Why isn’t the Green movement bigger?


Last night when I saw on the evening news the small crowds at the pro-carbon tax rallies around Australia, I was reminded of a question that has puzzled me for a long time.  Why hasn’t environmentalism become a great global movement?  When I say a great movement, I mean one that galvanises tens of millions of people into action, creates new and enduring institutions and remakes the polity of major countries.

Environmentalism certainly addresses a great issue  —  the increasingly rapid destruction of the world’s ecosystem  — just as great movements for social justice, political freedom, national self determination and religious reforms have addressed great issues over the last centuries in the West.  But those issues seem to have driven great masses of people to action and sacrifice in a way that the green movement has not.

To see how insipid the green movement is, think of the reaction in western countries to the decision to invade Iraq.  Millions of people flooded into public squares to express their opposition.  If environmental issues engendered the same feeling, then after the fiasco in Copenhagen in December 2009, when international leaders showed their utter disinterest in global warming, millions of people would have poured into the same streets around the world.  But they did not.  Global warming and environmental issues are not part of a great global movement.  The poorly attended carbon tax rallies on Saturday were a small example of the absence of a great movement.

I think there are two things that might bring about a global assault on global warming in the coming decades.  The first is catastrophic events that are attributed to global warming.  The second is a re-orienting of the green movement from being a progressive, humanist, enlightment movement into a romantic, religious, counter-enlightenment movement.  I will talk about the second change in another post and discuss catastrophic events here.

During the great drought in Eastern Australia from 2004-2008, general public concern about global warming rose rapidly.  By mid 2007 John Howard felt he had to propose a credible Australian response or be swept from office.  When the drought ended so did public resolve on the issue.  Faced with level 6 water restrictions, and a disastrous drying up of the Murray-Darling, global warming was real and close up to Australians.  Three years later it is back to being distant and theoretical.  The end of the drought in the east of Australia ended public resolve.

It is inevitable that political action on global warming, in most of the world, if it comes at all, will be punctuated by extreme weather and disaster.  If a level 5 hurricane comes ashore in Chesapeake Bay, US public opinion will demand action.  If the monsoon fails catastrophically in India, and I earnestly hope it does not, then India’s position on global warming will be reversed instantly.  Absent catastrophic events nothing will be done.

It is a bleak scenario.  Either action on global warming follows catastrophe or we slowly go from a green world to a grey world.

There is another possibility — that the green movement becomes a global mass movement.  But that probably won’t happen while the Green movement is a perceived to be a secular, progessive, left wing movement.  It will need to be philosophically realigned to become a great global movement.  I will explain in another post.


3 Responses to "Why isn’t the Green movement bigger?"
  1. sam,
    I used to wonder about this too. I would think the answer is mainly that at the urban level, the environment is doing quite well. The air is purged of smog, salmon is once more swimming in the rivers, lead has been taken out of fuel, the ozone hole is closing, whales are somewhat protected, there are more national parks than ever, and trees and plants are growing in great numbers (all that CO2 in the air really helps them). It is hard to really believe in an environmental disaster when the local environment appears healthy.
    I think the green movement in Europe already has a romantic anti-intellectual bent. Dont forget that it was an animal rights activist who shot Pim Fortuin.

  2. Paul
    I agree, most of us live in fairly small worlds with concern for what is close-up.  Reactions to poverty are the same of course.
    As you know the Green movement is strongest in Germany of all the large countries and Germany is well known for its romantic (as opposed to enlightenment) intellectual and cultural tradition.  
    The Green movement will in my opinion become a great movement when it has mass appeal to the human passions (romantic ideal) rather than mass appeal to human reason (enlightenment ideal). 

  3. I ask this same question myself. There is some movement (Greens gaining seats at general election for the first time in UK and Oz lower house; winning the most populous German state election), but it is small and way too slow.
    The responses required to the ecological catastrophe gathering pace before our eyes are frequently likened to a WWII-scale effort of mobilisation, and the comparison is drawn (especially by Americans) that perhaps that won’t happen until we have a “Pearl Harbour”. The problem is that they keep happening (Katrina, Pakistan floods, Russian heatwave, Arab Spring on the back of high food prices (partially from climate disruptions), but the connections are complex and distant. There is no enemy with a different skin colour, language and way of life to demonise (apart from either the Chinese or the Americans themselves, depending on your perspective), but the enemy is, in the end, all of us who live as politically placid consumers.
    I also don’t underestimate the power of fossil fuel dollars to muddy the waters enough for people to feel semi-comfortable with their half-baked excuses.
    I’m looking forward to hearing how you think that a romantic Green movement woud be more successful. I admit I’m a little sceptical of that claim at the moment.

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