13 October 2014

Reconciling Differences & Building Solidarity

This is Part 2 of 3 articles in our ‘Shades Of Green’ series. Read part 1 here. Sign up on the right of this page for Part 3 and weekly blog posts to make you think and act. 

In building a movement, finding common ground is paramount. When strategy-building becomes complicated by incongruent worldviews, then common ground becomes shaky or elusive at times. A movement can progress with the aid of constructive criticism, but it is imperative that this criticism be accompanied by genuine effort to understand and learn from one another, and recognition of each party’s value to the movement.

Bright Green Brilliance & Blind Spots

The ‘yes we can’ approach of Bright Green techno-optimists is highly appealing, and we could all do with a dose of that from time to time to boost our motivation. The professionalism with which most Bright Green organizations and initiatives execute their campaigns inspires great confidence, and serves as a strong foundation for recruitment of a growing base of supporters. The Bight Green message has also successfully permeated mainstream civil society to a large extent, and public opinion is beginning to shift accordingly, with more than 70% of Australians supporting renewable energy targets, for example. All this is a powerful recipe for success, but success of what, exactly?

The notion that humans are creative problem-solvers is attractive, and certainly plausible – but we should take into account more creative forms of problem-solving than endless techno-fixes, reformist policy tweaks and small-scale consumer action. It is vital to accept that there are limits to technological solutionslimits to growth, for example, is quite the curveball if your only solutions imply stable access to plentiful resources.

When it comes to market-based activism, it is hard to see the Bright Green tactic of pressuring fossil fuel divestment by ‘moving your money’ in a piecemeal manner making much of a dent in fossil fuel exploitation. With supply and demand the only meaningful market forces, divestment is weak without its natural partner: boycott. Piecemeal consumer actions intended to pressure divestment have little clout when compared with more directly disrupting supply via non-violent direct action, and directly disrupting demand via boycott actions or downshifting.

Realities that go largely unaddressed by Bright Greens are the consequences of peak oil, population growth, industrial agriculture, and a perpetual-growth economy that treats nature as just a stock of resources to be used up. Technology can neither solve these problems, nor salve their consequences, and all too often technological fixes are far from the clean, green solutions we are promised. These issues call for Bright Greens to use their reach and influence to apply pressure at the political level in order to bring about meaningful policy changes that pave the way for a sustainable future. Failure to accord these issues adequate consideration in the Bright Green agenda can only result in misdirection of efforts.

One issue that inescapably affects much of the Bright Green agenda, however, is the double-edged sword of its professionalization of the sector. The professionalism with which Bright Green outfits are run is impressive, but this comes at a cost – the funding of paid positions bears a price tag in terms of limits to what a Bright Green group is permitted to do. Remits can at times be restrictive to the point of providing little bang for your buck in terms of meaningful change, and organizations run the risk of losing their funding, and their paid professionals, if they step outside their benefactors’ parameters. There is ample opportunity for the corporate world to unduly influence Bright Green agendas by funneling donations through foundations – otherwise known as capital sinks for tax-dodgers – and into the bank balances of Bright Green groups, swinging their agendas in the direction of promotion of their preferred technological solutions and policy packages.

Alas, the invisible hand rarely provides for those whose goal is not profit. Without challenging the economic system of growth-based capitalism and debt-based finance, Bright Green tactics are failing to address the roots of environmental crises.

Lite Green Lifestyle & Limits

The appeal of Lite Green environmental action lies in its simplicity. It is easy to feel as though one is making a positive impact when one has successfully eliminated a range of products and practices detrimental to the environment from one’s life. The empowerment this engenders is self-reinforcing as the conscious consumer enters the rabbit hole of ethical consumption, and there is a certain sense of wellbeing to be had from greening our lifestyles and living more mindfully. But Lite Green activism is not as holistic as it may appear to be on the surface, and often lacks depth.

There’s a lot to be said for changing your own life in order to shrink your ecological footprint, but the reality is that your ecological footprint is gargantuan by virtue of living in a wealthy western country where the massive and energy-intensive infrastructure that enables the standard of living to which you are accustomed is what’s doing the majority of the damage to our planet. We in the developed western economies are living a four-planet lifestyle, on average. To scale back to a one-planet lifestyle will take deeper cuts to consumption than Lite Green solutions offer.

Like Bright Greens, Lite Greens generally do not pay adequate attention to the issues and consequences of peak oil, population growth, or the pursuit of perpetual economic growth. Failure to prioritize the issues posed by the growth imperative and its inherent limits results in Lite Green qualitative change without quantitative change – it’s still driving off a cliff, just a little bit more slowly. These issues call for Lite Greens to power down their consumption levels, not just switch brands. Challenges such as Plastic-Free July are an excellent model for how Lite Green activism can address consumption levels and raise awareness of our ecological impact in mainstream society, and this approach can easily be applied to other campaigns to shrink our ecological footprints.

Deep Green Depth & Distrust   

Deep Green activists are to be admired for their radical approach to environmental action. To take radical action means to address an issue at its root, and with the cause of our ecological predicament more or less accurately identified, Deep Greens are in with a fighting chance of facilitating meaningful change if they can recruit sufficient numbers to their cause. Deep Green radicals are usually well aware of issues such as peak oil, population growth, industrial agriculture, and a perpetual-growth economy, and understand that the drivers of ecological destruction are systemic – tinkering around the edges will not do.

A key point of conflict between Deep Green activists and their Bright and Lite counterparts is the contrast between their eco-centric worldview and the anthropocentric norm. It is precisely this eco-centric worldview that determines how far the radical is prepared to go in order to set human society on a sustainable course. This is often not well understood by the mainstream environment movement due to the common perception of nature as a collection of resources meant for human exploitation. With Bright Green and Lite Greens there is a degree of elasticity to the term ‘sustainable’, and anthropocentric compromises are widely accepted, whereas Deep Greens are comparatively fundamentalist in their commitment to a literal definition of sustainability.

These days much of the environment movement fears Deep Greens, panicked by this decade’s Green Scare rhetoric and fetishistic draconianism. Deep Greens are shunned by the movement at large until frontline action is needed, and then called upon by the Bright Green leaders of the movement when everything else has failed, as it was often destined to. Deep Greens are feared for their forthright declaration of resistance and disregard for compromise with the agents of destruction. Many of the dot-org professionals of the movement – and the young cadre volunteering their way up the ranks – are afraid of the scrutiny that Deep Greens may bring to their tactics, afraid of losing the funding that ensures their precious jobs if they are caught fraternizing with radicals. In return, Deep Greens have little sympathy for dot-org remits and board-of-director decision-making hierarchies; they are out to make change happen by direct means, not petition or lobby for it in status quo-reassuring increments while Twitterstorming clever memes that are forgotten minutes later.

The messaging of the Deep Greens, however, lacks mainstream appeal for public and political discourse, and is not taken seriously by the majority of the mainstream environment movement. It seems that convincing even fellow environmental activists of the intrinsic value of all life and the root causes of our planetary predicament is a struggle that leaves many driven to despair by the rejection of their purist integrity. From this vantage point, the comforting shade of Dark Green beckons reassuringly.

Dark Green Downshifting & Disengagement

Dark Green is perhaps the most pragmatic shade of the movement’s spectrum. Dark Green downshifters aim to reduce their consumption to a level compatible with the carrying capacity of their local landbase, thus achieving what the movement as a whole claims as its goal, at the level of the individual. Like their Deep Green counterparts, Dark Green radicals are well aware of issues such as peak oil, population growth, industrial agriculture, and a perpetual-growth economy. Not only do they understand that the drivers of ecological destruction are systemic, but they also recognize that the collapse of our growth-obsessed way of life is inevitable, hence prepare for a future vastly different from the present.

Far from being a head-in-the-sand approach to our predicament, it is highly pragmatic to work on building resilience and skills for a massively changing world – there is far more empowerment in this approach than in lobbying for piecemeal tweaks within accepted parameters at the political level. While Bright Green carbon-trading schemes move money around the table without affecting emissions, Dark Greens prepare for the inevitable failure of such schemes to intervene in our coming crisis, ensuring their communities are resilient, and not betting their futures on the decisions of politicians and corporations.

Dark Greens are generally unpersuaded by Bright Green arguments due to their shortcomings in terms of physical realism; they find Lite Green lifestyle adaptations insufficient, perhaps even hypocritical; and they are jaded by repeated defeats of the Deep Greens’ resistance to the onslaught of destruction in the name of ‘progress’. This heightened critical approach and somewhat jaded attitude of ‘collapse now to avoid the rush’ renders some Dark Greens inactive beyond their apocalypse-hugging homesteads, however, and Dark Mountaineers may end up stranded, isolated by their distance from mainstream worldviews.

Dark Greens reject the lure of hopium, possibly to their detriment, as a message that is devoid of hope has little appeal to most people. Without a sense of self-efficacy and empowerment people do not engage, and for many the path of the Dark Green is out of reach – many people lack the means to extricate themselves from the rat race and downshift as far as is necessary. Why accept the message that Dark Mountaineering is the way when the messenger doesn’t provide a hand-up to those without the means to climb the Dark Mountain? In order for Dark Green resilience-based pragmatism to take root and flourish, solidarity needs to be fostered with other elements of the environment movement.

Building solidarity

While it is clear that each shade of Green brings its own set of strengths and weaknesses to the movement, it is important to take this as a reality check, and not as a rationalization for going back to business as more or less usual within our own tribe.

A movement is strengthened and developed by cross-fertilization of ideas and understandings, and a solid foundation can be built to underpin the emergent strategy of a coordinated mass-movement. This implies a willingness to accept criticism and reality-checks with humility, as well as a willingness to embrace the assets that each tribe brings to the movement. Solidarity begins with empathy, trust, and recognition of each contributor’s value – from this starting point the realization of shared values can begin in earnest.

This is Part 2 of 3 articles in our ‘Shades Of Green’ series. Read part 1 here. Sign up on the right of this page for Part 3 and weekly blog posts to make you think and act. 

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Kari McGregor is based on the Sunshine Coast, in Australia and blogs as The Overthinker. She is a full-time downshifter after walking out on the employment paradigm, turning her back on non-profit management and mainstream ‘education’. These days she spends far more time working pro-bono for Sustainability Showcase than generating dollars from her small non-profit sector consulting business. Just how she likes it!

I’m glad you finish by calling for open dialogue.

Sadly the highly structured messaging and channeled engagement strategies employed by mainstream .orgs and their spokespeople invoke a self-marginalising mechanism that renders critical discourse around effective action beyond the pale.

How can we engage fruitfully with each other when those who hold a seat at the table do not even begin to model the kind of transparency and accountability that are the foundation of shared understanding?

Brian Mathew says:

I’m a member of the green lib dems standing for election in next years general election in the uk. I’m an aid worker and a chartered environmentalist and I am working hard to be elected. Knocked on 14,000 doors this year alone. I’m supporting community energy and responsible solar farms as well as a tidal project known as the REEF. There is a green party person standing against me who will in all probability take votes from me… what to do? We have met in the past and spoken, but he has not been willing to stand aside as the green party candidate did in 2010 when I stood in another constituency and gained 20,687 votes. This time I am better prepared and supported but I need to be working with the Greens and Labour if I am to win… thoughts please…. there is not really time left for these internecine battles, if we are to survive on this planet we like minded folk need to be working together. …

Anarco Soma says:

A worthwhile discourse – in my own circles of info I’m starting to see a significant break with the bright green by activists – nothing new I know but I think its going significantly further now, like controversies over programs like UN Redd etc, its going beyond criticism of environmental orgs being ineffectual and providing cover for the status quo but they are now seen by some as representing actual status quo forces in environmental garb. Like Amnesty being infected by Washington professionals.

As for Dark Greenies, by the time the system collapses it will be way too late, not that it isn’t already but we will be too far gone. We live in a highly integrated society and economy and if people start seriously misbehaving the system would collapse or at least pause significantly which would be the preference. I’m not suggesting a few brave souls try to set an example – what I’m saying is – imagine you have all just received your Guy Fawkes mask in the mail and instead of November 5 the guy says – when bright and lite make the switch to deep and dark its time to, “hypothetically speaking of course in a far flung future”, that we should sabotage, “only potentially during the reign of an Orwellian govt”, the electricity network going to major industrial sites and also potentially block major transport arteries. ‘They’ would then know the jig would be up – but it has to be a lot of people – like the LA Riots or Brixton – it has to be beyond their ability to control otherwise they will just posture and create a bigger security state. I realize there is a lot of hyperbole out there, often from the Deep Green tent, but seriously a lil civil disobedience that actually affects infrastructure and costs dollars can be done in a civilized and constructive way, the Berlin Wall didn’t fall by itself did it – so Dark Greens keep an a ear out, Bright and Lite move when the foundation beneath your feet gets too shaky, don’t hide when you know things have gone too far, the timing is going to be up to you – be honest with yourselves, I’ve got no choice but to trust you – Deep Green, you are probably on a dissident data base somewhere, keep it emotional sustainable and be amazingly patient and wait for the MOMENT – OK thanks, pardon my time on the soap box

SueBris says:

Hi Kari

good piece – on a vitally important issue – and your blog clearly sets out a number or points of view, at perhaps their more thinly stretched ends, perhaps?? Our minds are complex indeed. Could it be that most of us are actually forming our perspectives by trying out the view from a number of perspectives at once, more objectively than ideologically? I think we are appreciating, or accumulating a sort of collective wisdom by gathering the essential goodness of different standpoints. In fact I appreciate the “bright green” renewable energy messaging because in my worldview clean energy is just much more sensible than dirty destructive coal, gas and oil burning, and nuclear. I don’t imagine for a moment the message says this particular shift is all that needs to change, and in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a ‘bright green’ org claim that, or that there are no sustainability issues in techno-fixes. The contrary in fact.
Similarly, I don’t see divestment strategies as simply “market interventions”. There is more to it than that, as is being played out with the current ANU divestment spectacle. Taking a moral stand is more than ‘moving our money’.
I do agree with you that:
“A movement is strengthened and developed by cross-fertilization of ideas and understandings, and a solid foundation can be built to underpin the emergent strategy of a coordinated mass-movement. This implies a willingness to accept criticism and reality-checks with humility, as well as a willingness to embrace the assets that each tribe brings to the movement. Solidarity begins with empathy, trust, and recognition of each contributor’s value – from this starting point the realization of shared values can begin in earnest.” I hope you agree that the recent Community Climate Action Summit in Brisbane 20-21 September, provided a forum for some of that cross fertilisation to take place? Tahnk you for your contribution to helping that happen!

Steve says:

Shared … A healthy ecology for all!

[…] is Part 1 of 3 articles in our ‘Shades Of Green’ series. Read part 2 here and Part 3 here. Sign up on the right of this page for weekly blog posts to make you think and […]

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[…] chance I had just read a series of articles by Kari McGregor (part 1, part 2 and part 3) using a framework for thinking about green activism that seemed relevant to this […]

search says:

Keep this going please, great job!

[…] is Part 1 of 3 articles in my ‘Shades Of Green’ series. Read part 2 here and Part […]

[…] is Part 1 of 3 articles in my ‘Shades Of Green’ series. Read part 2 here and Part […]

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