Strategic issues for environmental action

It has often been argued that an important function of early adopters of environmental measures is to demonstrate the plausibility and effectiveness of the measures they advocate. Although they cannot solve global problems of carbon emission, peak oil, pollution, systems disintegration, and so on, by themselves, they can demonstrate to the rest of the population that it is certainly possible to take action.

As far as it goes this is correct. These are crucial lessons – that we are not helpless, and even more that we are not alone. However, I start to become concerned when I think about previous examples. Take the anti-apartheid movement – an immensely successful popular political movement that brought down an oppressive regime by taking the initiative out of the hands of governments and other more conventional (and certainly more ‘respectable’) agents.

But are such cases really comparable? I would suggest that are many ways in which the environmental issue is going to be much tougher nut to crack:

  1. Solving the environmental problem demands major sacrifices on the part of those who want change to happen. We are not talking about boycotting South African fruit, and so on. We are talking about reducing our individual carbon footprints by perhaps 90% in a timescale where this is quite impracticable without serious self-denial.
  2. The problem cannot be solved unless everyone is involved. A vigorous activist core and a well-meaning but ultimately passive group of sympathisers will not even touch this problem. Even anti-apartheid or the anti-Nazi movements never recruited more than a modest, if also very vocal, minority. Climate change and peak oil cannot be addressed unless literally everyone takes part.
  3. It is impossible to isolate this problem to a single aspect of society, a single geographical location, or a single ‘bad guy’. We don’t all just have to give up, say, alcohol or even cars. That would be hard but at least it is conceivable, given that there already exist widely used and proven alternatives such public transport. But to reduce literally everyone’s carbon footprint to a fraction of its current level? There are simply so many basics in our current lifestyles we will be forced to do not more cleanly or by less damaging alternatives or even less, but not at all.
  4. Finally, this is systematic problem that touches the very roots of our economic system. It not only attacks the (short- and medium-term) interests of global capital and national governments but also the fundamentals of the entire economic system – the very way we live our lives.

I am not pessimistic, but I think we need a far more powerful model and organisation to make significant progress – significant, that is, not to the rhetoric of getting this moving but of actually solving the problem.

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