Last week the Conservation Council of Ontario (“CCO”) celebrated its 60th anniversary. I was the President of CCO in the mid-1980s and was proud of its record as an environmental organization. From the 1950s to 1970s there wasn’t an Ontario Ministry of the Environment. The CCO fulfilled this function. It was the most powerful environmental group in Canada’s most populous province. In the 1970s demonstrations, direct action, political lobbying, and new class room curriculum brought the environment into the living rooms of every community. The Environmental Assessment Act, Environmental Protection Act and much of the other early environmental legislation can be traced to the CCO’s action on many of these fronts.
As the CCO aged, the heady days filled with excitement, and a strong sense of mission aged as well. The World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defence Council, Green Peace and others grabbed the spotlight and high-jacked the environmental agenda. Environmental advocacy happened in corporate board rooms or Legislative Committee rooms.
It’s only now, post-Occupy, post-Durban and post-Kyoto, can we begin to see why the tactics of ‘big green’ have failed.
Look no further than Leslie Kaufman’s New York Times article this week, “Environmentalists Get Down to Earth” (New York Times, 17 December, 2011). Leslie hits the environmental movement hard: “The earth is warming, perhaps catastrophically, yet legislative efforts to cap carbon emissions collapsed in 2010…. [and] Nobody wants to listen.”
We can point to many causes. But according to Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, reinvigoration of the environmental movement requires a generational transition and a sanguine grass roots approach. (350 is the number that leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide—measured in “parts per million”.)
Kaufman observes that the ‘big green’ environmental organizations have declining and greying memberships. In my view they have done a miserable job at communicating their cause. Rejuvenation requires focusing on local immediate concerns; social media and street protests; and, an emphasis on elections, according to consultants working with these groups.
To me, Kent State in the 1970s was a turning point. The message: you can only take radical action so far without getting push back. Young environmentalists today are getting their first bloody noses. And, they are starting to see that a more radicalized approach, long abandoned by ‘big green’ is going to make change. In turn, ‘big green’, as urged by McKibben needs to become local, learn how to communicate how ‘environment’ is important to home and family, and become relevant as promoters of positive social change.
David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL). He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in all of these areas. Dave has participated in over 75 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in numerous sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.