Do Environmentalists Lack a Theory of Change?

By Saliem Fakir · 15 Mar 2012

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Picture credit: Sabino/Flickr
Picture credit: Sabino/Flickr

Environmentalists in South Africa are largely seen as lone and desperate voices. Often they are perceived to be white and middle-class, but that is changing slowly.

Environmentalists remain at the margins of the mainstream economy and outside of key decision-making channels. Where they cannot control the excesses and harm belched out of the belly of a gluttonous economy, they mop up the aftermath.

Their fire fighting battles range from dealing with issues such as acid mine drainage to rhino poaching and the prevention of shale-gas extraction to exposing heavy polluters.

Despite all of these noble efforts and media wars, environmentalists are losing ground. This is not only due to a lack of resources but also because environmentalists have a tendency to form alliances amongst themselves and only talk to each other.

Take, for example, nuclear energy. The anti-nuclear debate is largely confined to a few environmentalists – some lone figures and others trying to work as an organized formation without any real broad appeal.

Despite some public sympathy, in the more than fifteen years that this debate has been raging, environmental groupings have not been able to build a coherent coalition against nuclear power. 

Winning the nuclear debate requires a broad-based alliance that will have to involve labour, business lobbies, religious groupings, agencies and individuals that work within government, and the public in general.

It’s hard work and can’t be done alone.

To succeed one also needs a broader political programme - a theory of change for the development of a new political economy.

The idea of a new political economy can’t be invented on its own. It has to be worked out by engaging others outside one’s own fold.

A new political economy can only emerge out of a new value system that restrains our addiction to consumption. The growth in shopping malls all around South Africa is testimony to this surge in consumptive behaviour despite the fact that our populace is heavily indebted.

So who is to blame?

Economic models are based on lifestyle choices. The greater the wants, the bigger the size of the economy and rate at which it must grow. Add to this the fact that nations also compete with each other for power, wealth and status in the world.

These wants are not only shaped by the desire to satisfy basic needs, but also by projects of vanity. Thus capitalism thrives because it can exploit our essential needs through a mark-up on the sale of basic necessities and more so because it exploits the human weakness for addiction to a particular lifestyle. Our growth paradigm commits so-called “consumers” to spending more on things they don’t really need.

We live in a world where flawed ideas about modernity drive the growth of new technologies and innovations in ways that are not always best suited to the needs of the planet and all of its people.

All of this unhealthy consumption takes place in the name of finance, jobs and more taxes.

Financial flows from the government purse, investments from government employee pension funds (South Africa’s is among the largest in the world), the decisions of trade union investment arms and the deployment of surplus capital from finance houses and corporations all shape the nature of the economy, where it invests and how.

In the end, the “growth at all costs” approach is the default compromise position between capital, organized labour and government. While capital, labour and government may seem at odds with each other - as they wrangle over the proceeds of wealth creation and its distribution - they are less questioning of the prevailing economic paradigm and the direction it is hurtling us towards.

As a result, contradictions prevail.

Governments perpetuate the dual problem of environmental and labour exploitation as necessary evils by choosing development models that are at odds with their rhetoric of sustainability, poverty alleviation and labour rights.

Firms encourage management and shareholder greed by incentivising the focus on the bottom line such that they end up working against social wellbeing and the planet’s future. They may be investing capital for economic growth, but at the same time, don’t take responsibility for the damage they cause to nature, labour and society.

Trade union investment arms are also not absolved from perpetuating the prevailing system. These investment arms and pension funds could help to shape a new type of economy, if they would just apply their minds to it.

Environmentalists are not entirely innocent either. Many environmentalists are pleased to do philanthropic work or take care of the mop up job when disaster strikes. However, the reduction of environmentalism to a beneficiary of philanthropy and charity demobilises its political relevance and guarantees it’s continued complicity in the prevailing, highly destructive, global economic system.

In this role, environmentalism merely enables the current system rather than disabling it. Without a theory of change, environmentalism is neither able to advance mechanisms for change nor is it able to demonstrate how a transition to a new kind of economy would be better than the existing one.

Thus, instead of just shouting from rooftops, environmentalists require a new theory of change. This can’t be invented through idealising alone but will have to evolve through active engagement with other organized formations where people are encouraged to seek a new ethos and moral compass for the economy.

Without new notions of equality and alliances for change beyond the narrow confines of environmental groupings, new models of economy won’t emerge and environmentalism will continue to remain at the margins, doing its usual mop up jobs, rather than contributing to pro-active change.

How we win a new economic system is partly a function of resistance. It is also the outcome of a new ethic – the ethic of moderation and less affluent lifestyle choices.
Shifts in the way capitalism works will, in the end, largely depend on the transformation of individual consciousness.

This change has to manifest in the real economy. Growth that is wasteful produces greater inequality and weakens the path to inter-generational sustainability.

Thus, the goals of a low carbon future must be melded to goals for better social development. The fight against inequality has to become an intrinsic part of broader environmentalism and in this regard, present-day environmentalists must be challenged to reflect on how embedded and comfortable they are in the current economic system.

Unless we address the central issue - the morality of our economic system - we will continue to trudge along as if the environmental cause is on track, when clearly it is not.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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JudithNkwe Verified user
16 Mar

Environmentalist Need to Build Coalitions

Dear Saliem - you've been reading our minds - this is precisely what we are doing! The coalitions are developing with more than baby steps because we realise that there is strength in numbers and we can bolster action by working with each other to cover the whole of SA.

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