I have long argued that winning the war to save the species on our planet is too important to be the sole province of environmental groups (EGs). Saving our food production capacities, conserving scarce resources and protecting the rich web of diverse species upon which our lives depend, all produce outcomes vital to us all.
The trouble is that we’ve relegated this entire issue to the environmental movement thereby limiting our options and funnelling messages into minority interests.
Ongoing planetary health is vital and it’s become clear that engaging the population at large will require a lot more than environmental arguments. That’s why shifting the environmental ‘debate’ to appeal to a significantly wider audience is a vital move that we must make if we want real change.
Recognise failed theories of action
Frequent reports in the news remind us that we are experiencing the greatest rate of species extinction in our history, and this despite the best efforts of environmental groups and Green politicians all over the world. Going by results, it appears that EGs have been engaged in a desperate rearguard action to save our planet while the pillage and waste of our resources continues unabated.
Overall, the positives seem pretty small compared to the magnitude of the threat.
For us to really have a chance of saving the life on our planet, EGs need to move in a new direction that includes rethinking what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. A few leaders are already talking this new direction, widening appeals to include governance, economics and other mainstream issues.
There’s considerable evidence that we have:
• Failed to acknowledge failures and losses
Accepted the enemy’s rules for fighting
Been diverted away from the real causes of our problems
Been diverted away from the most powerful messages
• Failed to explore powerful new techniques
• Limited our options and opportunities
Acknowledge limitations and losses
The recent Japanese whale hunt was brilliantly disrupted by Sea Shepherd crew on the ‘Steve Irwin’, and according to reports their actions were directly responsible for saving over 500 whales from becoming scientific sashimi. Yet despite this great result for the whales, various EGs and governments chose to criticise the methods used. What was important here, saving whales or using approved methods?
Many EGs are in a competition for funds that diverts their energies and deters them from openly acknowledging failures. Many are managed by people unfamiliar with powerful organisational techniques and/or untrained in effective organisational practices. Perhaps for these reasons, many EGs confine their actions to ‘safe’ options to deter criticism rather than openly explore the full range of options to protect our planet.
Other restrictions are introduced when governments fund protest organisations (e.g. via tax relief) resulting in protests being controlled or muted with funding constraints (e.g. no lobbying). If lobbying cannot be done, then there is no prospect of stopping environmental damage that is being carried out with the authority of a non-environmental portfolio.
Good people with good intentions operating within government constraints aren’t enough to make a real difference in the struggle to save ourselves, especially when fighting coercive governments that use our own money against us to support a consumer culture that imagines that critical environmental resources are somehow ‘free’.
To understand the need for change, we must recognise that our best efforts have failed to stop industry interests (e.g. forestry) from dominating government agendas, failed to get government commitment to the environment (we got a rock singer) and failed to protect the environment (I watch it being trucked past my window).
We need to shift our focus towards the causes of our difficulties, and demonstrate how those causes are creating adverse outcomes in broader areas of social and economic interest. Only then will we have the knowledge and clout to create real change.
Don’t use the enemy’s rules for fighting
When we obey the rules laid down by those we are fighting, we can expect to either lose (e.g. our forests) or become exhausted (e.g. from legal fees). Of course, their rules hold out the hope of us being able to win but successes too often turn out to be inconsequential (e.g. Wielangta).
The incisive Ian Lowe said that government’s view of the world was a huge circle called ‘Economy’ with a couple of tiny ‘ears’ each representing ‘Society’ and ‘Environment’. He called it the ‘pig headed’ model. He argued that a more useful model was 3 concentric circles, with the largest being the environment, the next smaller being social and the smallest being the economy (he reminded us that you can’t see the economy from space!).
The ‘pig headed’ focus has led to the ridiculous situation where two of the most influential authors of dealing with climate change are both economists (Stern/Garnault) - as if economists know enough to protect and repair planetary ecosystems!
It’s pretty clear that actions in the economic and social domains are creating the environmental damage. By imagining that the focus is the environment, we lose sight of the actual causes of our problems and thus the most powerful opportunities for change.
We have allowed ourselves to be diverted away from confronting those authorising the damage (e.g. Forestry, Energy and Industry Ministers) into the office of an almost powerless Environment Minister (‘talk to the hand’). Framing our arguments to appeal to one of the tiny ‘pig ears’ called ‘Environment’ weakens our case and marginalises useful debate into ‘Greenies versus ‘development’.
It’s clear that we need to change, or stop, those social and economic actions that are creating our environmental problems. Instead, our thinking has been diverted from the causes of our problem to its results…as if your doctor focussed on prescribing pills for your headaches and bad vision and totally missed the opportunity to suggest spectacles to remove the cause of your pain.
From this it seems that any group that restricts arguments to the environment, will end up knocking on the wrong door with the wrong information for the wrong reasons.
Moving to a socio-economic view opens up many opportunities, e.g. EGs could shift the debate by collecting evidence of socio-economic damage to correlate with environmental damage, or encourage members to build a better picture of our situation by producing a community resource audit e.g. for water.
Access to such data would provide socio-economic leverage and deliver tools to outmanoeuvre forestry and government intransigents plus have the data to gain real credibility. This direction would convert EGs into knowledgeable experts that can help redesign the way that our society operates by connecting outcomes to the real costs of our actions in all domains.
In terms of gaining popular support, environmental messages appeal to a minority interest which is unlikely to change the actions of the majority. The new environmental movement is to learn to appeal to the majority using the vocabulary of the majority.
In all, the government’s offerings play like a UK colonial method for getting your own way while appearing to be even handed – give the natives a powerless figurehead to appeal to while you get on about your business. EGs that continue to accept this dodgy proposition may retain government support, but be unable to achieve real change.
Times have changed and so should EGs.
Use new and effective techniques
In the 1970’s after studying various organisms, natural systems and human organisations, polymath and Operations Research scientist Stafford Beer showed that only specific patterns of organisational control and communication led to survival. He also showed that organisations that failed to achieve those patterns exhibited ‘pathologies’ that led to their demise. This, and similar works, provide humans with ways to overcome our weaknesses by describing proven methods that help us to organise to get better results.
If we were to rethink our organisational strategies and techniques in light of these bodies of knowledge, we would find a whole galaxy of possibilities opening up.
Remove limits to diversity
Perhaps believing their task insufficiently difficult, some environmental groups ask supporters to limit their options in other ways (e.g. no chanting), as well as rejecting some of the most powerful techniques available such as mimicry and social engineering.
Why should one person’s, or group’s, preference constrain what each of us might be prepared to do to better assure a home for future generations?
Diverse unpredictability is nature’s strategy, why don’t we use it too?
Diversity is a powerful tool for survival (1) and generating variety is a survival response for dealing with change, e.g. impact Alana Beltram had as a forest angel.
From this perspective, limiting diversity of protest and action is a serious mistake, particularly as it plays into the hands of those profiting from environmental destruction by making protest predictable and easier to control.
Deliberately leaving weapons from your armoury is not a good choice when fighting for your future against bigger and more powerful adversaries.
Interestingly, several government ministers and spokes people have recently made gratuitous comments on their preference for peaceful protest. The government doesn’t want any protest that would look bad on TV or in the media. They want quiet compliance and they’re happy to coerce EGs to get it.
Of course, if the point of a protest is to force the government to pay attention, we might have to upset them! If that’s off the agenda then we won’t get any change.
When the government’s wants become antithetical to the people’s needs, the people have to overcome the coercive powers of government to get change. Citizen groups need to box clever in such an environment – and that means being flexible and unpredictable – ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ (Mohammed Ali).
How important is it to you that you act to save the life on our planet? What are you prepared to do/not do to save it?
What do you think are the causes of our problems? Should we work on the causes or focus on the effects?
Which messages are likely to garner the most support and be the most effective – environmental, social, political or economic? How can we begin to rephrase our ideas to be relevant to the other domains?
Can our existing environmental groups widen their appeal to capture a majority of the population? How?
Are we better off with a small number of large organisations, a large number of small organisations or a dynamic network of local groups? Why?
We all need to realise that unless we act to correct the damage created by our current socio-economic preferences, we will all suffer severely.
We have the tools to do the job, it’s now up to us to recognise and use them.
Watch this space.
Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator, and executive and management coach.
(1) See Page 69 of http://www.hitchins.net/Books&samplers/e-Putting%20SystemsToWork.pdf
When we obey the rules laid down by those we are fighting, we can expect to either lose (e.g. our forests) or become exhausted (e.g. from legal fees). Of course, their rules hold out the hope of us being able to win but successes too often turn out to be inconsequential (e.g. Wielangta). The incisive Ian Lowe said that government’s view of the world was a huge circle called ‘Economy’ with a couple of tiny ‘ears’ each representing ‘Society’ and ‘Environment’. He called it the ‘pig headed’ model. He argued that a more useful model was 3 concentric circles, with the largest being the environment, the next smaller being social and the smallest being the economy (he reminded us that you can’t see the economy from space!). The ‘pig headed’ focus has led to the ridiculous situation where two of the most influential authors of dealing with climate change are both economists (Stern/Garnault) - as if economists know enough to protect and repair planetary ecosystems!