Environmentalism: From Dispute to Dialogue

A 2004 essay titled "The Death of Environmentalism" has shifted the rhetoric between activists, industry and government, from dispute to dialogue. Problem: Opposing views become entrenched, resulting in a decades-long stalemate Solution: Break out of your rut to redefine the terms of the debate


A 2004 essay titled “The Death of Environmentalism” has shifted the rhetoric between activists, industry and government, from dispute to dialogue.

  • Problem: Opposing views become entrenched, resulting in a decades-long stalemate
  • Solution: Break out of your rut to redefine the terms of the debate

Ever since Greenpeace was formed more than three decades ago to protect the environment, B.C. has been a constant battleground between governments, industry and hundreds of environmental groups. The latter range from multinational outfits aiming to protect the forests, rivers or oceans, to local, single-issue neighbourhood groups. But in the past couple of years, the din of the war drums has been considerably muted. Environmentalists, governments, First Nations and industry have been – gasp – actually talking with, instead of at each other. And while they may not be buddies yet, they’re certainly co-operating more than they have in the past. The Problem In late 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a couple of earnest young environmentalists from the New York area, rocked the environmental world with an essay entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.” It claims that traditional environmentalism is dead because its alarmist approach has turned off a public that has already bought the message that the earth’s air, water and soil must be protected. In a sense, the authors are saying we are all environmentalists now. The essay created a storm of controversy throughout the world’s environmental movement. But although many trashed the duo’s provocative claim, many others agreed with them. They, too, had been growing concerned with the movement’s constant “I have a nightmare” speechifying, alarmist tactics and continual jockeying for leadership positions in the public’s view of environmentalism. “We are oriented towards problems, issues and complaints, and our politics are therefore defined by fragmentation rather than unification,” complains Peter Teague, environment director of U.S. funding agency The Nathan Cummings Foundation. “We organize ourselves into ever-narrower fragments with rigid categorical boundaries. We have to learn to tell a better story. We have to shift our orientation from problems to solutions.” Certainly, a large part of the B.C. environmental movement was thinking along those lines at the time of the article’s publication. Three decades of high-pitched battles over forests, water and air had left everybody – movement members, government, industry and especially the public – exhausted and tired of arguing. For some time, many environmentalists had been thinking that there had to be a better way to deal with their traditional “enemies” and with each other. The Solution A little more than a year ago, about a dozen of the province’s largest and broadest environmental groups, such as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Western Canadian Wilderness Committee and Forest Ethics, got together to thrash out this problem of environmental overkill and find a way to work together. Much talking and soul-searching later, they emerged with a manifesto called “Organizing for Change,” under which they would work together to pursue four common issues as well as their own: endangered species legislation, funding of parks, a study of “close containment” (or tanker-based) salmon farming, and advising Lower Mainland municipalities on highway expansion and twinning of the Port Mann Bridge. While the strategy was aimed at helping various environmental organizations break out of their silos and speak with one voice, it was also aimed at making sure that voice would be heard by those who could do something about it. The groups had no doubt that public opinion was on their side – they survey regularly in order to understand the public’s mind – but weren’t sure whether industry and government would listen. So a large part of the new strategy involved offering workable solutions as well as applying public pressure. Presenting municipalities with environmental consulting when highways were to be expanded was a good example of this new businesslike approach. “The environmental community tends to say no to new things and ideas,” explains Robert Mitchell, executive director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. “This was a positive step instead of a negative one. We were saying to industry and government that we were changing tactics and wanted to work toward solutions.” A year after the publication of “Organi-zing for Change,” the group is studying the results of the joint effort. So far, they appear to be mixed, although they indicate that the group is on the right track. For example, while the federal government has enacted endangered-species legislation, the B.C. government has yet to sign on. But the group did get movement on that score by instigating a court case regarding logging in forests inhabited by the endangered spotted owl. It lost the case, but the high profile it created around the issue caused forest companies such as Canfor to shelve logging plans in the affected area. When the provincial government announced that it would go ahead with the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge, it was clear that the strategy to advise municipalities on the issue didn’t work. And there has been little movement regarding salmon farming practices. The coalition’s biggest victory – although not all members of the coalition were involved, and not all agreed – was the Great Bear Rainforest agreement last February. The province announced it had reached an agreement with environmental groups, First Nations and industry to set aside 1.8 million hectares of rainforest on the north coast as protected parkland. Another 4.6 million hectares would be strictly managed under a regime called ecosystem-based management, using the best available conservation biology. Industry and government hailed the agreement, as did many environmentalists, as the beginning of a new era of co-operation among stakeholders. But many other environmentalists didn’t see it as anything of the sort. It is a unique forest involving issues that had been under discussion for a decade, so the agreement wasn’t an example of anything new, they said. And logging and road-building will still go on, so the movement’s goal of a completely protected area wasn’t achieved. Certainly, the agreement wasn’t perfect. And some of these concerns may be valid, but they’re also examples of the old winner-takes-all thinking that resulted in a decades-long stalemate. Full consultation still has some way to go before all recognize its benefits. But old and entrenched eco-warriors have to understand that with any compromise agreement, everybody wins some and loses some – that’s the nature of collaboration. It’s also the nature of change. With any long-term dispute, people are in a comfort zone – even if it’s a continuing and destructive argument – and don’t like to be moved to unfamiliar territory. But they have to if the argument is to break out of its rut and move toward resolution. Leaders in industry and environmentalism, while perhaps chafing a bit at the details, are certainly aware that change is happening and can see the wins involved. With the Great Bear Rainforest, for example, forest companies have ensured a supply of high-quality timber to make products for their customers. At the same time, environmentalists have ensured that logging in the area will be undertaken according to best practices in sustainability. First Nations have ensured their cultural heritage will be preserved and they will share in economic benefits. That’s collaboration, which may not produce an absolute win, but at least produces a workable solution that most can live with. And that’s a long way from destructive confrontation. Lessons

  • Recognize that change has to happen. When the framework you’ve been working within for a long time alters, you have to alter your strategies and methods to deal with it.
  • Recognize how change happens. Nobody likes to be kicked out of a comfort zone. When that happens, panic ensues. But eventually, if everybody works together, a new comfort zone is established. It’s a process that can sometimes be difficult, but is rewarding in the end.
  • Engage in dialogue, not debate. Endless arguing between two sides that won’t budge accomplishes nothing. Dialogue, which is communication between opposing worldviews, leads to innovation and new ideas.

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