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Celebrating the Global Power of Environmental Activism on World Environment Day

World Environment Day 2013Environmental activism is an increasingly global phenomenon that is changing the way people relate to the planet. It is fitting that as we acknowledge World Environment Day (WED) on Wednesday June 5th, we celebrate the global power of environmental activism. This year marks the United Nations 41st WED, an annual event that aspires to be the world’s most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action.

While we often think of environmental activism from a national perspective, the issues they address are commonly international in scope. Environmental problems like climate change causing greenhouse gases (GHGs) do not respect national boundaries.

To celebrate WED, we will take a look at environmental activism in Turkey, China and the U.S. In Turkey, we have recently seen how what started out as environmental advocacy has blossomed into calls for pervasive change. In China, a country rife with serious ecological problems, people are increasingly engaged in citizen activism. In the US, a number of groups are working to change the perilous trajectory of America’s long history of environmental abuse.

Turkey

In Turkey, a recent police crackdown against a peaceful environmental protest sparked the biggest anti-government demonstrations that country has seen in years. The mass protests began with a demonstration to halt construction of a shopping center in a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The May 31st protest in Istanbul has now spread to dozens of Turkish cities and involves a broad spectrum of supporters including students, professionals, trade unionists and Kurdish activists.

Protests which started around environmental concerns have now garnered the support of those with a number of diverse grievances. Even though Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan does not appear ready to make concessions, we have seen how the popular uprising known as the Arab Spring has augured change throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Even if the Turkish government succeeds in quelling the protests, the unrest has unstoppable economic implications. In response to the protests, Turkish financial markets have fallen more than six percent and the lira fell to 16-month lows.

“Whatever happens, there is no going back.” read one of the messages scrawled on banners brandished by the protestors. These demonstrations are more than impassioned protest, this is the voice of a people who are increasingly vocal about the need for change.

This is about far more than resistance to a few urban development projects, this is about the power of popular movements that advocate for environmental reform and social justice. The movement speaks to the power of environmental protest to spark activism on a national scale.

Turkish environmental groups include:

  • WWF Turkey
  • TÜRÇEK
  • Do?a Derne?i
  • Environmental Foundation of Turkey (EFT)
  • ÇEKÜL
  • The Turkish branch of Greenpeace
  • The Turkish Foundation for Reforestation

On WED, Turkish environmental activists are advocating for policies that will protect nature and biological diversity, as well as combat climate change, water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and flooding. Turkish activists have considerable work ahead of them as the nation’s green house gas emissions have increased 124 percent since 1990.

China

The Chinese are increasingly aware of environmental issues and support for action has been steadily growing. China’s fledgling green movement is responding to a host of serious concerns from the abysmal air quality in Beijing to the 750 dead pigs pulled from the Huangpu River in Shanghai in March. There is heartening evidence of a growing environmental consciousness in cities throughout China. People are becoming concerned about air and water borne pollution particularly as it impacts their health. Led by young activists, groups like university environmental clubs are campaigning to raise awareness and combat pollution.

All across China, people are engaging in environmental protests in record numbers. The young are being joined by other members of Chinese society to improve their environment. One recent example involves protests against the dense smog pollution in Beijing where urban middle-class citizen activists took to the streets in protest.

Environmental Groups in China Include

  • The China Youth Climate Action Network
  • Clean Development Mechanism Club
  • IPE
  • China Dialogue
  • Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims
  • China Carbon Forum
  • China Low Carbon Forum
  • Friends of Nature (China)
  • Global Environmental Institute
  • GMS Environment Operations Center
  • Green Camel Bell
  • Greenpeace East Asia

There have been recent environmental protests in the cities of Kunming, Qidong, Shifang Ningbo, Dalian, and Guangzhou (a protest in Chengdu was quashed by security forces before it could get underway). For years, Beijing-based Friends of Nature and Greenpeace China have been protesting a “cancer village” called Xinlong.

Efforts like those in Xinlong have resulted in some progress. This includes forcing the Ministry of the Environment to crack down on illegal dumping, stopping the building of a toxic waste pipeline and closing a heavy metal processing plant.

Chinese activists are also using other mechanisms in addition to protests to make their voices heard. Chinese media and publishing companies appear to be changing along with the wider society. There has been increased press coverage of Chinese environmental issues and a number of related books. They have even begun using the courts to try to force companies to clean up toxic sites and grant compensation to victims of environmentally irresponsible corporations.

Economic growth has impacted the environment both negatively and positively. Economic growth has increased pollution levels but it has also created an increasingly affluent middle class concerned about ecology. The radically improved standard of living enjoyed by millions of Chinese is even beginning to create interest in a low impact economy. For example, in major centers like Beijing, a growing health-conscious urban middle class have created an emerging market for organic foods.

Environmental activism and the media are not the only mediums fostering change in China. Social media is a powerful new technology that is spearheading the exchange of environmental information.

As explained by Ralph Litzinger:

“There is no doubt we are seeing a new form of environmental and health consciousness in China’s urban centers, especially in the eastern seaboard cities…we saw an incredible amount of knowledge being shared via social networking sites about chemical plants, long-term health effects, toxic runoff, and the shady deals city leaders have made with the companies hoping to build and expand these plants. This knowledge gets shared really fast, and protests can be mobilized in what often seems like an instant.”

China is now a global power that is actively involved in resource extraction in nations around the world and in particular Africa. It is fitting that to celebrate WED, Chinese environmentalist and artist Mr. Dong XIyuan, presented classic Chinese art works on the theme of “Man and Nature” and “Art and China”, as well as his exhibition known as the Africa-China collection, which is on display at the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Chinese people are demanding change and this growing voice will play an ever expanding role.
As stated by Li Bo, the former director of Friends of Nature, one of China’s oldest environmental NGOs, “These demonstrations are evidence of the public anger and frustration at opaque environmental management and decision-making.”

Pervasive levels of pollution and environmental abuse are being challenged by thousands of passionate activists. While these protests may not seem like a big deal by Western standards, for China, they are truly revolutionary. Grassroots activism is driving change in China and the nation’s great “opening and reform” is being enjoined by a confluence of environmental concerns.

As Litzinger said, “The burgeoning environmental movement has organizations all across China…this emerging network… [will] ultimately make a difference in the struggle for environmental justice in China.”

United States

The U.S. environmental movement is represented by a wide range of NGOs of varying sizes. Some operate on the local level while others operate nationally and internationally. Some of the largest and most influential environmental organizations in the U.S. are:

  • Environmental Defense Fund,
  • National Audubon Society
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
  • Friends of the Earth
  • Sierra Club
  • World Wide Fund for Nature
  • 350.org
  • Greenpeace USA

These organizations and many others have championed a host of different causes including fisheries, wildlife, forests, wilderness and biodiversity. More recently they have focused on ozone depletion, acid rain, air pollution and water pollution. The overarching issue garnering the most activity is climate change, specifically efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Part of this effort supports the broad spectrum of environmental actions known as sustainability.

U.S. conservationists have enjoyed many successes including saving some of America’s precious wild areas. This includes Storm King Mountain (New York), San Francisco Bay, (California), Pelican Island, (Florida), Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (Texas), Dinosaur National Monument (Utah and Colorado), Horicon Marsh (Wisconsin) C&O Canal (Maryland).

Thanks in large measure to the dedicated work of environmental activists in the U.S., we have seen considerable progress on a number of fronts including asbestos, acid rain, DDT, open air nuclear tests, endangered species, habitat preservation, toxic waste, waste recycling, leaded gasoline, ozone, water pollution, air pollution, mercury emissions, short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) and soot.

Today, American environmentalists are more united than ever. The leaders of U.S. environmental organizations share a common sense of urgency. Currently they are primarily focused on domestic regulations to control climate change causing GHG emissions and resisting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Diverse environmental groups support regulations on coal, mercury and ozone, plus existing and new rules for carbon emissions. They are also united in their opposition to the Keystone XL.

While the final decision on the Keystone XL has yet to be made, several years of mass protests have stalled the pipeline. Environmental activists appreciate the importance of resisting the Keystone XL because the 1,700 mile carbon heavy oil sands represent a volume of greenhouse gases that could push the planet over a climate tipping point.

There have been a number of protests across the country including one last February that organizers described as “the largest climate rally in U.S. history.” This level of activism gives us reason to believe that the environmental movement is coming of age in the U.S.

On Sunday February 17th 2013, at least 35,000 people came together to put a stop to the Keystone XL and demand action on climate change.  As Greenpeace director Philip Radford wrote about those gathered at the Climate Forward Rally, “a new, diverse coalition of Americans,” are coming together to demand climate justice.

Although climate legislation was unsuccessful in President Obama’s first four years, growing activism is putting pressure on government to act in the President’s second term. Environmental activists are helping to sway public opinion and the Climate Forward Rally may be the first step towards unprecedented climate action in the U.S.

The world looks to America for leadership. Sadly, WED tends to be a low profile day compared to some other environmental events in the U.S. This is unfortunate because the day is meant to be global in scope. It is important for Americans to understand the truly global scale of environmental threats and climate change in particular.  This day should encourage Americans to support fledgling green movements in other parts of the world as they are an integral part of efforts to address global environmental problems.

A great illustration of successful global activism is Greenpeace’s “Detox Fashion” initiative. This campaign has succeeded in harnessing the power of popular activism to change the business practices of numerous organizations. Greenpeace’s consumer powered pressure campaigns have changed the manufacturing processes of a dozen clothing giants. As reviewed by Greenpeace campaigner John Deans, turning consumers into activists is a key component of their strategy.

Environmental abuse has international repercussions and as such, is subject to global forces. A good illustration of this point is the Arab Spring which is a contagious popular movement that has led to progress on many environmental fronts.

According to an analysis of environmental protests in Turkey, globalisation, through economic liberalisation and media globalisation has affected Turkish activism.

“Turkish environmental groups are globally informed organisations – through the changes in information technology, world order and the challenge to national sovereignty (Williams 2003) – and are themselves part of, what Hannerz (1996) calls, ‘global interconnectedness’. In other words, they are part of “social economic and demographic processes that not only take place within nations but also transcend them in a way that attention limited to local processes, identities and units of analysis yields incomplete understanding of the local” (Kearney 1995: 547). Besides, environmentalism in developing countries has been influenced – or dominated (Argyrou 2005) – by ideas derived from developed nations through global civil society and the world media (Ignatow 2008). These points suggest that an examination of Turkish environmental groups should not treat them as specifically Turkish groups. As Ahmet Öncü and Gürcan Koçan (2001) write, globalisation is characterised by the possibilities of the market in a worldwide level and thus, the political and cultural social process of globalisation must be seen in relation to the logic these possibilities reinforce. This means that supra-national economic powers dominate in the arena of social rights which in turn results in pressure from citizens whose rights are being overlooked. These citizens organise themselves in groups with a transnational character since the forces they oppose to are also transnational. In the Turkish context, the example of the various environmental groups confirms this tactic (?im?ek 2004).”

WED is an opportunity to reflect on the globalized nature of environmental activism. This is a day for people from all walks of life to come together to help build a cleaner and greener future.  As explained by the United Nations, WED is intended to “enable everyone to realize not only their responsibility, but also their power to become agents for change in support of sustainable and equitable development.”

Ecological advocacy anywhere is an important part of environmentalism everywhere.  People are awakening to the reality that together, they have the power to change the world. Emerging “transnational” activism gives us reason to hope that we may be able to bring about the global changes we so desperately need.
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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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