Environmental Politics: Agitate Or Cooperate?

Environmentalists are constantly presented with “opportunities to participate” in processes relevant to their issue, from consultations
about park usage to wording of legislation, product endorsement, participation in debates etc. Whether one should participate or not is a constant discussion within the movement, with opinions running the full spectrum from ‘at every opportunity’ to ‘never.’

One of the odder aspects of the progressive movement is the ambivalent relationship we have with the notion of cooperation. In general the more radical a group perceives itself to be, the higher value it places on the values of cooperation, collaboration, and equitable power distribution. I believe it is also fair to say that as one moves along that spectrum, the more resistent they are to cooperating with the main stream institutions which we are trying to influence. As is often the case when there is a diversity of opinion it is because all of the parties have valid points.

On the one hand progressives do advocate for cooperation and collaboration, and there are definitely questions of hypocrisy and being disingenuous when we balk at cooperating with those we oppose. I realize that this contradiction is usually dismissed by the simple artifice of regarding our goals and aspirations as not applying to those in power, but that is sophistry. If we are going to talk about creating cooperative, equitable societies, then that has to apply to everyone and we have to behave accordingly.

It is equally true that the risk of being coopted and/or manipulated is very real and to think otherwise is naive. If we look at the “Ladder of Citizen Participation” we see that most of the ‘stages’ are actually various forms of cooptation and marginalization.

The issue is complicated by a couple of apparent paradoxes. It is one of the properties of institutional power that it is fairly unidirectional. Institutions can wield enormous power to maintain and promote the status quo, but not to change it. Thus a US President may with relative ease destroy a country and kill millions of its citizens, but have the Devil’s own time implementing Health Care Reform. I use the analogy of a ratchet wrench; capable of enormous force in one direction while spinning uselessly in the other.

Further, what we regard as “powerful” institutions are invariably constrained by specific laws that limit what they actually can do (officially and/or legally at least). For example, a corporation is required to maximize the profit to the shareholders, government departments have their mandates and objectives, and so on. Too often this does not constrain them from doing something clandestine to maintain the status quo, but it does prevent them from doing anything outside of their writ as part of collaborating with citizen groups.

Thus there is usually not only great inequity in power, but also in flexibility. Citizens groups also have their mandates and purposes, but changing them is generally a great deal easier and more straightforward than for a large institution. Regardless of any other considerations the typical institution is not merely much more powerful, it is also more inflexible.

The concern is that by engaging with “them” we confer legitimacy on their activities by an implied or real endorsement. Even if the particular action that we are seeking to further through cooperation is not at risk, there is always the problem of granting a broader legitimacy by granting some limited endorsement. How are we to respond to a company that sells energy efficient appliances while engaging in unfair labour practices.

Of course it is not merely large institutions and corporations that are potential candidates for cooperation. There are smaller organizations, other citizens groups, or even individuals. Further, “cooperation” can include participation in forums, debates, or publications. These carry the same risks, possibly more so as they are often merely stages where professionals use various techniques to hard sell their message with the veneer of fairness and balance.

All told the risks are considerable, and about the only card that progressives hold is that we have something “they” want. On the face of it there would seem adequate reasons to stay clear of the entire process. Be that as it may, there are other considerations that are relevant. The first is that we stand to gain at least some of our objectives by cooperating. The second is that refusing to cooperate not only means we fail to influence the process, the refusal itself can be used as evidence that we are intransigent and hence people who cannot be dealt with.

A third consideration is that we are not going to get institutions to change behaviour if we do not affirm and suppport such changes as they do make. If they get the same response from us no matter what they do or don’t do, very soon they will do nothing.

Remember also that while the institutions can be difficult, the individuals within them are not necessarily supportive of the organizations goals. Some of our most valuable allies live within the proverbial belly of the beast. For every one one of those there are many who are at least somewhat sympathetic to progressive values and goals.

Some of the risks can minimized by clarity of objectives and purpose. Even more by proper preparation and analysis of the potential risks and likely traps. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the whole point of the exercise is to have a dialogue, not necessarily to cooperate. Dialogue is a political act in and of itself, that there be an ongoing dialogue in good faith is the whole point.

Of course with all of the advantages that the opponents typically have it is often difficult to have a real dialogue. That is why it is usually a good idea not to cooperate with them, but rather to invite them to cooperate with you. Don’t let them frame the terms of the cooperation, take the initiative and make the invitation to an open, public dialogue first. How that dialogue is framed and the context needs to be considered carefully and creatively to make it work for the group, but it is well worth doing.

I witnessed one brilliant public forum where the city had framed a proposal to put a shopping complex in a public park as an opportunity to “share” the park. The whole “sharing” meme is a common one in environmental issues, as if humans did not already consume the bulk of the Earth’s land area and resources.

In this case the citizen’s group invited the city to participate in a forum where the citizens laid out the number and size of both parks and shopping malls within the community catchment area. Not surprisingly there were many more shopping malls. The group then invited the city to “share” the land base by removing at least seven existing malls and replacing them with parks. This put the city’s “share” proposal into perspective and poisoned the meme. The city’s proposal died soon after.

Last fall George Monbiot made an interesting attempt to re frame a climate change debate with Denier Ian Plimer. What Monbiot proposed was fair and equitable, but would have hamstrung the typical Denier tactics.

One of my favourite sayings is to the effect that when you can’t decide, do both at once; agitate and cooperate! When we invite them to cooperate and frame the issue properly it often works to create a real dialogue, so why do we do it so rarely? Why does it hardly ever even occur to us that we can be the ones setting the terms and extending the invitation? What does it say about our sense of empowerment that this is unusual?

Photo Credits:

Dialogue Between Two Trees by Denis Collette…!!!

Vision Dialogue workshop by empathi

Dialog Retreat by veni markovski

Dialogue Room by Scrum Alliance


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