Unity is found in diversity, or so the popular saying goes.
In this way, unity does not imply conformity, and diversity does not imply fragmentation – instead, a more complex form of unity emerges based on the understanding that the different worldviews, skills and tactics that each element contributes enrich the movement. With this in mind, however, competing worldviews and narratives pose a potentially paralyzing distraction when it comes to unifying a movement, obscuring potential common ground as well as shared blind spots.
It is highly unlikely that the Deep Greens, for example, will sway the majority of the movement, much less the public, in the direction of recognizing the intrinsic value of nature in time to avert calamities that can be avoided by other means. Dark Greens will be unlikely to reach a broad enough audience with warnings of limits to growth and collapse scenarios while there is still adequate time to prepare and avoid the worst of the consequences. Despite gaining traction with their can-do messaging regarding a Bright Green renewable energy future, Bright Greens are not likely to persuade a significant proportion of civil society to divest themselves of the fossil fuel industry and put their money in renewable alternatives in sufficient time to avert climate chaos due to the trifecta of obstacles posed by ideological, political, and practical opposition – and they cannot secure the backing of those who see a transition without degrowth as impossible. And Lite Greens have a hard time convincing enough folks to embrace personal integrity and make individual changes while these drops in the bucket amount to so little and the agents of greatest destruction continue to run roughshod over the environment.
This is not to say that each tribe must toss out its own in-group’s binding narrative when dealing with the already converted, nor even when aiming to recruit. But the mass-mobilization of a movement will only be possible if a unifying narrative can be presented – one that resonates much further than the tribal narratives of the movement at present.
Social justice: a binding narrative
One common omission in all of the approaches of the various tribes of the environment movement – and it’s a unifying point if ever there was one – is a strong focus on social justice. I say this hesitantly, as all tribes believe they are pursuing social justice perhaps just as strongly as they believe they are pursuing environmental sustainability. But just repeating the truth that ‘climate change is a social justice issue’, for example, does not provide adequate insight as to what environmentalists mean when they refer to the enactment of social justice, or even what their definition of social justice is.
Social justice is a unifying narrative because it is an issue that resonates strongly with all tribes of the movement. Although it is arguable whether the public at large can be reached via a social justice-oriented message (arguably a diversity of tactics will always be required when it comes to reaching various sectors of society) the environment movement as a whole tends to view social justice as intertwined with environmental protection. Social justice, therefore, provides a nexus point for the intersection of movement ethics with movement politics where the ideals of intergenerational and intra-generational equity provide a compelling framework from which to approach activism. Instead of vying for domination of the public and political discourse with their divergent narratives and messaging tactics, social justice provides activists a common ground from which a meta-strategy can develop.
Bright Green Just Transitions
Social justice is applied by the Bright Greens in their narrative of a ‘just transition’ to ‘green jobs’. The point is that to convince the public that transitioning to a renewable energy economy will not lead to an unemployment crisis as the fossil fuel sector collapses. Bright Greens assure their audience that for every job lost in the mining industry another job opens up in the renewable energy sector, and training needs to be made available in order to facilitate a ‘just transition’. Sans employment crisis, there is clearly nothing to object to, and the path is thus paved for Bright Green solutions.
Regardless of ‘just transitions’, such a small shift in employment over a period of years, or even decades, would be unlikely to cause much of an issue in the resources sector. A small number of workers would need to be reskilled and probably relocated, and this could be handled with relative ease – perhaps even paid for by revenue generated from a carbon tax. In reality the mining sector will not be heavily impacted as it is still required in order to support the renewable energy industry. Mining still needs to take place – arguably even more so in cases where renewables are adding to the energy mix, rather than replacing fossil fuels – in order to extract the minerals and rare earth metals that are used to build renewable energy infrastructure, and oil is still a requirement for all mining operations due to their reliance on diesel-fuelled heavy machinery.
The ‘just transition’ looks to be a safe bet; what is not a safe bet, however, is whether a transition to renewable energy for electricity generation alone would even cut a large proportion of emissions while also avoiding incurring environmental damage in other regards. In the absence of policy to decommission fossil fuel energy production, renewables are simply adding to the problem; they are only an effective means of reducing emissions if they replace fossil fuels, which requires a policy framework that receives little attention.
If our only large-scale change is to provide our electricity by renewable means then we are still heavily reliant on mining for ores, rare earth metals, coal – still needed for smelting and cement, and oil – still needed to grease the wheels of the economic growth machine through fuelling extraction of resources for production and transportation of goods. All this is very energy-intensive, and extremely damaging to the environment. Non-electricity sector emissions receive little attention from the Bright Greens, and left unaddressed, these too will push us over the cliff-edge. We cannot afford to address only the means by which we produce electricity; we need to tackle the very way of life that places such strain on the natural environment.
If we don’t make more profound changes we are compromising the very survival of the inhabitants of low-lying island nations, and third world coastal regions and drought-stricken food bowls, for whom a 1-degree temperature increase spells disaster, and for whom an upper limit of 350ppm and a 2-degree cap spells endgame. Where is the justice for these people? Is it expected that the invisible hand will provide for them if only we move our money to a different bank or superannuation fund and slap solar on our roofs? Level playing-field discussion of carbon budget constraints and how to divvy up the remainder among developing and developed countries is required if Bright Green proposals are to result in just transitions for more than just mining companies.
Social Justice Lite
Social justice manifests in Lite Green consumer choices in the form of ethical consumption. It’s an admirable first step in the right direction, and organic, fair trade, and local is how we should all be consuming. Lite Greens are living with integrity in this regard, doing their bit for social justice as far as these issues are concerned, and that’s worthy. It may sometimes seem pernickety, but a Lite Green preference for eschewing single-use plastic and taking shorter showers certainly isn’t doing anyone any harm, and each drop in the bucket produces its own ripple. There is little to criticize when it comes to Lite Green consumer ethics.
But a failure to consider more systemic issues – such as one’s overall level of consumption, regardless of type; one’s adherence to the existing social order that perpetuates ecological and economic harm; and one’s passive, not proactive, responses to environmental calamities that betrays a sense of helplessness beneath the surface of the perfect Green veneer – leads to a failure to address anything but the symptoms.
Buying a less polluting car does little to address the climate catastrophe as it hits the impoverished third world hard, but it sure does make the driver feel a bit better about the mileage covered on their weekly commute to the centres of commerce that are the control and command centres for our culture’s ecocidal agenda. Slapping solar panels on suburban roofs is just part of the chain of events that leaves mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium in the groundwater of rare earth mining regions, and cuts miserable lives short with cancers in the vicinity of toxic e-waste dumps. But it sure does make middle-class suburbanites feel a bit better about their relatively luxurious (by global standards) lifestyles. Organic, fair trade coffee is certainly a more satisfying cuppa than Nescafe, but the deforestation, pollution and profit-motivated monocropping (which undermines varied subsistence agriculture) required to produce that cuppa leaves a bitter aftertaste for all but the blissfully ignorant.
Lite Greens are going to have to dig deeper and address more systemic problems. Ethical consumer practices certainly have their place in the movement, and are an excellent means of restricting social license for destruction while incentivizing virtue; but the size of one’s footprint matters at least as much as its style. Foremost in Lite Green lifestyle adaptations needs to be the notion of one-planet living – to live simply so that we may simply live. From this point on, it is hard to make a case for eco-capitalism while production and consumption levels must be drastically curtailed.
Lite Green ethical consumption practices are, however, an excellent Trojan horse for subtly inserting ideas and practices in the mainstream, when approached as a vehicle for transmission of a set of ethics. The Plastic-Free July challenge provides an excellent example of a multi-stage downshift from mindless consumerism to mindful adaptations to a life without plastic. In this way, Lite Greens are best positioned of all tribes of the environment movement to advance downshifting among the mainstream majority with their light-hearted approach to educating the populace in light footprint living.
Deep Green Radicalism
Deep Green social justice manifests in a deep sense of connection with the life-sustaining natural world that evokes a sense of responsibility to protect and conserve. But it is important to recognize that there is a spectrum of opinion within Deep Green thought regarding what responsibility to protect encompasses, and what tactics are deemed acceptable.
At the resister-come-protector end of the spectrum it is argued that non-violently breaking the law in order to achieve the goal of protection or conservation is both necessary at times, and desirable when necessary – think Sea Shepherd violating sovereign maritime space in order to protect whales from illegal hunting. At the End-Civ end of the spectrum it is argued that smashing civilization, or the system (Deep Greens don’t necessarily agree on what exactly needs to be smashed, nor how the smashing should be executed), is the ethical response to our ecological predicament, even if it leads to suffering in the short term – think blowing up dams in order to save riverine ecosystems.
Deep Greens also profess to care deeply for the most marginalized of cultures in our globalized industrial world: the indigenous occupants of Mother Nature’s strongholds. At the deeper end of the Deep Green spectrum, the ‘noble savage’ is often held up as a beacon of enlightened wisdom, and the ability of the ‘uncivilized’ to sustain life in harmony with their landbase is idealized. While it is inarguable that our modern, industrial civilization is living beyond carrying capacity and is therefore destined for a collapse of sorts, it is questionable whether it is wise to precipitate a collapse rather than wait it out.
It is important, however, to consider what smashing civilization actually entails: it may mean the destruction of global trade infrastructure, the removal of countless dams, and the dismantling of the energy grid. The results? The flatlining of global trade and subsequent collapse of the economy; calamitous flash-flooding of many impoverished river-basin communities; and countdown to nuclear meltdown. In smashing civilization we potentially cause the devastation of our entire species, and possibly many others as well. A concern for social justice? You bet. So long as folks aren’t consulted on the matter it’s hardly fair to insist it’s what they should have wanted.
In order to ensure the needs of the social justice agenda are met, Deep Greens owe it to those they claim to represent to consult them in the process. If a village would like the chance to relocate before the dams in their region are blown up, then they need to be given that chance – security for the activists who commit the act cannot take precedence over the lives of those who will suffer its consequences. Better still would be to use Deep Green tactics to pressure governments and corporations to dismantle dams, nuclear power plants, and the military-industrial complex in a safe and coordinated manner – hopefully with the benefit of expert planning. This is not stuff for amateurs – if you play with fire you will get burned, and, in this case, so will too many others; the upshot will be that your cause will be condemned in the court of public opinion for its elitist greener-than-thou attitude, and this will destroy your potential to mobilize sufficient numbers to be effective.
Dark Green Eco-elitism
A social justice narrative is perhaps more elusive in the Dark Green narrative than in that of the other tribes. Dark Greens all too often fall into the trap of the bunker mentality – hence the desire to run away to the hills and create a safe haven for riding out the apocalypse. While pragmatic on the surface, it is hardly a demonstration of a deep commitment to social justice.
Questioning why few people join the Dark Green cause is obtuse in light of the reality that resilient self-sufficiency is out of reach for most. Folks with the financial resources to be able to run away to the hills and set up an off-grid bunker represent only a small portion of the world’s population who live within heckling distance of opportunity. To think that an eco-bunker would keep the impoverished wolf from the door when times get really hard is profoundly naïve; wealth will be redistributed in some form or another when dire need hits, and the haves will experience the daily reality of the have-nots unless they are prepared to defend their perceived entitlement militarily.
Arguably, however, although it isn’t always foremost in the Dark Green mind, the very act of downshifting to one-planet living is itself an act of social justice. Living simply so that others may simply live may not be a mainstay of Dark Green rhetoric, but it is a narrative that could do no harm to the Dark Green stance on downshifting. Dark Greens would also benefit from a more communitarian narrative of inclusivity – of providing opportunities for those without the means or the know-how to downshift and achieve resilience by themselves. Solidarity with other shades of Green brings with it the twin benefits of access to the movement’s audiences and resources, and the opportunity to bring an additional shade of realism to Green goals and methods of achieving them.
Social justice: the motivation
Whatever shade of Green resonates most strongly with you, paying greater consideration to social justice aspects of environmentalism opens dialogue across the borderlands. Assimilating alternative shades of Green into your approach and strategy generates new opportunities for creative and effective action.
If you’re advocating Bright Green solutions of renewable energy and policy packages, then do so with consideration to emissions savings needed elsewhere, such as land management or agriculture. And ensure goals are consistent with fair and conservative carbon budget allocation in order to spare impoverished nations the consequences of business-as-more-or-less-usual.
If you’re advocating Lite Green locavorism, then consider further localizing your horizons and downshifting from life on the treadmill to decrease your ecological footprint more substantially while supporting the lifestyle you value.
If you’re advocating Deep Green dismantling of industrial civilization, then consider keeping the heavy-handed tactics for blockades and strategic sabotage where no one can come to harm. When it comes to dismantling the more pivotal elements of industrial civilization such as dam systems and electricity grids, this needs to be done gently – via uncompromising campaigns that pressure without endangering.
If you’re advocating Dark Green Mountaineering, then consider donating some of your downshifted time to volunteering for Deep Green causes and assisting your community to transition and prepare for the environmental crises to come; you’re arguably in the best position to advance the cause of sustainability.
Wrong shade of Green?
There really is no wrong shade of Green, provided one’s environmentalism is approached with integrity and a willingness to observe the system as a whole. Assimilating shared values and working toward shared goals with complementary means is integral to the success of the movement, but it does not have to come at the cost of diversity.
Bright Green activism is required if we are to transition to a low-carbon economy with the back-up of policy measures, although on a much smaller and more localized scale than most Bright Green advocates would prefer. Assimilation of limits to growth wisdom would do the Bright Green tribe good in terms of realistic grounding for what they advocate.
Lite Green activism is also required if we are to transition our culture’s consumption to lower-impact alternatives. A closer look at the level of consumption, however, would add strength to the Lite Greens’ soft strike at the system, dissolving the false dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative change, and paving the way for ethical consumption to nudge society closer to one-planet living.
Deep Green activism is vital if we are to stand any chance at resisting the onslaught of destruction of our biosphere. A larger scale of Deep Green action is required if Deep Green tactics are to succeed, and approaching undermining and dismantling responsibly implies the need to couple with Dark Green downshifting. Strength will come in numbers, and numbers will only come if people are persuaded by the message and trust in the means.
Dark Green action is not overtly activist in nature, hence a safe haven of last resorts for the jaded, but turning one’s back on activism is a sure-fire way to ensure things that could get done don’t get done. If you’re in the privileged position to lend a hand to an activist cause or a community in transition, then it’s in your interest as well as theirs that you get involved.
Above all: remain open to the other elements that make up the movement and apply what you learn – don’t allow your comfort zone to become a faction. Dialogue to develop, up the ante, and live by your values. At least we’ll be able to say we gave it our best shot – together.
Kari McGregor is based on the Sunshine Coast, in Australia and blogs as The Overthinker. She is a full-time downshifter after walking out on the employment paradigm, turning her back on non-profit management and mainstream ‘education’. These days she spends far more time working pro-bono for Sustainability Showcase than generating dollars from her small non-profit sector consulting business. Just how she likes it!