All the lights are green

  • 30/04/1994

Over the past 30 years, the environmental movement in the West has grown dramatically and moved from strength to strength. But little has been written about how this movement has been organised.

The early heady days were full of writers like Rachel Carson, Barbara Ward and Barry Commoner, and of activists like Brice Lalonde. Over the years, thousands of individuals, volunteers and local groups have become a part of this poweful movement.

But the centrestage today is occupied by a select group of mass membership-based organisation which bring issues and campaigns to the fore. The most well-known of these are Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE), the Sierra Club, the Environment Defence Fund (EDF) and others. But equally effective and powerful are national NGOs like Germany's BUND, the Danish Society for the Conservation of Nature (DSCN) and the Swedish Society for the Conservation of Nature (SSCN).

These organisations deserve careful study as a way of organising civil society to bring about social change -- as indeed they have done in so many ways. Being based on mass membership, they acquire a grassroots base in their respective societies and financial independence, apart from a sizable financial base which is remarkable in its loyalty. Some US NGOs now have an annual budget of $100 million a year.

Some national environmental NGOs in Europe claim 1 to 2 per cent of their country's adult population as their members. The DSCN, for instance, has 25 per cent of the nation's households as its members -- more than the combined membership of all its political parties put together.

This broad base within society allows these organisations to make full use of their democratic rights to fight for change at all levels -- from the national to the grassroots. They use every possible tool -- from research, analysis, media attention, and countless battles, to a while variety of lobbying and protest techniques.

The Economist reports that no politician can now afford to ignore the burgeoning environmental lobby, and calls it "the 500 pound gorilla". Cambridge Reports, a firm of opinion pollsters based in Massachussetts, USA, claims that 14 per cent of the US population now plays an active part in green organisations. In 1990, the USA's largest group, the National Wildlife Federation, had 6 million members and money to match.

Because of this enormous strength, these organisations have acquired in the process of framing pulbic opinion, they are not just influencing the political system but also the economic system. By pushing for for changes in consumer behaviour, they are able to get company managers worried about their balance sheets and start seeking product changes.

Greenpeace in Germany is, in fact, even adopting a new strategy of pushing products it likes -- instead of just opposing those it does not, as it used to in the past. An ozone-friendly Greenfrig, based on hydrocarbons, is already available in the German market because of Greenpeace's efforts. The organisation is also planning to push for a green car.

In contrast, developing countries have few NGOs or social organisations with the same breadth and capture of the social space. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat is an outstanding exception in India. If the civil society is to be organised into a powerful watchdog and determinant of social change, such organisations need to be carefully understood and emulated.

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