Politics as Usual?

Environmentalism From Below Workshop Participants.

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I recently had the privilege of attending the Environmentalism from Below workshop, organized by Jonathan Clapperton, Liza Piper, the Rachel Carson Center, and NiCHE at the University of Alberta (August 2014). Our wide-ranging discussion focused on local environmentalism and efficacy of activism in the late twentieth century. With this post, I will focus on our discussion of environmental politics.

Following the urging of John Welch, Anna Willow, and Zoltan Grossman, I will begin by situating myself in relation to the subject. I am an environmentalist. However, my activism only extends to donating to the Green Party, arguing for Pigovian taxes at every opportunity, and attempting to become pescetarian. I am also heavily biased towards modern science, I believe in representative democracy, and I see the state as an important and often beneficial actor. My biases are founded on more than being seduced by Star Trek at a young age. I have had multiple heart surgeries and would not have lived past the age of two without them. Nor could my family avoided bankruptcy without the structures provided by the Canadian state. For me the extremely personal benefits of both far outweigh the very real advantages of pre-modern societies.

As a result of my arguably misguided faith in the state and my emphasis on the benefits of the state and technology, my paper fit awkwardly at a workshop dedicated primarily to local activism. Nonetheless, a surprising degree of overlap existed. We understood environmentalism as a primarily political activity. We recognized the importance of coalition building and the important support appeals to science afforded local environmentalists, such as the Society for Pollution and Environmental Control (SPEC) in 1970s British Columbia. Where views diverged was on how its goals have been successfully pursued and if the state can play an important role in environmental success, and what can further environmental action in the future.

EFB I (2)
Environmentalism From Below Workshop Participants.

My paper placed environmentalism within existing Canadian political structures. It argued Canadian environmentalists fundamentally benefited from government financial and intellectual support in 1970s. The Alex Campbell government of Prince Edward Island, for instance, was actually the leading environmental actor in the province and it pioneered green architecture and sustainable development in Canada.[1] Further, this support was generated within the existing context of the federal government efforts to encourage industrial development in Atlantic Canada. In effect, the Campbell government used the dominant discourse surrounding development to present green technology and renewable energy as a potential engine of growth on the island. Economic profit and environmental protection went hand in hand according to the Campbell government. This was not particularly novel. As Mark McLaughlin’s paper on the Conservation Council of New Brunswick demonstrated, government support for environmental initiatives hugely benefited local environmental groups by providing the funds and intellectual support necessary for groups like the Conservation Council to start or expand.

In contrast, many papers approached environmentalism through the lens of movement politics. In this analysis environmentalism existed primarily outside of the structures of Canadian and American electoral politics. To paraphrase Mark Leeming’s telling criticism of the Nova Scotia government, the only interest most provincial governments had in environmentalists was in buying them off and shutting them up to free the government to focus on the serious business of encouraging industrialization and resource exploitation. In this analysis working with the government led to, at best, limited success as the government made cosmetic concessions to environmentalists without substantially changing its policy or ideology. In a similar vein, Jon Claperton and Zoltan Grossman argued environmentalism could succeed by eschewing federal and provincial or state politics in favour of direct action protest or local small-scale political organizing. Importantly these actions enjoyed the greatest success when they united diverse local groups, sports fishermen and First Nations groups in American Midwest, for instance, in defence of the jointly used local environment against mining or petroleum companies. In British Columbia, SPEC enjoyed some notable successes in its efforts to mitigate pollution in the Fraser River due to its ability to work with local communities, including business owners, to address environmental degradation that affected them all.

Log for the Future
The War in the Woods. Note the attack on clearcuts and call for sustainable logging.

Our keynote speaker, Emery Hartley, highlighted this reciprocal relationship between local connections and the successful direct action persuasively in his discussion of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound. The Friends, he argued, succeeded for a verity of reasons. They engaged in peaceful direct action, international media campaigns, and legal challenges all of which helped their cause. Above all, however, they created relationships with the local community of Tofino, where most of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound still live, work, and play. This gave them the authority to speak for most, but not all of the local community. This enduring local presence has also allowed the Friends to protect the Sound against occasional efforts to restart logging in the area. Just as importantly, protecting Clayoquot Sound has had substantial benefits for the area. Partially due to the preservation of the local ecosystem, Tofino became a world-renowned tourist destination and most residents now work in the industry. Thinking about this success and the political techniques involved, it occurred to me that my colleagues and I may be talking at cross purposes when it comes to politics and overshadowing a more fundamental agreement.

My story of sustainable development on PEI highlighted the influence of regional politics and the advantages of the working with provincial governments. However, efforts to make PEI a hub of green technology largely fell apart after Campbell left office because the technology disappointed and the government’s top-down efforts failed to generate local support. The successes of local groups Zoltan, Claperton and Hartley described were often much longer lasting. By building a constituency and becoming a force in local and regional politics these groups engaged in what many scholars have argued is the most fundamental and important aspect of politics, namely constructing civil society and thus bringing the actual people and their views into politics. Having established themselves as local stakeholders, the question is what to do next. This question lurked in the background throughout the workshop as we scholars attempted to come up with useful advice for environmental activists.

I think we can all agree that constructing and mobilizing civil society is a good strategy. Because of the focus on local issues the approach has worked largely outside of provincial/state and federal governments. But this does not mean the state is useless or government is the problem. It can be, but any sort of categorical dismissal of efficacy of the state strikes me as too close to something Friedrich Hayek and Milton Freidman would say. In my view this is where the state, which, although flawed, is still very powerful. By using the structure of local, municipal, state/provincial governments effectively small political groups can have a huge effect on society and politics at the national level.

Tea Party
Tea Party Protests Against Carbon Taxes.

The Tea Party, oddly enough, provides an excellent model for environmentalists. Beyond the important but distracting bluster of Fox News and support from the Koch Brothers, the Tea Party has influence because it shows up for politics at the local level. Mobilizing through the chat rooms, church basements, and community picnics familiar to all grassroots action, the Tea Party and its ideas have grown from the base to reshape American and Canadian politics and, among other things, defeat carbon taxes. Although it decries the government in almost any form, the Tea Party’s power springs from its ability to manipulate the structures of representative government to its advantage. By braving the largely ignored and deathly boring battles of local and state legislative politics as well as taking part in public demonstrations this relatively small movement has put the issues it cares about on center stage. In short, it is civil society in action.[2]

As the greatest bumper sticker of all time put it, the world is run by those who show up. In Clayoquot people showed up and continued to do for the next 30 years. If this simple, albeit difficult, feat were repeated in municipal and state/provincial elections, the successes of local organizing and the changes in civil society wrought by small-scale environmentalist groups could have a wider influence. As the success of such divergent groups as Friends of Clayoquot Sound and the Tea Party suggests, a new form of politics is not necessary. The age-old practices of building alliances, manipulating the media, playing the system, and maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of your constituents can challenge even the most determined adversaries. Although corrupted by money and corporate interest, showing up still works in our semi-democracy.


[1] For a discussion of environmentalism on PEI in the 1970s and 1980s see Alan MacEachern, The Institute of Man and Resources: An Environmental Fable (Charlottetown: Island Studies Press, 2003).

[2] My analysis of the Tea Party is based primarily on the work of Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).


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Henry Trim

Hank Trim is an economist with the Circular Bioeconomy and Supply Chain Economics team in the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada. He welcomes questions from readers at henry.trim@canada.ca.

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