Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Has the environmental movement lost touch?

In yesterday's Guardian, Charles Secrett, the former Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE) strongly criticised the work being done by some of more established environmental campaign organisations, arguing that they were spending money more on bureaucracy than on campaigners or activists.

Before going further, I should express an interest here. As well as helping run a local FOE group in Hackney & Tower Hamlets for nine years as a volunteer, I have also worked on a campaign team in Friends of the Earth's national office and taken an interest in a number of comparable organisations.

Whilst I understand the thrust of what Secrett is saying, I have to say that I disagree with his argument that environmental campaign organisations are overstaffed and wasting the resources that supporters invest with them. During my time at FOE, it was apparent that every person was an essential part of the machine, strengthening our ability to respond to events and capacity-build the activist base around the UK. In particular, those staff one step removed from policy and campaigns who worked with local groups to improve their ability to operate in the regions were excellent ambassadors for the organisation. The strength of those relationships went to the heart of what made the environmental movement work for me and seeing them at work was one of the most inspiring parts of my time in the field.

Where his arguments have more traction with me would be around the nature of whose voice is heard most in these organisations. As what seemed a necessary part of being taken more seriously during the New Labour years, a distinct professionalisation of the environmental movement did take place and this inevitably created a distance between many of those working full-time on environmental lobbying and the rank and file activists. I witnessed it rarely, but I can understand why some activists saw the national office as inaccessible or elitist.

Comparing this with my experience in the Green Party is stark - whilst I will continue to argue that we need to become a more professional and structurally coherent organisation, I will always argue that that sense of equality amongst us, from ordinary member to GPEX co-ordinator, remains inbedded in the fabric of this political party. For all the difficulties of running a national organisation on a shoestring, we are still retaining these core values.

My response to the crisis of legitimacy facing environmental organisations is to look at the successes of recent activism such as UK Uncut - based around self-organisation, viral use of social media sites and bottom up decision-making. Less time should be concerned with design and glossy packaging and more in considering how to make issues more relevant to the broader population, not just the concerned middle classes. Unsurprisingly, the latter demographic now dominates the positions of power in environmental campaign organisations. Environmental campaigns need to bring forward local, regional, and southern voices to the policy making table, both through greater prominence of volunteer activists and in a radically improved recruitment strategy if they are to continue speaking for us on the coming climate crisis.

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