Today comes Part III of Ken Ward’s response to “The Death of Environmentalism,” in which Ken argues that environmentalists should resist efforts to make environmental justice the core tenant of the movement and instead refocus on the most successful weapon in their arsenal: protest.

Don’t forget to read Part I, Part II, Part IV, and Part V.

A Response to “Death of Environmentalism”: Part III: Environmental Justice and Protest

by Ken Ward

Environmentalism as a Human Right

Efforts to subsume environmentalism under a progressive banner have been debilitating and our leadership and organizations bear defensive scars from these encounters. The conflict arises in various forms, but the underlying argument is that the environmental problem statement should be defined in anthropocentric terms. When environmentalism is reduced in scope to mean “harm done to humankind,” it can be added to the list of benefits and burdens that are unequally distributed in our society and fit comfortably into the agenda of the left. Environmentalism as a challenge to the entire human enterprise becomes redefined as one more “right” — the right not to be afflicted with pollution on the basis of race or class.

In and of itself, a human-rights plank is a strong contribution to the environ-mental platform and an intelligent bridge with progressivism.[1] A problem is created only when the argument is made that environmental justice is more important than other environmental concerns. By framing environmental issues as mainly about public health, and by defining the injured as primarily the poor and people of color, the broad vision of environmentalism as a new ethos for understanding the world, our own destructiveness, and the search for a new way to live harmoniously is lost. Environmentalism becomes just one more slice of the pie.

The left/liberal challenge to environmentalism has taken several forms. One charge is that environmentalists tend to be preoccupied with eco-threats in wild and pristine places and to overlook the damage caused by industrialism in places like St. James Parish, Louisiana — toxic dumping grounds sited in poor areas and communities of color. Organizationally, green groups were challenged to achieve diversity within largely all-white staffs. Most environmental organizations accepted the criticism, reviewed recruiting and staffing policies, and added environmental justice issues to their program agenda.

Greenpeace USA went the farthest and attempted to rework its entire agenda. Campaigning that had relied on mobility and speed was encumbered with drawn-out processes that gave virtual veto power to local groups. The mix of campaigns that had built the organization’s membership was largely jettisoned to focus on issues with a significant environmental justice components. Greenpeace stopped being newsworthy and lost huge numbers of members as the issues shifted.

There were other factors in the decline, both internal and in the changing climate of the times, but there is no doubt that the Greenpeace tailspin was accelerated by the attempt to rewrite the American green agenda. If any other organization had suffered such a trajectory it would have been painful, but hardly a tragedy for environmental organizing overall. The significant reduction in the power and voice of Greenpeace, however, shifted the entire playing field and reduced the power of all our institutional players.

The Critical Role of Protest

Protest is often assumed to be the last resort of the powerless. Actually, protest requires intricate planning, is resource intensive, calls on specialized skills, and is most often employed by larger organizations with resources. The reduced role of Greenpeace, the originator of environmental protest, which maintained the most sophisticated direct-action capacity, meant a steady reduction in environmental protest from the early 90s to today. Efforts to reverse the trend through outfits like the Ruckus Society have not averted an overall decline, and have had the unintended result of de-linking protest from a national environmental agenda. The net effect has been a diminution in power for all environmental organizations.

That there is a relationship between protest and power has been long observed[2] and is supported by world events like the mass protests in the Ukraine and Lebanon that won bloodless regime changes just this year,[3] — but there has been little direct evidence.

A recent, comprehensive study conducted by Jon Agnone at the University of Washington directly establishes that link.[4] Agnone compared levels of public opinion, institutional advocacy, and protest on environmental issues, with rates of environmental legislation adopted over a 40-year period. Angnone found that:

  • The level of protest was the only factor that can be statistically linked to passage of environmental legislation.
  • Institutional advocacy tracks passage of legislation, but is not statistically significant.
  • Public opinion on environmental issues alone is not a predictor of the passage of laws favorable to the environment. Shifts in the level of public opinion do influence passage of legislation, but only when accompanied by protest.

There are certainly more questions to ask and we hope that supporting studies will be conducted. The implications of the this study, however, are enormous. It is worth quoting at length from Agnone’s conclusion:

First and foremost, these results point to the importance of dramatic events models of policy influence, particularly the importance of protest in securing gains in federal environmental policy. Protest is more important to securing policy gains than is institutional movement activity, and this effect is stable even when public opinion is taken into account. When examined both as the sole predictor and with protest in the same model, public opinion on environmental issues is not a valid predictor of federal environmental policy.

While inconsistent with what democratic theorists predict, the results are not completely unexpected. For example, while Page and Shapiro (1983) did not specifically examine public opinion on the environment, they did find that some policy arenas (nearly half) are not responsive to shifts in public opinion; it would appear that environmental issues is one of these unresponsive arenas.

On the other hand, positive shifts in public opinion on environmental issues do have an impact on policy when accompanied by high levels of environmental movement protest activity. Thus, greater counts of federal environmental laws passed will be found when both public opinion and protest amplify the effect of one another.[5]

It appears that protest plays a far more complicated and critical role in successful environmental action in the U.S. than is generally perceived. Why this should be so is open to speculation. One possibility is that protest serves as a key indicator of the relative importance of environmental concerns for both supporters and decisionmakers. When people are out in the streets — or in the zodiacs — it sends a message that something isn’t just wrong, but really wrong.

This analysis points toward the decline in protest as a key factor in the slippage of our power as a movement. We cannot be absolutely certain that more protest will equal more power, but it is the only variable that has undergone a marked reduction and over which we have control. I think it follows that rebuilding and integrating protest into our national agenda must be a concern for all environmental leaders, not just the leadership and staff at Greenpeace and the Ruckus Society trainers.

This is a terrifically tough time for the task. The high-security, post-9/11 atmosphere presents one level of difficulty, but it is also clear that repressing legitimate environmental protest is a matter of priority for the Bush administration. Corporate targets of protests are responding with mounting harshness as well. Cranking up the potential costs to both individuals and organizations has had a dampening affect on already low rates of protest.

Direct action, civil disobedience, and even rallies, all of which have a long and honorable lineage as legitimate forms of expression, now often draw strong criminal and and sometimes civil legal responses. Where public opinion will not permit outright shut down of expression, as for example at the major party conventions in 2004, tight measures to isolate protest are routinely employed. The City of Boston, completely controlled by liberal Democrats, built a large-scale version of a WWF steel challenge cage to pen protesters away from the delegates.

To understand where we need to go, we need to accept that when we stopped protesting, we stopped winning.


Ken Ward has 25 years leadership and campaigning experience with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, Greenpeace USA, Public Interest GRFX, and the National Environmental Law Center. He was a cofounder of the Fund for Public Interest Research, Environmental Endowment for New Jersey, and Green Corps.


[1] See, for example, the language in the original Environmental Justice Principles.

[2] Most thoroughly and elegantly by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in Poor Peoples’ Movements, How They Succeed and Why They Fail.

[3] With the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites as the most dramatic example in our lifetimes.

[4] Explaining Federal Environmental Policy: The Impact of the U.S. Environmental Movement, Agnone, Jan. 2005

[5] ibid.