Environmental Social Movements Research Paper

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Since World War II environmental issues have increasingly entered Western political discourses. From the 1992 UN-conference in Rio de Janeiro onwards, environmental issues appeared on the government agendas of the South and of reforming countries and were promoted by international programs under the label of sustainable development. This contribution examines the ways in which environmental issues were taken up by non-formal collective political action— often referred to as the ‘New Social Movements.’ It looks at the informal actors participating in the movements and how they organize themselves and identify with their demands. Furthermore, it focuses on their strategies for engaging with power, which have redrawn the lines of what is regarded as ‘political’ and ‘politics.’

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1. Social Movements And New Social Movements: Theoretical Perspectives

Research on social movements—as the term is understood today—dates back to the 1930s when US sociologists, who were confronted with the turmoil of the emergence of fascism and communism in Europe, concentrated on ideological aspects of collective behavior, and perceived collective political action as a threat to the established order (Eyerman and Jamison 1991, p. 10). Herbert Blumer from the Chicago School was the first to outline the positive potential of the new forms of social interaction. In contrast to this socialpsychological focus emphasizing the individual, Talcott Parsons took a structuralist-functionalist approach drawing on the classic work of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. The combination of the two views resulted in a framework which has come to be known as the collective behavior approach, balancing the micro-oriented approach with the macro-oriented.

This perspective dominated research on social movements until the 1960s (Eyerman and Jamison 1991, p. 11f.). However, the civil rights movements and the students’ demonstrations of the late 1960s led American sociologists to criticize the functionalist logic of the collective behavior theory, which devalued action as reactive behavior without strategic capability. US sociologists directed their attention instead toward the costs and benefits of taking part in social movements, grounding their concepts in actors as ‘movement ‘‘entrepreneurs’’’ who make rational choices, using the material and symbolic resources available. Critics have pointed out that this emphasis on resources normally held by influential social groups leads to the destruction of the resistance due to marginalized actors. Moreover the exclusive focus on rational choices does not take adequate account of emotions (Della Porta and Diani 1999, pp. 7–9).

As a response to this criticism the field of political research has directed its attention toward interactions between political establishment insiders and outsiders, and toward the outsiders’ less conventional forms of action. This framework allowed social movements to be viewed as part of political debates and dialogs rather than as excluded from the political system. Despite their insights, however, analysts of political processes have failed to generate an explanation for the innovative nature of social movements and the new spaces created and occupied by contemporary movements of youth groups, of women, and of homosexual or minority ethnic groups (Della Porta and Diani 1999, p. 10). Della Porta and Diani draw upon concepts developed by European scholars, whose criticism of the deterministic Marxist models shed new light on the ‘New Social Movements’ in Europe. In particular, Alain Touraine’s so-called postindustrial approach has become influential. It posits that the ruling and popular classes remain major antagonists and forces of social change. The New Social Movements are characterized by their decentralized and participatory organizational structures as well as their critical attitudes towards ideology and solidarity structures. As Alberto Melucci states, material claims are—in contrast to the workers’ movement—no longer central to the Movements’ agenda. Guaranties of security and state welfare are no longer demanded. Instead, the intrusion of the political-administrative system into daily life is something to be resisted (Della Porta and Diani 1999, p. 12f.).

Although the exchange between European and American scholars has intensified and research on social movements taken up by a variety of disciplines, Calderon criticizes the still predominant structuralist research paradigm, arguing that a structuralist view cannot provide sufficient insight into the social expression brought about by the movements (Calderon 1992, p. 23). Referring to Melucci, David Slater (1997, p. 259) uses the metaphor of the ‘nomads of the present’ for the post 1989 movements, capturing the fluidity and territorial flexibility of today’s mobilization. Intensified cooperation between the disciplines and the theoretical schools has led to regarding manifestations of resistance and opposition as some- thing increasingly independent from universalist dis- courses. Connected in terms of space, these new mobilizations stick together as ‘archipelagos of resistance’ characterized both by their global reach and their local embedding and specificities (Slater 1997, p. 259). This framework seems particularly helpful for understanding the emergence of social movements with an environmental focus. Before turning to environmental issues, however, it is necessary to consider the state’s changing role in confronting collective political action.

Thirty years ago collective action was strongly oriented toward the state and state politics. Today, collective practices create their own cultural identities and specific spaces for social expression, taking advantage of and contributing to the severe crisis faced by nation states worldwide (Calderon et al. 1992, p. 23). Globalization processes are undermining what used to be the territorial state’s significant spaces of action. Furthermore, the state is faced with the fragmentation of civil society: segments of society create their own spaces, often with a self-determined distance from the state which—in its modernist conception—has traditionally furthered integration by excluding certain social categories (Calderon et al. 1992, p. 25). Thus the state has lost its central role as the focus of attention for social movements, i.e., for collective action concerning ethnic or ecological questions. In general, both emerging forms of social and political participation as well as highly influential economic players are challenging the legitimacy of the state and its political representatives on environmental issues.

Taking his analysis of resistance even further, Steven Pile (1997, p. 3) criticizes social movements research that operates exclusively with the dual model of ‘authority’ on the one hand and ‘resistance’ on the other. He perceives resistant political subjects as also influenced by driving forces ‘… such as desire and anger, capacity and ability, happiness and fear, dreaming and forgetting,’ which mobilize forces not simply based on the antagonism of established power and opposition. This analytical frame seems useful for understanding social movements organized around issues of identity and natural resources.

2. Characteristics Of Social Movements With An Environmental Focus

The first of the New Social Movements started in 1968 with the student revolts in Western Europe. Independent of established political institutions, these new forms of social and political participation contrasted sharply with the traditional workers’ movements. Starting out as student riots supported by feminist activists and intellectuals, this movement soon grew, also becoming more critical of transformations occurring in industrial society. The New Social Movements questioned modernism and economic progress, focusing on the costs of social transformation. In the 1970s these issues were extended to environmental conflicts in Western Europe. Protest groups not only questioned the values of industrial society and the price of such things as economic progress, security, and sustainability, but also the political process, its parties, and politicians. Touraine identified such central conflicts in post-industrial society as the struggle for the control of symbolic production.

In addition the organizational structures developed by the New Social Movements are different from those of traditional political parties: they are more decentralized and follow participatory organizational principles. They usually involve people who have not been interested in traditional politics or who have not been integrated into traditional political parties before. In general these movements want to experience new forms of democracy and focus on environmental and non-profit issues.

Another characteristic feature of the New Social Movements—especially of those concerned with environmental issues—is the high involvement of women, minorities, young people, and people from the South. Seager (1996, p. 271) in her writing on ‘hysterical housewives’ points to the high percentage of women participating in environmentalist and conservationist organizations. Women around the world would, according to Seager, support more restrictive environmental laws and spend more money on ecological projects. However, they often face inflexible bureaucracies which adhere to fixed beliefs about economic growth and success. The potential of the politics of resistance lies in the interstices of self-determination, interpersonal and international solidarity as well as solidarity with future generations and the environment.

According to Della Porta and Diani (1999, p. 14f ), the New Social Movements evince at least four characteristic features:

(a) Informal interaction networks. The movements can be regarded as informal interaction networks between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations with loose and dispersed links. Such networks promote the circulation of essential resources for action (such as information or material resources), creating and preserving a system of meaning through adequate organizational resources. In many cases the networks intend to create a new model of democracy based on greater participation and decentralization than in traditional democracies.

(b) Shared beliefs and solidarity. Another characteristic feature of the New Social Movements is the set of beliefs and the sense of belonging they share. Social movements help to find new approaches to existing environmental conflicts, to raise new public issues and to create visions. By contributing to a symbolic redefinition of reality and possible future perspectives they construct new collective identities and value systems. In many cases it is up to the leaders of movements to create appropriate ideological representations.

(c) Collective action focusing on conflicts. The actors of social and environmental movements are usually engaged in political and cultural conflict. Very often they set their value system against that of a powerful establishment. The actors involved in the movements share common interests, values, collective experiences, and a feeling of belonging to certain places and environments.

(d) Use of protest. The movements make use of unusual patterns and deviating forms of political behavior and public protest, e.g., civil disobedience, collective action, and the mobilization of public opinion by spectacular activities (Della Porta and Diani 1999, p. 14f ).

3. New Actors And Alliances In The Political Struggle On Environmental Issues

According to Calderon et al. (1992, p. 24) the reason for the emergence of social movements lies in the tension between social demands and the inability of the existing political institutions to hear these demands, not to mention give in to them. The protagonists of traditional social movements were rather large social entities easily identified by one common social denominator, e.g., their identity as workers or peasants. Unlike the protagonists of earlier social movements today’s activists are not held together by a political force, i.e., by an aggregation of interests and actions. Although the New Social Movements are led by seemingly unimportant social actors, i.e., people in the lower ranks of the social hierarchy, such as black people, mothers, indigenous or disabled people, they leave a considerable mark on public platforms (Calderon et al. 1992, p. 26). Their highly specific interests and demands enable them to challenge the established structures more effectively. As Steven Pile (1997, p. 1) describes it, they perform ‘acts of resistance [that] take place (…) in the spaces under the noses of the oppressor … .’ This framework requires a more complex understanding of power and how it is distributed. The simple model of authority in the upper rank and its victims among the lower ranks has to be dropped.

In many of the New Social Movements feminist and ecological activists have joined together for collective action. There are several reasons for this (Rocheleau et al. 1996, p. 15ff ): declining ecological and economic conditions which activate women because they threaten the survival of families; the impact of structural adjustment policies and the ‘retreat of the state’ from support of public services, social welfare, and environmental regulations; consciousness raising and political awareness; the political marginality of most women; the expansion of the women’s movement to address converging issues of gender, race, class and culture. They focus on policy and environmental management issues, access to and distribution of resources under conditions of environmental decline, resource scarcity and political change, and environmental sustainability.

The unequal ‘Geometries of Power’ (Massey 1993) are responsible for generating social movements with an environmental focus and have led to a shift in scale between locally anchored movements and international organisations with global impact. In many cases small indigenous groups succeeded by involving Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) from Western countries in their struggles and were able to achieve their goals by globalizing the conflict. Some small and spontaneous local movements have expanded to become influential global players in environmental and human rights arenas. Several international NGOs, e.g., Friends of the Earth International, the WWF, Greenpeace, Global 2000, Peace Brigades International, have become global social movements with highly sophisticated organizational structures and professional fund raising.

In some cases local social movements with a specific environmental focus obtained wider social support and political influence, and were finally transformed into political parties (see below). Several Green Parties in Europe have developed along this line (WastlWalter 1996).

4. Issues

4.1 Preservation Of Natural Diversity

Of the world’s biodiversity, 98 percent exists on lands controlled by indigenous peoples. The land uses that sustain this diversity are intimately tied to the survival of the people in question, who often struggle to preserve their ‘space’ and life-ways against exogenous forces (Della Porta and Diani 1999, p. 12). Power relations are usually tilted against indigenous peoples, who have little political and social capital. These relations are further blurred by values that differ from those of the West. For some indigenous peoples, land is not only life, it is sacred. Hence many conflicts are also cultural in nature, and can only be won if indigenous groups obtain the support of Western social movements, which can contribute their strategies and resources for successful confrontation with global economic powers. A well known example is the conflict of interest dating from 1988 concerning the construction of the world’s biggest dam on land belonging to the Kayapo Indians on the Rio Xingœ in Brazil. If the project were realised, 7.6 million ha would be flooded and 11 indigenous peoples would be forced to leave their land. Furthermore a unique ecosystem would be destroyed. The actors involved are the Government of Brazil, the World Bank, the Kayapo leaders and people, the OAB (Ordem de Abogados do Brasil), the NWF (National Wildlife Federation), the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund), Amnesty International, Survival International, Cultural Survival, and the International Society of Ethnobiology. The example shows that the actors involved range from local groups to groups with an international dimension. The groups differ vastly in terms of interests. Since various peoples would lose their home and hence their existence, human rights issues—and therefore the possibility of new alliances—should be considered as well.

4.2 Preservation Of Resources And The Right Of Access To Environmental Resources

A central aim of social movements with an environmental focus is the preservation of and right of access to environmental resources. Natural resources are endangered by the rich world’s resource-intensive, wasteful, and polluting habits of production and consumption as well as by the environmentally destructive practices of the poor, who are forced to intensify their production under inappropriate conditions leading, for example, to depletion and degradation of large areas. Similar conflicts could be mentioned: in terms of land use, this means food crops vs. cash crops or sustainable farming vs. industrialization. One of the first famous examples of conflicts of this kind was the Kalinga women’s struggle against the Chico Dam project (Philippines) from 1967 until 1987. The women linked the sociopolitical issue of emancipation with their ecological interests, questioning the right of access to environmental resources as such. The dam project, which was financed by the IWF World bank, was their first that had to be cancelled due to the opposition of the indigenous population.

In Europe the first conflicts where social movements were concerned with environmental issues were the anti-nuclear power movements of the seventies. Again the main actors in terms of protest and the key speakers were women and mothers (Mutter gegen Wackersdorf in Germany). They were worried about the preservation of a healthy environment for their children and spoke against further economic and technological development at any price. They also questioned the legitimacy of technical experts.

5. Methods And Strategies Of The New Social And Environmental Movements

These examples illustrate how the New Social Movements are forced to apply differing strategies and methods to succeed against the political establishment and the economic powers that be. Steven Pile draws our attention to the specific geographies around which acts of resistance unfold: ‘on the streets, outside military bases, and so on, or, further, around specific geographical entities such as the nation, or ‘our land,’ or world peace, or the rainforests; or, over other kinds of geographies, such as riots in urban places or revolts by peasants in the countryside or jamming government web sites in cyberspace’ (Pile 1997, p. 1).

The groups involved are often poorly resourced and act on a local level. In order to succeed they go public thus extending their reach, i.e., allying themselves in ‘Joint Ventures’ with global-players such as NGOs. For that reason, as Jayanta Bandyopadhyay states, social movements with an environmental focus cannot only develop fighting strategies; they also have to invest in public relations in order to become a trendsetting movement (Bandyopadhyay 1999, p. 880).

The movements are forced to use reassessed indigenous knowledge to overcome the arguments of modern scientific knowledge systems. And these alternative sources of knowledge need to be fed into channels of modern communication technology in order to reach a broad audience.

Local movements brought about by so called ‘disposable people’ (Ekins 1993) need to create a myth about themselves which triggers activists and solidarity movements among the more privileged. In many cases these groups have charismatic leaders or ‘movement poets’ (as they are called in the Chipko movement in India), who by personalizing the conflicts manage to obtain access to the mass media. Several such people have gained an international reputation in the course of their commitment, e.g., Medha Patkar, the leader of the movement against the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India, who was awarded the alternative Nobel prize.

The history of the Green party in Germany reveals a different developmental pattern: the party come to represent the ‘Eco-Establishment’ (Seager 1993, p. 170). A social movement has become an official public agent. The debate between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘realists’ was about whether to promote social change from within the system (realists) or from the outside (fundamentalist). Spontaneous demonstrations relying on a very affective approach have yielded to pragmatic and committed politics using the official channels of public life. Professional respectability has replaced passionate involvement. A change in essence and style towards the perspectives of the establishment can be noted, with an acceptance of free market economy criteria, an emphasis on practicability, efficiency, and scientific arguments (Seager 1993, p. 201).

6. Social And Political Relevance Of Environmental Movements

Environmental problems are caused by conflicting interests regarding natural resources and the preservation of the environment. Apart from those problems social movements also view environmental conflicts as a crisis of democracy and participation and as a cultural and ethical crisis because of the uneven power relations and conflicting systems of values and norms involved. With new actors entering the political field, traditional national politics and even states themselves are called into question by environmental movements. Traditional political parties lose members and voters while green parties or more spontaneous political groups gain influence.

In most cases it is impossible to solve the conflicts at either the local, regional, or national level. The issues at stake are manifold, each interest group portraying its own perspective. It is the interstices between self-determination and solidarity with human and nonhuman agents which are likely to create a substantial mobilizing potential. Hence new networks, operating at an international level and able to consider the differing interests and to mediate the uneven power relations, have to be built up in order for social movements with little formal political power to be heard.


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