Networks, identity, conflict: the ingredients of environmental movement success

I’ve noticed myself using the term ‘environmental movement’ lately. But the existence of organisations interested in environmental issues does not necessarily imply the existence of a ‘movement’. So what characteristics do distinguish the environmental movement? And what can we learn about the movement by considering how these characteristics are expressed?

The principal characteristics of a movement

The environmental movement is simply a particular example of a social movement, and Italian sociologists Mario Diani and Elisa Rambaldo tell us that a social movement has three distinctive elements:

  • dense networks of informal exchanges between individuals and/or organisations;
  • shared collective identities; and
  • conflict with opponents.

These authors emphasise that if organisations with a common interest actually work separately, and do not collaborate extensively with others, then one of the key features of a ‘movement’ is missing. In this situation, organisations tend to focus on their own structure and identity, and on controlling activity around certain specific social issues. Organisational logic prevails over social movement logic.

Alternatively, groups may collaborate but without possessing or developing a shared identity. Events cannot be linked into a larger narrative or analysis because of this lack of a shared identity, and coalitions are formed on a purely instrumental basis. Temporary coalitional logic prevails over social movement logic.

Interestingly, Diani and Rambaldo don’t consider what prevails when there is no conflict with opponents. Maybe it is self-evident that any organisation not engaging with an adversary in order to promote its interest can’t be considered part of a social movement. I would suggest without cynicism that in this case what we have is a club; I only make this point because there are many such environmental organisations, and we’ll come back to this issue later.

A study of real networks

Following on from this bit of social movement theory, Diani and Rambaldo examined local environmental organisational networking in three European cities: Glasgow (68 organisations), Bristol (72) and Verona (26). They found that, in each city, around half to two-thirds of organisations are linked into a single close-knit network while the remainder operate in complete or relative isolation from this network and from each other.

Obviously a variety of distinctive contextual factors apply in each city, but some broad conclusions are drawn.

It is seen that the heavily networked organisations in each city also possess the shared identity noted above, and were much more likely to have clearly identified social and political adversaries (essential for an effective conflict strategy, one might think). Thus the networked organisations in each city can be described as the local environmental movement.

The isolated organisations clearly do not belong to a movement, simply as a consequence of their isolation. But the study shows that they are also much less likely to have defined adversaries or to be engaged in conflict, preferring perhaps voluntary work or single issue pressure group approaches.

Implications

In many respects it is perfectly okay for an environmental organisation to ‘fly solo’ –every organisation has a right to control its own destiny and many of the ‘isolationist’ organisations do very valuable work. But the down side of this isolationism is a lack of a strategic analysis, a fragmented and contradictory approach by different organisations, and a dissipation of the energy of many deeply committed activists.

Moreover, given the massive investment of time and energy by environmentalists over the past 40 years, I wonder if the lack of commitment to a movement approach in certain quarters might help us understand why the returns on that investment have been rather modest. Therefore, it might be useful to think about which environmental organisations are taking a movement approach, and which are not by asking:

  • Which environmental organisations focus more on themselves and their own structures, processes and activities rather than actively engaging with the broader movement?
  • Which environmental organisations focus more on short-term single issue coalitions rather than a long-term strategy for the success of the broader movement?
  • Which environmental organisations shy away from conflict with their adversaries?
  • Which environmental organisations are unable (for whatever reason) even to articulate who their social and political adversaries are?

Building on the ideas presented by Diani and Rambaldo, I would argue that the lack of a movement approach from some significant environmental organisations severely limits the effectiveness and impact of both the movement and the isolationists.

SourceMario Diani & Elisa Rambaldo (2007) Still the time of environmental movements? A local perspective. Environmental Politics, 16(5), 765-784.

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