siding with. There is a thread of thought which suggests we can have things both ways. But it should be remembered that while individual TNCs may work with green groups on specific projects, they are ultimately driven by a quest for profits and many of them will actively engage in the processes and forums (such as the World Economic Forum) which seek to increase the influence of corporate rule. This ‘playing it both ways’ can only go so far. At some point we will all need to choose where we stand. Lets hope it’s not with the likes of Shell, RioTinto and BHP.



References and further information

  1. Natural Capitalism. A Lovins, H Lovins, P Hawken
  2. Mary Jane Patterson (2000); ‘Natural capitalism’ in New Internationalist, #329, November 2000.
  3. Natural Advantage, a blueprint for a sustainable Australia. Available at: <;
  4. FoE International (2000); Towards sustainable economics; challenging neo liberal globalisation. Available at:
  5. See “Shell ads backfire on WWF”, in Mining Monitor, Vol 5, no 4, November 2000. Mineral Policy Institute.
  7. Letter from Peter Cockcroft, General Manager, Premier & Shell Pakistan BV to Friends of the Earth Australia, dated January 17, 2001.

Originally published in Arena magazine


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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: