It must be sad to be an old environmental warrior: to reminisce about the days of barricades, placards, chants, feathers, drums and, well, copious amounts of hair. Clearly Clive Hamilton has been in a reminiscent mood. Perhaps he’s been fretfully stroking his shiny cranium while remembering the good ole Franklin Dam protests and what they achieved. Perhaps he nibbled on one of those special cookies that were so popular in those days.
How else could he come to the conclusion that mainstream environmentalism has failed because of “the professionalisation of environmental activism over the past two decades.”
Perhaps you, like me, read this and muttered the classic teenager response, “huh?”
Perhaps you, like me, wondered if you had totally misunderstood the clean-shaven and articulate environmental activists that have emerged over the past two decades? Why is it that we found them persuasive and convincing when Dr Hamilton says they were sell-outs to incrementalism and professionalism?
What did we miss?
Perhaps it’s not what we missed, but that which is being missed by the well-meaning Dr Hamilton.
Just like the far-left elements of the Labor Party and some of the Australian Greens, Clive is simply feeling cast adrift because environmentalism is now mainstream. In fact, the broader concept of sustainability – the combination of economic, social AND environmental responsibility – is being embraced across business, government and the broader community.
Admittedly, we have a long way to go. Australians are big talkers when it comes to environmental action and don’t always follow through with consistent actions, but our minds and hearts are open to opportunities to do something for the common good. The outpouring of support for Queenslanders affected by the floods is a perfect example.
Surely Clive Hamilton is being disingenuous when he says that:
We need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line; because no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.
Does Australia really need more radicalism, at a time when religious radicalism is being blamed for racism and other forms of bigotry?
Surely the incremental, professional and constructive way to approach environmental responsibility makes the most sense?
Yes it does.
Many words have been written elsewhere about environmentalists realising that they had to dress, think and talk like corporates and government policy-makers if they were going to influence environmental decision-making within either type of institution.
As a result, green activists were sourced from a broader range of disciplines including economics, law, the physical sciences like geography and chemistry, and the behavioural sciences like psychology.
Only once they were equipped to step into corporate boardrooms and departmental meeting rooms, and speak the same language as their antagonists, were environmentalists able to make ground on a raft of issues.
Without the professionalism of green activists, and their acceptance of incrementalism as a means to an end – two of the three weaknesses identified by Clive Hamilton – many of the environmental reforms we take for granted today would not be in place. These include the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the National Pollutant Inventory, and the programs to protect Australia’s native forests and the Great Barrier Reef. None of these reforms are perfect, but they are a vast improvement on what existed before, which was nothing at all.
I can’t conclude this note without mentioning a few green activitists whose achievements are the best counterpoint to Dr Hamilton’s fretful illusions.
Each of these people put on a suit, learned to talk in corporate-speak and made a material difference to the way the environment is valued and managed by corporate Australia and the Australian Government (and none of them will thank me for mentioning them):
Paul Gilding was CEO of Greenpeace International and after he left was a trail-blazer in advising corporations how to adopt sustainable practices. He now works with individuals, businesses, NGOs, entrepreneurs, academia and governments.
Tricia Caswell was on the Executive of the ACTU and then went on to be Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation. After that she was the Executive Director of PLAN Australia and then went on to found the Global Sustainability Institute at the RMIT University that initiated most of the discussions around triple-bottom line reporting for business in the early 2000s.
Michael Rae was with WWF Australia when he worked with the Australian minerals industry to improve their performance on environmental and social matters. Michael also led the charge at the international level, during the Global Mining Initiative, to reduce the use of cyanide in the mining and production of gold. He now runs the Responsible Jewellery Council.
Erwin Jackson progressed from Greenpeace to the ACF and is now the deputy at the Climate Institute, which is so derided by Clive Hamilton. Strangely, Dr Hamilton does not mention that he used to be Chairman of the Climate Institute, and perhaps this is the real source of his bitterness. That aside, Erwin has been instrumental in keeping the Australian Government’s hand to fire when it comes to climate action, and his patient approach suggests he knows that this is a long game to be won by engaged experts and not by the whingers braying on the sidelines.
Clive Hamilton would probably call these people environmental sell-outs. I call them true environmental activists and ultimately, success stories. They have kept to their principles but adapted to the corporate/government world, and they have made a material difference.
This is something that the reminiscent Clive Hamilton can only aspire to.
This post also appeared at Crikey.com and The Drum: Unleashed