Green Backlash:Global subversion of the environmental movement

A Century of SpinPrice: £23.50  Now Only: £17.65
You Save: £5.85
Andrew Rowell Paperback 504 pages (August 1, 1996)
Publisher: Routledge
ISBN: 0415128285

Full Sized Image


This text presents a controversial expose of the rise of the anti-environmental movement in the USA and its rapid spread worldwide. Rowell reveals how extreme violence, threats and international scapegoating and polarization seek to intimidate activists into inactivity and silence over oil company operations in Nigeria, the UK anti-roads movement, Canadian and Australian forestry and European marine resource disputes, Brent Spar and other recent controversies.

The tide is turning against environmentalism as the political Right, industry and governments fight back. The backlash is set to get worse as resource wars intensify. But by offering a greater understanding of the challenges and threats facing global environmentalism, this book presents the environmental movement with a chance to reevaluate and change to beat the backlash before it is too late.

Reviewed By John Elkington, Chairman of SustainAbility Ltd

THIS BOOK MADE me angry. Not, as you might assume, with the author, but with the process - and many of the people - he describes. Andrew Rowell places the spotlight on the growing tide of anti- environmentalism whose many ugly moments have included the murder in 1988 of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes and what John Major called the "judicial murder" of Nigeria's Ken Saro-Wiwa (to whom this book is dedicated).

The book's prologue summarizes the challenge, "'The tide is turning against the environmental movement worldwide. Environmental activists are increasingly being scapegoated by the triple engines of the political Right, corporations and the state. The backlash has one simple aim: to nullify environmentalists and environmentalism." Paranoia, you might assume, but Rowell's thoughtful, well- researched book provides enough evidence to convince most reasonable people.

Rowell was originally asked to research anti-environmentalism by Greenpeace. He accepts that some will dismiss the book as Green propaganda, or as "a cynical fund-raising effort", but stresses that Greenpeace had no editorial control.

Some of the nastiest examples of the backlash come not from the rainforests of Brazil but from the shire counties of Britain. Having had one of my daughters involved in what has become known as "the third Battle of Newbury", where protesters tried to stall plans to build a new bypass through three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, twelve sites of archaeological interest and part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I took a particular interest in the violence against demonstrators.

Listen to John Vidal of The Guardian, who worked under cover for a couple of days for Reliance Security. He was told by disaffected private security guards that violence was encouraged by some of those trying to dislodge the protesters. One instruction to the security men, "Don't forget to say good morning as you break their fingers", will long stick in my mind. The calculus: the greater the permissible violence, the fewer security people needed and the smaller the ultimate bill.

Throughout history, each social movement - and in particular successful social movements - has generated its own backlash. Indeed, the very existence of a backlash can be seen as a positive signal. "I think one has to know that if you are being effective, there will be a backlash," as Vandana Shiva puts it. "The fact that a backlash is occurring is a tribute to the environmental movement, because it shows that the environmental movement is making a difference. If someone does not make a difference, there is no backlash."

I know well what it is like to trigger a backlash. When Julia Hailes and I published our best-selling Green Consumer Guide in 1988, we were promptly targeted by McDonald's and the pesticides, paints and PVC industries, among others. In 1996, a column I wrote on PVC for Tomorrow magazine triggered an attempt at blackmail. What Green Backlash does better than any other book I have yet come across is to catalogue the full spectrum of anti-environmentalism across the decades.

THE FIRST SIGNS of trouble, Rowell argues, date back at least a quarter of a century to 1971. A speech given that year to the US Chamber of Commerce by corporate lawyer Lewis Powell, later to become a Supreme Court Justice, noted that the best way to deal with environmentalism was to learn from and mirror the opposition. Set up your own independent legal firms, he advised industry, that are pro- business, but - and this was the trick - label them as being in the public interest and call them "public interest law firms" (PILFs). Within two years, the Pacific Law Foundation (PLF) had been set up in California. As Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman put it in their book Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Groups in America, "For nearly twenty years, PLF has come to the defence of chemical manufacturers, oil producers, mining and timber companies, real estate developers, the nuclear power industry, and electric utilities, to name a few."

And Rowell names other names, lots of them. There is Joe Coors, of the Coors family, ultra-Right beer barons, who consistently bankrolled the emergence of the New Right and of anti-environmentalist organizations in America. There is James Watt, whose tenure as Secretary of State for the Interior during the Reagan Administration resulted in over 100 million letters being mailed by environmentalists. And there is Ron Arnold, who is described as one of "the key puppet- masters of the anti-environmental movement in the USA". Arnold was one of the architects of the "Wise Use" movement, a phrase pilfered from a genuine conservationist but used - as Arnold himself put it - in a "marvellously ambiguous" way. "We don't even care what version of Wise Use people believe in," Arnold explained, "as long as it protects private property, free markets and limits governments."

Much of what passes for sustainable development looks very much like business more or less as usual. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, advocates free trade. Shell sees sustainable development as, almost inevitably, needing more energy rather than less. And agri-biotech companies that argue that their genetically engineered crop plants will cut pesticide use seem oblivious to the fact that a future where the global seeds market "is manipulated and owned by a small number of mammoth corporations is hardly a sustainable future for the world's farmers and consumers.

Paul Hawken observes: "There is still a yawning gulf between the kind of 'Green' environmentalism that business wants to promote - one that justifies growth and expansionary use of resources - and the kind that actually deals with the core issues of carrying capacity, draw down, biotic impoverishment, and extinction of species.

Rowell argues that the failure of many parts of the environmental movement to address social and economic issues as well as environmental issues has made it vulnerable to backlash. While focusing on the legislative agenda and litigatory strategies, many mainstream groups lost touch with the grassroots. "Third wave environmentalists", who focused on consensus building and co-operation with business have played into the hands of those who want to divide and rule the environmental movement.

Well, up to a point. Rowell himself calls for a solutions-based approach, which would be stillborn without the active involvement of industry and the financial markets. The book's concluding chapter on beating the backlash calls for three main responses. First, accepting that some anti- environmentalist campaigns have beaten environmentalists at their own game of organizing the grassroots, we need a renewal of the movement's links with the grassroots. Second, we need a broadening of the agenda to embrace social, cultural and development issues - - most particularly on employment -- and alliances with those campaigning on these aspects of the sustainability agenda. And, third, we need a new focus on solutions and a positive vision of the future.

The scale of the challenge facing us all can hardly be exaggerated. In addition to encouraging business to pursue the goal of eco-efficiency, which involves squeezing ever-increasing value out of ever-shrinking amounts of energy and raw material, Rowell notes that we must also "work with others to somehow make multinationals accountable for their ecological, social and cultural impact." He goes on, "We do not want an unregulated anarchic global sweatshop, run by all-powerful companies, in bed with corrupt politicians, who do not care about worker and environmental protection, financed by speculators addicted to the global gamble."

The real questions are how we convert our energies (and our anger) into sustained political, social and economic action - and how the many -different parts of the environmental movement, whose strength has often lain in its diversity, can learn to work together when it really matters.

John Elkington is Chairman of SustainAbility Ltd, and co-author of Who Needs It? Market Implications of Sustainable Life- styles, 1995, and Engaging Stakeholders, ~1996.