Transition to sustainability requires more than developing the right markets, institutions and metrics. It requires social momentum – a social movement for change.
The extent and rapidity of change now required to tip the world back towards sustainability is greater than can be achieved by existing institutions at global and national levels. Governments, corporations and international organizations have much to contribute in major ways. However, it is only the behaviour of billions of people as citizens and consumers that can give our institutions the mandate and means to lead the changes needed.
The kinds of innovation required to solve complex problems are generally of the kind that are best first achieved by smaller and more flexible groups of people – whether innovating in technology and industry at the scale of a family garage, or in building or asserting new social and environmental values around a sacred place or university campus. Civic society and social movements are crucial to the transition to sustainability, and we need strategies to rejuvenate, nurture and unite their creativity and determination. The energy bubbling up from below could foster the positive tipping point needed for systemic change.
In terms of organized grassroots institutions the world has never been stronger, or at least has never had so many. In his book ‘The Blessed Unrest’, Paul Hawken argues that there may be over one million such organizations worldwide, and that while they are often little conscious of each other and broadly divided into three movements working separately – for social justice, indigenous people and the environment – they are nevertheless usefully coming together.138
Only the third of these currently lies within the sustainability mainstream. Many organizations dedicated to environmental justice are not active members of the conventional ‘global environment and conservation movement’ (epitomised for example by membership of IUCN). If grassroots civil society organizations (social justice organizations, feminist groups, indigenous groups) formed an alliance with the mainstream environmental movement, they might together create the social forces and institutions to push for sustainability and justice. The complementarities and differences between these movements could become a strength, and revitalize as well as deeply inform the struggle for sustainability.
The challenges are huge. A rejuvenated and united movement needs to be intelligent, responsive, resilient and bold. It will have to do most of its work under deteriorating conditions, if what is projected here about the declining capacity of the earth to sustain people comes to pass. Rising energy and food prices have had dramatic impacts on people and landscapes. We need to base the process of securing a transition towards sustainability on institutions resilient enough to traverse the process.
Importantly, local and grassroots organizations are not dependent in the same way on centralized funding and organization. The extraordinarily rapid growth of global environmental institutions has only been possible because of the financial investments that the public, new wealthy elites, some governments and now some corporations have been prepared and able to make in this field. It is not a given that we will be able to rely on such institutional infrastructure in the future, or move tens of thousands of professional conservationists or development planners around the world for conferences and consultations. Furthermore the groups with the capacity to provide the multi-billion dollar funding that such institutions and methods require may not be ready for the kinds of changes that a shift to sustainability will require.
‘civic society and social movements are crucial to the transition to sustainability’
We therefore need to balance the development of our major institutions with the nurturing of the grassroots. And we need to remember how recently the environmental movement became institutionalized, and how informal activism is our oxygen. Furthermore, such organizations are likely to prove far more resilient in the face of future challenges to funding streams and political economies. They are a bulwark against future disruption, and possibilities like a ‘fortress world’ where force is used to secure scarce resources. The environmental movement of the poor has historically not been part of the mainstream of the global sustainability industry.139 It now needs to move to centre stage.
The environmental movement needs reconfigure itself to be both global and local: a global network positioned to understand and respond in locally and globally connected ways. Large environmental organizations need to embrace and reconnect with social movements and activists in groups struggling for a different world order, and those whose work contributes to sustainability even if they don't emphasise the word ‘environment’ in framing it. The movement must find and seek to link together those people who are seeking and finding practical solutions to problems, people building sustainable livelihoods, landscapes and food systems, or living with more happiness and lower material flows.
One way of understanding the possibilities of a new architecture of the environmental movement is as a Global Action Network (GAN).140 GANs address global issues at a scale that traditional approaches by governments working through international agreements and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank fail to solve.141 GANs consist of diverse stakeholders working together on a common issue by creating consensual knowledge and action among diverse stakeholders (see for example Box 10.1).
The concept of GANs derives from Oran Young's notion of ‘regimes’,142 but unlike inter-governmental organizations, GANs often deliberately exclude government organizations. Unlike the ‘global public policy networks’ described by Wolfgang Reinicke,143 GANs focus on creating change, with public policy being one of the products, rather than being networks that are themselves agents of public policy.144
Strategies adopted by GANs tend to be global and multi-level in scale (across and beyond the local, national, regional and international levels of governance). Their work involves interdisciplinary action-learning and reflective action (to produce synergies between knowledge development and practice). They build multi-stakeholder and cross sectoral, inter-organizational networks (linking international agencies, governments, businesses, civil society organizations and other actors while still using hierarchies or markets as appropriate). GANs aim to generate systemic change through a range of non-violent, boundary-crossing and diversity-embracing activities (agenda setting, knowledge generation, capacity building, resource mobilization, conflict resolution, education, certification, etc.). The GAN movement recognises the public good in areas of global sustainability and security (while ensuring the empowerment of marginalized groups and harnessing the energy of potentially divergent private interests).
‘sustainability is about a cultural change’
The environmental movement has developed from a marginal concern into a multi-billion dollar institutional complex in just fifty years. This has enabled extraordinary achievements in understanding and policy. But these are not going to be enough to achieve the transition to sustainability. We need methods to relate that strength to a new generation of change by enabling our powerful environmental organizations to get in touch with the groundswell of change that is happening at the grassroots.
At the heart of this alliance will be a recognition that the shift to sustainability is about a cultural change, one that both looks forwards and backwards around the industrial age and the materialism and homogenization of the Great Acceleration of the late twentieth century for values and inspiration.
We must acquire much greater capacity to celebrate cultural difference, protect different cultures (particularly indigenous cultures), and welcome the creation of difference, for example in urban areas and among young people.
There is huge potential in the amazing human capacity to see these things differently. New elements within the environmental movement will bring new creativity and energy, and new practical ideas. Environmental organizations must connect with musicians, sculptors, painters, digital artists and poets, and through them connect with more and more people. Human culture must be joyously embraced for its role in celebrating and engaging with nature. This means taking on everything from indigenous knowledge to new explorations in technology and entrepreneurship that are inspired by biological systems.
The environmental movement must engage more effectively across educational campuses: not just through conventional curricula, but across the universe of knowledge. We must break down the barriers between disciplines, the tawdry trade in academic prestige and the sterile politics of establishment thinkers and their routine-bound ideas. We must embrace informal as well as formal learning, oral as well as written knowledge, poetry as well as mathematics, natural history as well as economics, ethics as well as engineering.
The movement must develop its capacity to drive consumers to consume differently and to consume less. This is not an agenda that business can lead, although it can respond to new consumer demands with new products, or indeed lead demand by innovation (for example in the revolutionary impact of mobile phones in Africa and South Asia). The transition to sustainability has to come up from below: through the decisions of consumers and the demands of citizens. There is no blueprint for sustainable living. The necessary transition demands experimentation, and the most fertile source of new innovations lies in practical citizens' initiatives. There we can look for new sets of values, and new and old reasons for being on the planet to make the shift back from consumption to stewardship. This kind of engagement will enable the environmental movement to stimulate the green economy (sustainable production and consumption) more effectively.
‘the environmental movement must also improve its capacity to develop a coherent political strategy for change’
The environmental movement must also dramatically improve its capacity to develop a coherent political strategy for change: to help citizens engage effectively with local governments and municipalities, with politicians (through the ballot box and other peaceful expressions of public will), and to influence changes at an international level. Crucial here will be the cross-scale capacities: linking the global with the local and vice versa.
Strategies and technologies for effective communication from grassroots to grassroots will be essential. Strategies must be developed to get consensus and build trust. A widely diverse network of organizations is the best defence against authoritarianism, but to be effective, it needs to be connected and intelligent. An increasing number of initiatives provide this connectivity (Box 10.2). Thus the founders of the organization WiserEarth saw the potential to connect perhaps a million organizations and over 100 million people working actively towards ecological sustainability, economic justice, human rights, and political accountability.145
Lack of a collective awareness, duplication of effort, and poor connectivity limited the impact of their work: the solution was to create a map and directory of this network, and provide resources for communication and cooperation: in essence, an infrastructure through which to coordinate their efforts (Box 10.2).
The availability of technologies of long-distance communication is vitally important, including bottom-of-pyramid technologies such as mobile phones and cheap computers.146 Much is promised from Web 2.0, but bandwidths and speeds remain a problem: as the developing world slowly starts to connect to the web, rich countries connected by information super-highways race away to new levels of data exchange. How many international environmental organizations design their websites to download speeds attainable in a developing world village? We need to open up our communications widely and break out of the science-government-business circuit of expert debate about sustainability.
One criticism of loose networks is that they are not good at driving forwards decisive action in a coherent way. A shift to a broader, more plural and bottom-up form of global environmentalism might therefore seem to risk losing the strategic gains of past more corporate action, whether at the level of individual powerful conservation organizations, or high-level formal relations with businesses or governments. There is a key task here for established organizations (such as IUCN) to convene and gather grassroots groups together, and help convey what they mean to powerful institutions (and perhaps especially corporations). Networks may be slightly chaotic, but they can also be enduring and fertile.
‘effective communication from grassroots to grassroots will be essential’
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