Dear Associates of the Global Table,
Herewith – attached – a hurriedly transposing of a Resurgence/Ecologist article – after only a quick checking for mistakes. I hope you’ll feel encouraged by it to affirm the challenge and indicate nay way you can respond to it. Charles has reputation and access that could hugely bolster all our efforts. Please, keep me in touch with anything you make of this opportunity. Go well, Peter
CHARLES SECRETT CALLS FOR ENVIRONMENTALISTS TO BOND TOGTHER AND FORGE A NEW TYPE OF PROACTIVE SUSTAINABILITY MOVEMENT
It’s been a year of birthdays. Resurgence is 45. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are 40. WWF is 50, and Occupy is a year old. [insert ! CCMJ celebrates 50 years since a report identified the fraudulent nature of the modern banking system]. But while Resurgence grows from strength to strength – with the exciting incorporation of the Ecologist – the UK’s green groups have hit a new low: virtually invisible, largely ineffective and mostly ignored by both government and the electorate.
All is not lost. The movement has been in the doldrums before, and yet each time, new thinking and new forms of organisation and activism lifted it forward. Now we must do so again, before the door slams shut on the once-in—a-lifetime chance to reverse the destructive forces tearing our planet apart.
It’s time for the NGOs to shift from being a defensive, reactive and insignificant set of largely independent social networks to becoming a united, proactive political force that galvanises the mainstream to travel a sustainable development path capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of people as well as the biosphere.
That means working to an agenda that connects the NGOs and activist existing networks with each other, and with types of people that differ from their hardcore supporters.
It means demonstrating that the movement understands and represents the concerns and priorities of ‘regular folk’, otherwise known as the mainstream. It means breaking out of the closed world of Whitehall lobbying to become embedded in communities across the country in order to inspire, organise and mobilise large swathes of the electorate. Only then, by holding politicians of all parties to account, will we get the laws, tax structures and spending priorities that reward economically, environmentally and socially sustainable activity by companies, families and municipalities, and phase unsustainable operations out of business.
This can be the basis for a ProActive Sustainability Movement, capable of catalysing the UK to become a truly modern, progressive and prosperous society, one fit for the 21st century.
Talk to any green NGO leader. They will wring their hands and bewail the perfidy of government, the rapaciousness of big business, the ravishing of Mother Earth and the dwindling window of opportunity to turn matters around before runaway climate change, ocean acidification, resource waste, ecosystem destruction and species extinctions cause unmanageable economic and social stress in rich and poor countries, alike.
They know that the problem is the lack of political will and leadership, the direction of economic policy business-as-usual market forces, and the huge social inequities that are beginning to wrench nations, and the natural world, apart.
The aim of the major green NGOs – CPRE, FoE, Greenpeace, the RSPB, WWF et al – is to protect and conserve the natural world by helping create sustainable economies and prosperous societies. Yet, as they will admit in private, what they do is clearly not working.
So why on earth don’t they change their strategy of engagement? There are more than enough good ideas, workable alternatives, money, technology, ingenuity, invention, entrepreneurial spirit and cooperative endeavour out in the real world to get civilisation out of trouble. Yet, apart from adding Twitter and Facebook feeds to their armoury, the NGOs plod along the same old advocacy and opposition route, each primarily looking out for their own fundraising and membership interests, and sticking to a path they have followed for the past 50 years.
As I write, tales of fuel poverty and unemployment queues grow worse, the uprooting of countryside protection continues, greenhouse-gas emissions rise and winter droughts worsen (only to be followed by devastating floods). Nuclear power, road-building, incinerators, industrial food production, airport expansion and official eco-vanity projects – like the proposed £32-50 billion high-speedrail link between London and Birmingham, the Thames Estuary airport and the Severn barrage – occupy the minds of government. While revitalising the national rail and bus network to serve all parts of the country, building up closed-loop resource-use systems in every town and city, establishing fully functional local food economies, and developing highly efficient, community-based renewable energy networks using solar, wind, biomass, combined heat and power and biogas fuels simply languish, completely disregarded.
Opportunities abound to make a huge difference, but only if the NGOs change course to become a proactive movement. The frustration mounts when one appreciates just how vital the big NGOs are to helping society out of the mess we’re all in. In the UK alone, the green NGOs collectively spend over £100 million annually, with membership in the millions. They employ thousands of expert and committed staff, knowledgeable on pretty much every issue. They represent truly cross-party interests, and enjoy unprecedented levels of trust from the public and nearly all the media. And they are part of similar extensive international networks.
These organisations have huge resources, but are virtually powerless. Some sense of their potential came when the National Trust wrote to its 4 million members last year polling them on the government’s plans to tear up Britain’s protective planning laws. The coalition was genuinely shaken and began backtracking. Why? Because MPs saw critical numbers of voters in their own constituencies getting very angry about the proposals. (An estimated 1 in 10 voters is a member of the Trust.)
According to the regulator Ofgem, energy-firm profits per customer rose by 733 %, and overall their total profits were £2 billion higher, during the past year (while only the threat of a Competition Commission inquiry forced a measly % reduction in bills, lower than last year’s double-digit increases). The privatised rail companies now consume 5 times the rate of public subsidy as when rail was a public enterprise, yet fares have risen up to 10 times more than the European average. Outside of London, deregulated bus operators connive to allow each other local monopolies, cut routes and drive up fares, hitting low-income people hardest. Energy tariffs and ticketing options are so complex that the traveller has little hope of finding the few ‘good deals’, and heaven help you when the ticket inspector finds you are on the wrong train or have the wrong type of ticket.
These are not competitive markets. They are privatised oligarchies laughing all the way to the bank as they rip off householders and workers. Year on year, household living costs for essentials go up.
So where are the NGOs? Why haven’t they joined forces to mobilise consumers to complain in their millions about the energy utilities and switch en masse to green suppliers? When rail and bus companies force up fares, why aren’t NGO staff posted daily outside the stations helping workers and travellers to resist, and insist on fairer fares? Where is the storm of protest to MPs, urging the alternatives and stopping the rip-offs? Where are the NGO local groups leafleting streets, holding public meetings, building alliances with householders, workers, small businesses, and the host of community associations and other voluntary organisations in every town and city, uniting them all around the common cause?
Tactics first developed 4o years ago still dominate NGO activity: press releases, policy papers, letters to the newspapers, occasional marches and rallies, conferences. discussions with junior ministers and civil servants, briefing journalists, infrequent lobbies of the House of Commons. challenges in the courts, disruption of the odd company’s AGM or tokenistic shareholder ‘revolts’, and consumer pressure on some high-profile multinationals.
This is the sum total of their campaign effort. These `actions’ may still be necessary – they are necessary – but they are nowhere near enough to turn things around.
When George Osborne, the Chancellor, railed against green regulations and low-carbon investments as “piling costs on energy bills” at the 2011 Tory Party Conference, he did so knowing that the claim was completely false (as the government’s Committee on Climate Change has demonstrated). But he is not stupid. He was positioning himself with the Tory faithful. When he derided environmental priorities in his Autumn Statement, and claimed protecting the environment was bad for the economy and jobs, even when real-world evidence shows the opposite, and then supported tax breaks for the UK’s most polluting industries whilst cutting solar subsidies. he was appealing to right-wing backbenchers. These announcements played very well with the Tory press and to Conservative Party backers.
So what did the CEOs of Greenpeace, CPRE, FoE, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts do in response to the Chancellor’s unprecedented derision of sustainability priorities? Prepare an alternative Green Budget, and tax and expenditure plan. with the authority of the Institute for Fiscal Studies? Join in common cause to begin a concerted public campaign to mobilise voters, businesses and taxpayers to back sound regulatory, tax and spending policies known, from other-countries’ experiences, to generate sustainable economic activity in the energy, buildings, food, waste-resource and transport sectors, and to create jobs, raise revenues and reduce welfare needs?
No. They wrote a letter of complaint to The Observe-newspaper (4 December 2011), pointing out that the environmental movement “has spoken out repeatedly against policies that put short-term profit ahead of our countryside and wildlife”, while asking: “Is the environment really an obstacle to economic progress or is it in fact the very basis of it?” This charming query prompted an extraordinary front-page lead headline in the newspaper: “New green alliance in savage attack on George Osborne-” He must have had a sleepless night.
For half a century, the environment movement has- been essentially correct in its collective analysis of what is going wrong, and, in most cases, how to put things right. NGOs, activists and communities have won innumerable battles to save threatened sites, stop polluting outflows, ban harmful products, strengthen environmental laws and policies, stimulate environmental businesses, and help kick-start sustainable energy, buildings, food, transport and material-use sectors.
And thank goodness they have. But this type of campaign is primarily defensive in nature. It is an after-the-fact reaction to a continual onslaught by economic forces, usually encouraged by government, on the natural world and its resources. For every success, there are a thousand losses. NGOs act like last-resort defenders of Nature, full of concerns about society. That’s nowhere near good enough.
Environmentalists have to forge a new type of ProActive movement, and become a first-mover, determining force in society rather than simply being lobbyists.
That means understanding that trying to win the argument is not the same as winning the politics – any more than winning individual site or pollution battles is the same as stopping the war against Nature.
For the past 15 years, first New Labour and now the Coalition have promised to be the greenest government ever. The evidence demonstrates the contrary. The argument is won. But it is business-as-usual redoubled that motivates government effort in every department despite the shattering environmental, social and economic consequences. With a few key exceptions, only the inconsequential margins of policy have changed as a result of environmentalist pressure.
To call the mainstream NGOs pressure groups is a misnomer. NGO campaigners rarely live up to the name – at least if you equate campaigning with effective progressive movement building, as with civil liberties, anti-racism or workers’ rights, which have shifted both government and society.
Environment groups have forgotten how to campaign. Their CEOs no longer hit the road in the evenings and at weekends to inspire public meetings up and down the country. Campaign staff are no longer community organisers. They sit in offices. They are expert researchers who write elegant press releases and reports that the 99.99% never read. They are policy wonks, tweeters, media commentators and lobbyists, happiest in front of a computer, and only ever leave their desks for conferences, interviews or internal meetings. Their once-thriving local networks are mostly moribund. And, as brave as the Greenpeace boat people are, confronting oil drillers thousands of miles away is no substitute for helping mobilise an entire population –especially when the stakes are this high.
In the big NGOs, campaigners and their budgets are outnumbered by colleagues in fundraising, communications, PR, IT, HR, supporter liaison, information, education, administration, finance and management. No wonder so many feel demoralised and disempowered. As a rough rule of thumb, pressure groups start out with about 80% of their effort and resources (staff, money, time) pouring into their primary campaign objectives, and about 20% in essential back-up services. Sooner or later, these percentages reverse.
Disinterested ministers and MPs know full well how to deflate a steamed-up NGO: listen politely, meet occasionally, reply soothingly, make a few token concessions now and again, and then ignore as politics-as-usual resumes. Until the next time. And the reason they can adopt this tactic is that they know they will not be punished at the ballot box for doing absolutely nothing.
Traditional NGOs don’t engage with voters, or with the mainstream of communities, households, consumers, taxpayers or constituents. Nor do they excite the young. They don’t inspire. They don’t organise. And they don’t mobilise. So how can they ever succeed in their aims?
It’s not surprising that the new energy, ideas and excitement of the modern green movement come from outside the established NGOs.
Some years ago, Transition Towns and similar sustainable community initiatives started drawing away their local campaigners and activists. Loose-knit campaign networks like the Robin Hood Alliance (building a huge coalition in favour of the Tobin tax on financial transactions), UK Uncut (taking the Treasury to court for letting companies off huge tax bills), and, most recently, Occupy (standing up to corrupt practices in the City and government) have succeeded where the NGOs have failed in recent years –galvanising attention, winning support from all walks of life, and making the strongest public case for systemic reform.
And then there are the new electronic campaign networks 38 Degrees and Avaaz. In the UK, 38 Degrees has grown from nowhere in the past three years to now claim 800,000 members. Globally, Avaaz has grown to 15 million members (from 10 million just a year ago). Both networks take up environmental, economic and social causes.
In a democracy, there is one peaceful route to transformation – and that is to use the power of ideas and inspiring and practical case studies of what works, and to speak in an everyday language to persuade a majority to back the cause. It means engaging with people in their neighbourhoods about their everyday worries and hopes, and demonstrating how life can become better by doing things differently – based on what works elsewhere. It means listening to their ideas, and supporting their initiatives. It means building sufficient political, business and electoral pressure on government and in the marketplace to implement answers. It also means empowering communities and building new alliances.
But the new network organisations are also unlikely to manage this challenge without evolving themselves. As the anti-roads protesters and anti-GMO activists of the 1990s discovered, it is virtually impossible to survive without a stable base and full-time staff. There is only so long that you can camp out, or make a continuing impact, without some form of leadership, organisation and agreed proposals of what should come next. Politicians are getting very good at using their own computer memories to ignore the storms of emails emanating from members of 38 Degrees and Avaaz.
Joining an electronic campaign burst with a click of a button is easy to do. But there is no face-to-face engagement – either with each other, or with the great majority of citizens and decision-makers. Movements have to make things personal to build the platforms that persuade the mainstream that big changes in society are both possible and worthwhile. Ultimately, peaceful revolution is about trust, mutual confidence and visibly working together. And that doesn’t come through computers, whatever the ersatz personal connectivity of Facebook, Google+ and Twitter seem to promise.
The mainstream NGOs, with their unique resources and latent strengths, have a vital role to play here, in helping build the type of proactive movement that changes things on the ground, in markets and across government.
So, what are the priorities for a new ProActive Sustainability Movement?
BUILD ALLIANCES. There is obvious common cause between the radicalised, grassroots activists, the electronic campaign networks and the established NGOs. Similarly, there are many overlaps between the priorities of environment-sustainability groups and NGOs working on overseas development, human rights, public health, poverty, animal welfare, peace and democracy issues. Use huge collective budgets, staff numbers and memberships to tackle the common economic and political causes of human, environmental and animal degradation – dictatorial, unrepresentative government, deregulated markets, unaccountable corporations, feral elites, and passive, bemused citizens. United NGOs can succeed, separated they can only hope. It doesn’t mean losing individual identities, but working together on common priorities in a shared agenda. It’s time for a Summit of the NGOs, and an agreed proactive campaign platform.
AGREE AN INSPIRING AND PRACTICAL AGENDA FOR REFORMING THE ECONOMY. Set out the type of sustainable, zero–low-carbon, zero–low-waste developments, in energy, finance, buildings, transport, food production, resource management and infrastructure projects, that can revitalise the UK economy, create jobs (especially for the one million unemployed young), increase efficiency and competitiveness, and spur innovation, while helping communities, small businesses and householders reduce their living costs.
DRAW UP A CONVINCING POLICY FRAMEWORK THAT CAN SPUR POSITIVE ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL TRANSFORMATION. There are obvious regulatory, tax and spending reforms that will work. Three of the most compelling are environmental tax reform, including carbon, waste and land-value taxes; the Tobin tax on currency and share dealings; and clawing back the £70 billion lost annually in tax evasion. Environmental taxes penalise unsustainable buildings, technologies, products and behaviour, and reward their sustainable alternatives – they give room to raise low-income tax thresholds and lower employment taxes. This helps jobs, poor families, and small businesses in particular. These measures can raise the money needed for pump-priming sustainable investment in every sector. And through an international Tobin tax we can raise £300 billion every year to fund the UN Millennium Development Goals to both eradicate absolute poverty and pay poor countries to protect critical global ecosystems like tropical forests, coral reefs and wetlands before they collapse.
REACH OUT TO OTHER AUDIENCES, PROFESSIONALS AND WORKERS TO BUILD COMPELLING ‘ALLIANCES OF THE WILLING’. There are so many parts of society that can find common cause with such an agenda. Organised labour is one, and previous environmental coalition campaigns have enjoyed the support of key unions, as would many from the medical professionals, farmers and food producers, fisherfolk, sportspeople, foresters and gardeners.
Equally important are companies and businesspeople who share sustainability aims. Business allies are found in sectors like insurance and pension funds that depend on stability and continuity in economy and ecology, as well as the entrepreneurs and innovative companies who deal in clean, green and smart technologies, vehicles, products, buildings and infrastructure that reconcile a steady-state economy with a steady-state biosphere. Activists and executives can speak with one voice to help decision-makers break free of ideological chains for what works.
DUMP THE CONFUSING, COMPLICATED LANGUAGE OF MODERN ENVIRONMENTALISM. Biodiversity, globalisation, sustainability, localisation, et cetera, et cetera’ doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside the tribe. Talk instead about creating jobs, improving public health, lowering the costs of living, looking out for children, securing stability, along with the wonders of wildlife, the richness of Nature, and the myriad benefits of living on a stable, diverse and productive planet.
Keep the doom-and-gloom scenarios in perspective. They may be accurate, but they don’t inspire. Bang on about the successes. Tell the stories of how environmental and social action by individuals, communities, companies large and small, and politicians (from Green, centre-right and centre-left) has made life better, economies stronger, and society more prosperous and enjoyable in different parts of the world.
GET OUT OF THE OFFICE AND HIT THE ROAD. Go into neighbourhoods and engage. Respond to people’s concerns, and work with them to realise their own hopes and dreams. Then NGOs can galvanise, organise and mobilise voters, consumers, taxpayers and shareholders to back companies and politicians who fuse positive environmental, economic and social priorities in their work.
In a democracy, it is voters, taxpayers and constituents who hold the balance of power – not politicians. Politicians have to get elected – the political licence to lead and the business licence to operate are determined by citizens.
Most importantly of all, it’s time for NGOs and activists to move from the defensive to the offensive and collectively promote a compelling vision about what life can be like, with wealth created and shared, markets working for people and Nature, communities empowered, and politicians honest and capable. Think global, act local. But also think local and act global.
Formerly Director of Friends of the Earth (1993—2003), Charles Secrett is keen to work with anyone who wants to make recommendations like the above happen.
Published in Resurgence Sept/Oct 2012