Charles Secrett, environmental activist, is ranked in 1999 by The Observer as the 36th most influential person in the UK, but as 200th in 2000. His recent open letter is an attempt to revive the green movement after having turned into what he argues as an unwieldy behemoth.
Dear green activists,
What more can NGOs do to help humanity out of the mess we are in? Tried and tested campaign tactics, based on protest and outrage at the incompetence of governments and industry, are not working. It’s time to break free from a perpetually defensive mode, and go on the offensive. Spark the reasonable revolution.
We need something much more powerful than just direct action or lobbying to encourage politicians, companies and communities to change course and tread a development path where the needs of people and nature are jointly met. The necessary wealth, resources, technologies and ideas are out there. What is missing is the political will to implement.
As you constantly warn, we have about 10 years or so to turn around the juggernaut of industrialism, and our gobbling up of earth’s resources, before ecosystems start collapsing, species extinctions reach crisis point, and the fundamental stability and productivity of the biosphere (soils, oceans and atmosphere) enters a state of runaway change. That will be the point of no return for billions of people. Imagine the chaos.
First, appreciate how powerful you could be from pooling your efforts. In the UK, you employ thousands of staff, spend over £100m annually, and have millions of members. You speak for people from all walks of life, and all political persuasions. Globally, you can multiply those numbers by a factor of 10, and probably much more.
Second, stop working in parallel, and unite with other causes – development, human rights, poverty, public health, democracy, community well-being – under one banner: “For people, for the planet”.
The fundamental problems in these fields – authoritarian government, the dominance of selfish elites, rampant neo-liberal economics, and disdain for the workings of nature – are connected. So are the solutions, and therefore your agendas. By co-operating, you reach a critical mass to achieve your aims.
Third, every successful revolution has a compelling text at its heart – ideals, goals, words, images and examples that inspire the majority. Where is your equivalent of the Rights of Man, Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, or Little Red Book?
You need to agree a joint manifesto for life. Mine the library of sustainable development strategies to spell out a route map that can take humanity from where we are to where most want to be.
Collate the best solutions from public, private and community sectors into a compelling narrative. Pepper it with case studies of what works from around the world. Use simple language and pictures, not the professional jargon of sustainability-speak, to convince the silent majority that the alternatives exist.
Then, crowd-source the draft. Iceland is drawing up a new constitution like this. NGOs have the reach to try the approach globally. Bridge the traditional divides between north and south, east and west, where national governments and multinationals have failed. Help the public create a new world order, and confirm the principles, objectives and means to deliver political economies that work for people and nature.
That can build ownership of the outcome, and commitment to change, across cultures. Where the intelligence of elites has failed to motivate the mainstream, the wisdom of crowds can succeed.
Fourth, build a cross-party political consensus in every nation. You have extensive international networks, and are embedded and respected in most countries.
Societal change is about power, and who wields it and why. Your regular interaction with government and companies is not the same as real influence. You must systematically generate significant pressure to change the failing business-as-usual provision of energy, food, housing, jobs, welfare and the other things that people require for a good life.
Power resides with voters, tax-payers and constituents. No government can rule without citizen consent.
Use the manifesto, and specific proposals for policies, regulations, tax-codes and spending priorities that make environmental, economic and social sense, to show how people’s lives will improve from their adoption. Natural allies include scientists, gardeners, fishers, farmers, foresters, sports-people, outdoor recreationalists – tens of millions of people who depend on a clean, healthy environment.
Organise locally in every constituency to build formidable alliances between your supporters, other community groups, unions and local businesses.
The imperative is to hold government and industry to account at elections and between elections, at AGMs and throughout the year. If they don’t respond, motivated electorates and shareholders can throw the bums out.
Fifth, do the same in markets. Business too needs a license to operate. Consumers, shareholders and investors are the kings and queens of commerce and industry. No company will invest in, make or sell services and products that people won’t buy, or shareholders reject. It’s another opportunity to organise and mobilise.
Business allies are in sectors like insurance and pension funds that depend on stability and continuity in economy and ecology. And, the entrepreneurs and innovative companies who deal in clean, green and smart technologies, vehicles, products 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. Neither left nor right, but forward, as the German greens used to proclaim.
By taking these steps, you can create the opportunity for governments at global summits to find common cause and tackle climate change, deforestation, ocean depletion, destructive trade patterns, human rights abuses et al – and escape the groundhog day experience of always being bitterly disappointed at every meeting.
Finally, accept certain campaigns are not winnable, and simply drain resources. Absolutist positions do not hold up for the majority. Because of climate change, this probably includes total opposition to nuclear power and GM products globally. Focus instead on the conditions where these technologies become acceptable: safe, economic, free of patent control by a few companies, and effectively regulated.
This is how NGOs can help mobilise a majority to back changes that give the poor and downtrodden, let alone my son and your children, a fighting chance of enjoying as decent lives as you and I do.