New environmental movements are failing, how can we fix this?
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New environmental movements are failing, how can we fix this?

Monday, 26 July 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
© Belga

New Environmental Movements have recently emerged on the political scene. Mainly, these initiatives can be split in three groups: transnational networks for environmental advocacy; regional actions for the defence of delineated geographic areas and, finally, citizen initiatives on specific environmental questions. Even though many of these movements are still fairly recent, enough time has passed for us to look at their achievements and draw conclusions on both their merits and limits.

Taking the fight to the global stage: new transnational green movements

In 2018, Greta Thunberg launched her “Strike for the Climate” movement, which quickly gained momentum and got replicated around the globe — as illustrated by Aruna de Wever in Belgium. The same year, Extinction-Rebellion (E-R) was created in the UK and gained international exposure in 2019.

As for other Social Movements from the early 2000’s that were looking to create a new public forum, new Green Movements refused to organise themselves in a hierarchical or centralised manner. Instead, they favoured the emergence of a loose network, merely connected with each other’s through a series of claims and specific time-frame dedicated to “civil disobedience”. Moreover, these green movements inherited some of their methods from environmental NGOs. Their activity on social medias as well as some of the public events they organised, such as the occupation of London Oxford Street in 2019 by E-R, clearly echo awareness-raising strategies previously followed by organisations such as PETA.

In addition, new green movements are very vocal in criticising global elites for their inaction. The “How Dare you Speech” held by Greta Thunberg at the United-Nations is, by far, the most famous example. However, the phenomenon expresses a legitimate citizen concern that is widespread among these movements, as illustrated by Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction-Rebellion : “We know we can’t trust the leaders of the world. They have already failed us in Paris. They are part of a broken system, but humanity isn’t broken.”

Quickly summarised, the criticisms voiced by these movements against global elites is that world leaders indulge in organising attention-seeking events and greenwashing propaganda. Instead, what is needed is a series of genuine actions and the development of constraining environmental targets. Surprisingly, this critical discourse is probably the less convincing aspect about these new green movements. Indeed, objectives set by E-R such as reaching carbon neutrality by 2025 are unfeasible as well. Furthermore, they are not accompanied by any believable schedule or action-plan explaining how to achieve this.

In spite of their legitimate criticisms, transnational green movements have achieved results strikingly similar to the ones they so vehemently excoriate. Mostly, they helped the environmental question to remain at the forefront of the political agenda through a series of awareness-raising events that failed to set any clearly defined objective nor action plan. Furthermore, the high level of polarisation surrounding Greta Thunberg and the E-R movement raise questions to know if their approach is so efficient.

In addition, one can only smile at the irony of the situation when seeing Greta Thunberg taking the floor at world conferences to make discourses about the uselessness of international meetings. Global elites attribute the responsibility of our current situation to citizens they admonish to change their behaviour. Mirroring this narrative structure, new green movements attribute environmental problems to elites’ inaction.

As for new social movements from the early 2000’s, new green movements are confronted with the inadequacy of their organisation model that, in spite of what they claim, is a direct copy of the one they castigate. The loosely organised network model backed by soothing calls for positive individual actions is, indeed already the one followed by the neoliberal globalisation.

Fighting for your home: “Zone to Defend” and citizen initiatives

The “Zone to Defend” (ZtD) movement started to gain ground in France in the early 2000’s. Especially, the ZAD of “Notre-Dame-Des-Landes” attracted a lot of attention. Starting in 2007, the initiative met its main objective to stop the construction of an international airport on a green zone while successfully repelling many — sometimes rather aggressive — attempts by the police at dislodging activists from the occupied zone. Logically, this success encouraged the replication of the experience across Belgium, France and Switzerland.

Next to these movements, citizen initiatives also achieved some valuable results. Contrastingly to the ZtD and transnational networks, citizen initiatives can be organised following widely different models. For instance, local energy-producing initiatives launched by citizens are done in collaboration with local institutions. They are thus more a mix governance model than social movements. Nonetheless, other initiatives are organised differently.

This is for example the case of the Indian “Right to breathe” movement that took place in New-Delhi. Organised at a local level, the movement focused on framing clear protocols that were handed to Delhi’s officials to achieve greater air-quality and protect youth health.

What is striking when looking at these three levels of action (transnational networks at the international level, ZtD for regional actions and citizen initiatives at the local stage) is that, the more local and closely connected with traditional democratic institutions, the more impactful they are.

Milgram’s experience and the inherent limit faced by New Green Movements

The varying level of achievements exhibited by these three different types of green movement can be, at least partially, explained thanks to a deep-dive into Milgram’s experience.

The 1963 Milgram experience is already very famous. Participants recruited through small ads were paid to give electric shocks to people they just met if they gave the wrong answer to a series of questions they were asked. In reality, the victims were actors and the shocks were fake. The sole objective of the experience was to evaluate participant’s submission to a legitimate authority, in this case, the scientists’. The willingness of most participants to give deadly shocks to their victims came as a traumatism for social scientists.

As a consequence, several versions of the experiment were carried-out to test the limit of how far people were ready to go, and to identify what was needed to break authority-induce submissiveness. In one of these versions, a second doctor wearing a white coat entered the room to tell the scientist, in front of the participant, that the experience was dangerous and should be stopped.

Remarkably, obedience rate collapsed dramatically in this alternate form of the original experience. The key lesson was that chances of civil disobedience — as advocated by new Green Movements — skyrocket when another source of legitimate authority is available to organise resistance.

Rather than a mere and degrading mental structure authority is, as coined by Hannah Arendt, a way of structuring human actions to achieved outcomes that would be out of reach for isolated individuals. More specifically, authority is a social construct crafted by humans to bypass our built-in cognitive bias, such as the “Law of dissemination of responsibility.”

In psychology, this term designates the human tendency to wait for someone else to take action when we are confronted with a problem and lack a clear centre of authority. Something that explains the dangerous tit-for-tat game in which global elites and transnational activists are embarked in: each side claiming that the other is responsible and should take actions.

New Environmental Movements have achieved positive outcome at the local level. However, if they wish to achieve results at a larger scale, a change in their organisation model is needed. Milgram experience indeed give us the key on how to achieve civil disobedience: by developing another source of legitimate authority.

One should not forget that the civil disobedience movements led by Luther King and Gandhi, precisely succeeded because they had a clear cause (Indian nationalism, fight against racism), clear objectives (Indian independence and civil rights) as well as charismatic leaders ready to take actions rather than shining as fragile symbols of our threatened innocence.

If new green movements are genuine about their intention, as I believe they are, then an honest investigation about their actual achievements and mistakes is urgently needed.

Earth’s clock is ticking.