by | Sep 20, 2009

The BBC reports that…

Eight of the UK’s leading environmental groups have joined forces to urge political parties to adopt a joint approach on green issues.

These eight are the usual suspects – Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Woodland Trust, WWF, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Greenpeace.

Speaking on behalf of all the groups, Stephen Hale, director of Green Alliance, said: “Action in the next parliament is critical if we are to simultaneously reduce our CO2 emissions whilst improving the resilience of our natural environment to avoid the looming crises of food, energy and water shortages by 2030.

“It’s now or never. Support for the common cause declaration will be the threshold for credibility at the next election on environmental issues.

“The commitment to decisive action must be endorsed by all parties.

“The real contest will be over specific policies, so we urge them to include our 10 manifesto asks for 2010 in their forthcoming manifestos.”

We’ve written before about the influence of NGOs in today’s world, and the roles they seem to have positioned themselves into. When Conservative leader, David Cameron gave a press conference at Greenpeace’s HQ, the relationship between the political establishment is (symbolically, at least) transformed. Once the thorn in the side of Western governments, the organisation was now operating as a de-facto PR consultancy, lending the Tories’ energy policies the appearance of legitimacy.

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In October last year, we asked whether the arguments made by Oxfam’s campaigns were consistent with reality, and suggested that in fact they end up encouraging a very selfish understanding of ‘injustice’ in the world, as though it were experienced, not by people actually suffering injustice or inequality, but by the organisation’s would-be donors. More worryingly, the development agency increasingly appeared to be taking an anti-development line, pushing for policies that seemingly aimed to ‘protect’ traditional lifestyles on the basis that they were ‘environmentally sustainable’. But as we pointed out, this may well preclude the possibility of the ‘beneficiaires’ of Oxfam’s campaigns from asserting their own political interests, as well as realising their own ambitions for development.

There is no denying that the NGO has increased its influence over the past few decades. The questions we have concern the legitimacy of the new configuration of domestic and international politics, and the kind of elite politics it generates, and why this is happening.

The power of NGOs begins with people putting cash in tins rattled at passers by on the High Street. Increasingly, this process – once an activity of concerned citizens giving up their spare time – has become professionalised, and now consists of teams of people employed to accost shoppers with direct-debit forms, and stories and pictures about the plight of animals and African babies. They want to you to sign up, now, and rarely have any literature which you may take away with you. When the shopper gets home, he or she still is likely to be contacted by the same fund-raising teams who make calls on behalf of the same NGOs with the same stories, on the basis that they earn a commission.

Handing over cash to an organisation that putatively aims to protect Things with Wings seems like an innocuous gesture. Who wouldn’t want to protect the whale/dolphin/puffin? And indeed, if you’re worried about donkeys or elephants, there is nothing wrong with giving money to an organisation which goes about making life comfortable for creatures. But, increasingly, organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the RSPB – part of the Green Alliance) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF – also part of the alliance) aren’t engaging in the simple provision of sanctuary for bunny rabbits, nor even lobbying for a bit more recognition for the rights of grasshoppers, but are instead directing their campaigning funds at the entire business of politics. These green NGOs turn a routine concern for fluffy and feathered animals into a political force. Did the pensioner who signed up to a £5 a month direct debit to ‘save the creature’ imagine that it would be spent directly on a tiger, owl, and badger, or were they aware that it would be spent on delimiting the possibilities of democratic expression? And did those who forked out cash to aid Third World development imagine that it would be spent on precisely the opposite?

It ends with governments funding NGOs to lobby them. Groups such as Friends of the Earth and WWF are the beneificiaries of £millions of EU funds.

Back to the demands of the Green Alliance. The intention is to get each of the UK’s political parties to include the following statements in their manifestos:

1. Put the UK on track to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050.

2. Ensure future energy and transport infrastructure is consistent with a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy by generating at least 15 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020; introducing an immediate ban on new unabated or substantially unabated coal plants and an end to airport expansion.

3. Commit to strong UK leadership at the highest levels in the EU and globally, to deliver EU energy and climate targets and to ensure global greenhouse gas emissions are falling by 2015.

4. Provide the UK’s fair share of finance for adaptation, low-carbon development and to reduce deforestation in the developing world of a least $160 billion a year from 2012.

5. Commit to making significant progress towards restoring the natural environment by 2020, including the doubling of UK woodland cover, meeting other habitat targets and ensuring that protected sites are in good condition; through utilising reforms to agricultural incentives, planning policy and other measures to create high quality landscapes rich in nature and able to adapt to climate change.

6. Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to experience and enjoy nature by providing access to natural green space within walking distance of where they live.

7. Commit to reorienting the planning system so that sustainable development rather than simply economic development is at its heart, requiring all major development plans and planning applications to show how they will contribute to carbon reduction targets.

8. Dedicate all income generated by the emissions trading scheme after 2012 to tackling climate change in the UK and internationally.

9. Protect and increase Defra and DECC budgets and introduce significant new policies to stimulate private investment in the low-carbon economy and the natural environment.

10. Launch a nationwide housing retrofit programme by 2011, which will deliver improved energy efficiency and renewable energy systems across the UK.

To the obvious questions first… Who do these people think they are, such that they can dictate the priorities and parameters of politics? Who voted for them? When was the legitimacy of their influence ever tested? No doubt there is a well-intentioned and widespread desire to help animals and poor people – frequently as though they were the same. But the engagement of this constituency is no more than a response to images, and the question: ‘do you care?’ – this money is simply guilt-offsetting. It does not represent an engagement with the political ideas that NGOs produce.

Second, if this alliance were to be successful, how could it be claimed that the consequent policies carried any democratic legitimacy whatsoever? Axiomatically, they would not have been tested democratically.

Third, these 10 demands are already the substance of all the major parties’ policies, the only difference lies in the degree to which they have been implemented (ie, the raw numbers that constitute the targets). And these policies too have not been the subject of democratic contest.

While the title of the document outlining the alliance’s demands is “Common Cause” [PDF], what is striking about the nature of this demand and the way it has been presented is precisely that it is not a common cause. If it were a genuinely common cause, it would be reflected in demands from below, not by a self-appointed Oligarchy of environmental NGOs. How could anyone – whether they were part of the ‘common’ or not – express their views about the manifesto pledges if there is no alternative view represented politically? The ‘Common Cause Declaration’ that the alliance wants the UK’s political parties to subscribe to says:

We recognise the importance of the natural environment to the people of Britain. We share their conviction that Britain’s natural environment and countryside are an integral part of Britain’s heritage and identity. They are also central to our future well-being because of the services they provide and are threatened by the impact of climate change. We will work to protect and enhance the quality of Britain’s natural environment and to take account of these impacts.

We will use the full range of regulatory, fiscal, spending and other powers available to us to achieve these goals. This will include providing businesses, communities, individuals and other actors with the opportunities and incentives they need to make their full contribution. This way we will achieve successful national and international action on climate change and the natural environment.

The contradictions evident in the lazy, alarmist rhetoric are all too plain. The crass appeal to popular values – identity, heritage, shared convictions – belie the distrust the alliance has in the abilities of the ‘commons’ to make the right democratic decisions. We’re all supposed to think the same, and yet it requires a ‘full range or regulatory, fiscal, spending, and other powers’ (what ‘other’?) to make sure we nonetheless obey our (their) consciences. We all think the same, and yet we’re not wise enough to vote ‘correctly’.

And then there is the implication that there is a gun at the heads of recalcitrants: if we don’t see things the alliance’s way, we’re likely to be responsible for wanting the whole lot to be destroyed.

The anti-democratic tendency of environmentalism needs no re-telling here. It’s always a problem for environmentalists, who want to claim that their concern transcends the petty affairs of mere humans. Our argument here on Climate Resistance is that this phenomenon needs careful attention if it is to be understood. It would be easy to say that environmentalism has been successful in its enrolling NGOs, and subverting the direction of mainstream politics. But this credits them with far too much.

The dynamic that drives this process is not the power of greens, but the weakness of contemporary political parties, organisations, movements, ideas etc. The political parties and governments have courted – or rather extended into – NGOs because it is easier to negotiate with them than it is to appeal to the public for legitimacy. Thus NGOs, with a slice of their cake in hand, bargain for greater influence in exchange for flattering the hollow agenda of which ever party is attempting to steal a march over its opponents that day. NGOs are still seen as ‘above’ politics in some way – and are thus somehow equipped to make objective statements about the way things are. The reality is that they are exactly as political and self-serving as any other political grouping. Accordingly, a background – and yes, common – concern for the plight of rare species of birds, snails, polar bears, landed country estates, whales, trees, the panda and starving and diseased babies are amplified by climate change alarmism, to preclude a democratic discussion about our ‘common’ future. It seems that the most basic and sometimes trivial of concerns are all that the political establishment – including NGOs – are capable of generating agreement on, and so these becomes the issues which represent the difference between having a future, and inviting a horrific catastrophe. There is no contest between, for instance, political ideas such as communism, socialism, social democracy, capitalism, laissez-faire, or any of their variants. So the NGO rises to the level of its banal and vapid agenda, to fill the void between politicians and the public.

For instance, the alliance quotes the government’s own advisor:

And as the Government’s Chief Scientist, John Beddington, recently pointed out, unless urgent action is taken, we’re heading for a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030.

We wrote about Beddington’s prophetic vision last month.

The scene is one in which the government, NGOs, scientists quote each other, and in each turn, escalate the sense of drama about the looming crisis. This process takes the place of what was once called ‘debate’. That the agenda of advanced economies – who put men on the moon three decades ago, split the atom sixty years ago, and in which a revolution in industrial agriculture found a way of feeding a billion people in less than a generation – are dominated by discussions about matters of mere subsistence reflects the extent to which the horizons of politics have lowered, and the imaginations of politicians has shrunk.

Any fruitful discussion of what to do about climate change – however serious a problem it turns out to be – must first recognise that it is this background of degraded political aspirations that has provided the ground on which environmental politics has been able to flourish and onto which the science of climate change, resource use, and biodiversity has been superimposed. Otherwise, science becomes just another tool for the delivery of the B-movie disaster politics that is pushed by the likes of the Common Cause group and lapped upped entirely credulously, or even solicited, by mainstream parties and parliaments. The NGOs get away with it because nobody is watching.

H/t: Mark H.


  1. StuartR

    The empty flabbiness of our current political system is astonishing really, when you hear David Cameron saying that there is just a cigarette paper between the Lib-Dems and his own party you begin to get the idea that we really are now living in some sort of post political era. It seems that all the major parties have nothing substantial to say and nowhere else to turn but to the headlines generated by NGOs and pressure groups. It is a sad cycle. It seems now that, dilettante middle class hand wringing flummery, gets a free pass to influence the governing of our country in way that would make Harold Macmillan’s Old Etonian family cabinet of the early 60s look like an example of democracy incarnate

  2. geoffchambers

    It is normal for politicians to seek the support of authority outside their own sphere of democratically elected representatives.

    The NGOs have assumed (or usurped) the moral authority previously exercised by organised religion. (The churches continue to exist by pretending themselves to be just another kind of NGO).

    Science has assumed entirely the authority as a source of objective truth previously enjoyed by academia as a whole (where it was shared between science and the liberal arts).

    With this necessarily truncated analysis in mind, I think it is possible to argue that, in appealing to the moral authority of NGOs and the intellectual authority of scientists, politicians are acting as they have always done. But the subtle change from organised religion to NGOs as the basis of moral authority; and from academia to science as the basis of objective truth, has changed the nature of the relationship in ways which the politicians haven’t begun to understand (no doubt they will be the last to know what is going on).

    When Conservatives evoked the authority of the established Anglican church, and Liberals (and later, the Labour party) had the support of the disestablished protestant sects, there was a kind of equilibrium of moral forces. The problem with the NGOs as a replacement for religion as a source of moral authority is precisely the fact that they are all determined to sing from the same hymn-sheet.

    When political argument was backed up by the best minds in the intellectual world (and not simply in the world of supposedly “objective” science) the Left could summon up intellects of the calibre of Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells to give force to their arguments. Yet no-one would have dreamed of claiming that “the philosophy is in” – “the debate is over”, just because these Nobel prize winners had declared their support for a certain political ideal. (Only a Nobel Laureate of the calibre of Al Gore would make such a claim). So the Right was free to counter with their own intellectual heavyweights.

    The holy alliance of NGOs around a single theme (what have starving peasants in Bangla Desh and threatened bird species got in common, for Gaia’s sake, except that they both make TV viewers go “Ohhh, what a shame”?) and the supposed “objectivity” (read: infallibility) of the “hard” sciences have this in common; they stifle debate, and therefore destroy democracy. This seems to be what the major parties are striving for in Britain. I hope you are trying to spread your message to those in the media who might share our worries about this tendency. There are many on the libertarian right; far fewer on the left, it seems to me.

    A big Here! Here! to StuartR at #1. NIce to see someone whose political references go even further back in history than mine.

  3. SJones

    I believe you have failed to mention the massive, covert power of large corporations in setting the political agenda and shaping public perceptions. Any discussion on democracy cannot avoid mentioning how, in a relentless assault on democracy, corporate agendas dominate the international debate about the state of the environment and the most effective means of solving enviromental problems.

    How corporations use their considerable economic power and resources to shape public opinion through think-tanks, PR and propaganda. How corporations also control and use the media to shape cultural understandings and values. How, through advertising and television programming, corporations have consciously set about ensuring that we see the world from a corporate point of view.

    Thus how democracy has been hijacked by a vast information industry aimed at attaining the consent of the public to corporate values and goals, while at the same time successfully discouraging political organisation and participation. And how free enterprise and consumption have taken the place of politics as a vital activity in which citizens can and should be engaged.

    How Brussels, for example,the centre of EU decision-making attracts thousands of lobbyists, promoting the interests of big business. Easily outnumbering and outspending public interest groups , corporate lobbyists are given privileged access by the European institutions. The emerging lobbycracy results in flawed policies that put commercial interests over those of people and the environment and undermines the very basis of democracy. Corporate lobbying provides companies with privileged access to decision makers, creating opportunities for them to influence legislation and policy for their benefit, often at the expense of the broader public benefit. Companies can promote their interests and even set the terms of debate, without wider considerations, such as social and environmental issues, being sufficiently taken into account.

    How maximised profit and minimised costs dominate the agenda.

    Big business wordwide influences trade policies, climate and energy policies, targets and policies for agrofuels, transport, and policies on water, agriculture, health and environment.
    Surely you cannot have failed to notice this and include it in a discussion of what constitutes political legitimacy?

  4. Editors

    Sjones – ‘Thus how democracy has been hijacked by a vast information industry aimed at attaining the consent of the public to corporate values and goals, while at the same time successfully discouraging political organisation and participation.’

    The UK’s media, at least, is dominated by uncritical and partial treatment of the climate debate. The Murdoch media empire is headed by an emphatically green sustainability enthusiast. The BBC might just as well be the press office of the Green Party.

    Moreover, it is not clear that corporate interests aren’t synonymous with regulatory frameworks that secure their markets.

  5. Editors

    “Moreover, it is not clear that corporate interests aren’t synonymous with regulatory frameworks that secure their markets.”

    – E.G. Enron.

  6. geoffchambers

    SJones #3 may be correct in his criticisms of “the massive, covert power of large corporations in setting the political agenda and shaping public perceptions”. The difference between them and the NGOs, however, is that they don’t all speak with one voice, they haven’t won over all the major parties, and they don’t receive subsidies from Europe to finance their lobbying.
    I’ll worry the day that the CBI announces that they have incontrovertible scientific proof that corporation tax must be reduced by 80%, or else we’ll all die.


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