Image for Did the Wilderness Society have to explode?

It was inevitable that The Wilderness Society would one day explode. And, like that at Eyjafjallajökull, it did so in spectacular fashion and the fallout was great.

I am reminded of my young daughter’s pet mouse colony some years ago. It started off small – in a shoe box – and as its numbers grew so did the enclosure, with an eventual population of 30 mice living fairly harmoniously. Well, seemingly at least. A ‘pecking order’ was visible, minor nips here and there to put underlings in their place, but nothing untoward.

Then one night mayhem broke out. By morning every mouse was dead, the enclosure was a scene of absolute carnage, mouse flesh everywhere, limbs torn off bodies, not a mouse soul survived. No victors, no vanquished. All dead mice.

Unlike that murderous scene, TWS lives on but only time can hope to repair the overnight carnage that has happened.

For an organisation implacably opposed to the practice of regeneration burns, why did the Wilderness Society, in its wisdom, decide to apply the blowtorch to itself – in full view of its supporters and detractors alike, the smoke plume belching onto the front pages?

Was this the best strategy to create a fertile seedbed, from which a new, revitalized internal culture would emerge? Or was there another way?

In hindsight I don’t think anybody in either faction would have chosen to go down this pathway, but just as in the mouse colony and at the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull, it seems deep rumblings beneath the surface had reached a invisible, but critical, breaking point.

My membership of TWS lapsed some years ago, but during the past two months close friends (from both sides of the onslaught) have been on the phone in desperate anguish over what the other side had done. All of them are committed environmentalists, mind you, and all have invested much of their lives selflessly to the cause of planet Earth. Their pain was palpable.

I found myself having to empathise with both sides of the divide, and, like anybody witnessing a marriage breakdown, found it impossible not to take sides – albeit knowing that it always takes two to tango. It’s good to get away from the blame game.

So what was brewing beneath the surface?

To examine this question it is worth looking more broadly at the forced evolution of non government bodies – of which the environmental movement is just a part. They may not have done so in such spectacular fashion as TWS is doing, but most large NGOs have transmogrified themselves as they attempt to grapple with size and try to adapt to the growing sophistication of brute politics and commerce. And these changes have never come without some internal struggle and opposition.

Every lobby group likes to grow, but with size comes a growing tension between the professional processes that a large corporate body requires and the day-to-day engagement of its members. In the end, perceived professionalism nearly always wins out, and at the cost of membership participation.

By way of example, when the activist group Community Aid Abroad was absorbed into Oxfam International, the vibrant CAA community in Hobart (It conducted rallies, put on concerts, held annual doorknocking campaigns and ran a local shop) was killed off, almost overnight. This evolution caused deep anguish within. The Hobart activist community suffered greatly from the demise of that wonderful body of spirited people. Still, it was deemed to be in the interests of maturity that the organism become more central and professional. Who can say, maybe so, but the cost was great.

There are dozens of other examples. The Australian Conservation Foundation is nothing like what it was three decades ago. The US-based Sierra Club has similarly transmogrified itself. As has Greenpeace. 

Getting BIG means establishing a coterie of professional people – fund raising experts, marketing experts, lobbyists, managers – who are able to operate in the corridors of power, form corporate alliances, deal with multi-million dollar budgets and make streamlined decisions. And all of that becomes very difficult in an environment where members expect to have an active day-to-day democratic involvement. Difficult is an understatement, one can say impossible. Especially if that member involvement is through consensual processes.

Whether this transition, or growing maturity, is a good thing or a bad thing is a moot point. Just as night follows day, it happens. And in the throes of it happening inevitable ructions take place. People who have given a lifetime’s service to an organization, and who have grown to love its culture, find themselves at the receiving end of a reformist agenda that alienates them.

In its fully mature state a large NGO, like the Sierra Club and ACF, become fully professional. They operate mainly in the corridors of power, rubbing shoulders with politicians, bureaucrats and corporate heads. The paid professionals and lobbyists do all the work. The residual role of the membership is to supply funds. Little attempt is made to activate the membership in other ways – certainly not in day-to-day democracy of the organization.

Such evolution normally happens slowly enough so that little by little over years, like a teenager growing into an adult, a new being emerges when nobody was noticing. For better or worse, it’s now a grown-up. With that comes a loss of innocence.

With size and professionalism also comes several risks: the risk of alienation from grass roots, the risk of becoming too close to those in the corridors of power, the risk of gradually becoming corrupted by money and power, the risk of losing a sense of urgency, the risk of becoming weekly reformist rather than an agent of fundamental social change. And it is all these risks that concerned members feel very sharply when they see their beloved organisation going down this evolutionary pathway.

But does this evolution have to happen? Is it inevitable?

Well, not necessarily. Friends of the Earth is one organization that has remained devolved and membership based. You can walk into a FoE office in Colombia or France or South Africa and you will meet devoted fully empowered activists. But put this example in front of the reformists and they will argue “It’s all well and good but FoE has little influence in the corridors of power and national outcomes.” True enough.

So power and money is a very big component. And this is, after all, how the world spins, via power and money. So it is argued this is where fundamental change has to take place, in the corridors where power and money reside.

And so it seems we need both models of organization – and it could be that n’er the ‘twain shall meet. It seems like it is impossible to be both one and the other in the one organisation. The TWS fraças almost proves this point.

As a large professional organisation, The Wilderness Society stood out from the crowd, and proudly so. The inventor of the ubiquitous green triangle, TWS had a very proud history of street activism. Its local groups in Hobart and Cairns and Perth and elsewhere maintained that activist culture. It largely operated via consensus decision making. Yet, simultaneously over the years TWS had developed a highly capable financial structure, a multi-million dollar budget and a highly professional centralized lobbying arm, Canberra based.

For many years TWS appeared to defy the laws of gravity, straddling both forms. Little did they know how fragile that culture was, being founded largely on a bedrock of trusting relationships. A breakdown of trust resulted in the overnight carnage we have seen.

Was a compromise possible?

I doubt it, though the fallout could have been much better contained and mollified with astute management. But that is now history.

Maybe too much of the blame for the TWS meltdown is placed on the ego of Alec Marr. Alec represents a faction of ‘hard heads’, all of whom see the inevitability of change. On the other side are those whose affection for the old TWS won’t allow that change to happen. Both sides include seasoned campaigners who have spent years of their lives campaigning against formidable opponents and don’t give up easily.

In these situations I am always inclined to favour the traditionalists, knowing how power and money can corrupt. Others see this as a character flaw, a reluctance to move with the times. In any event, the evidence of history is that the ‘reformists’ generally win out. 

Luckily, the public memory is short and The Wilderness Socity has a bright future if it can stop itself haemorrhaging. With any luck the court magistrate will force a mediation rather than allow an eternal series of court proceedings resulting in a mutually assured destruction.

With precipitous climate change and peak oil banging on the door, and a myriad of local threats to what’s left of our damaged Earth, the last thing we need is a fatal disharmony in the ranks of the planet’s defenders. It bodes us all well to allow this skirmish to settle down and repair any damaged friendships. 

On New Matilda:

Certainly, social movements often need to ally with wider sections of society or lobby government, but the leaders of a movement must keep in sight the fact that the power they had in the first place rested on public support which they gained by campaigning around very important issues, and they must take the public with them. If they get too far from their public support base, they risk leaving themselves with no one to turn to when they inevitably come under sustained and bitter attack from their enemies, especially those in the resources sector and the conservative media.

This is the dilemma the Australian environment movement currently finds itself in. Desperate for wins after the miserable Howard years, the big, national conservation groups are now disciplined by state and federal governments who know how to keep NGOs “in the tent” and compliant. They have become risk-averse, fearful of activism, dominated by fundraising imperatives and locked into support for pathetic government policies like Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

With the failure of international attempts to address climate change and the determination of State and Federal Governments to turn Australia into a simple, resource exploitation economy, the stage is set for environmental actors to step forward and take on the agents of destruction, some of whom are among the most powerful corporations in the world. They have an excellent argument, since what’s at stake is the future of the planet.

Unfortunately, Australia’s big, national environmental NGOs, and especially their leaderships, are not up to the task. When the times call for community education and mobilisation, activist training, direct action and a host of other, newer forms of grassroots activity such as internet-based campaigning and viral messaging, the leadership is incapable of acting as anything other than a powerless insider. A quick look at the larger, national groups will show what I mean.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Climate Institute have joined up with the ACTU and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) in the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (SCCC). In order to be acceptable to the ACTU (and business), the ACF and the Climate Institute had to support the Rudd Government’s CPRS — a policy which was little more than a pollution incentive for business. When the Copenhagen Conference on climate change collapsed and the Rudd Government backed away from any attempt to address greenhouse gas reductions, the two environmental groups were left with no viable strategy and serious questions arose about their future direction.

Eco movement at the crossroads, HERE