An alarming development: the dominance of the sustainability discourse in the green movement

What are the various discourses that circulate in the green movement? Geographer Andrew McGregor explored this question in discussions with five different groups from a variety of backgrounds within the green movement in Australia: The Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Sydney-based Earthworks programme, a second-year university course in environmental geography, and the Byron Environment Centre.

McGregor’s primary interest is to look at the ways in which environmentally concerned individuals have “come to construct and give meaning to nature” and the “social norms and conventions that constrain and enable what can be acceptably said.” He suggests that understanding which discourse(s) are dominant and acceptable in the green movement goes a long way to showing us “the future directions of the movement” (p.594).

Each discussion group met three times and a total of 32 people participated (18 women and 14 men). In the discussions, the “most common and powerful” discourse was sustainable development: “Underlying much discussion was the assumption that if an activity can be carried out in a sustainable way then the activity is permissible and should be encouraged. … Nature was constructed as a ‘resource’ requiring effective environmental management. Consequently forests were seen in terms of wood products … And some participants were pro-sustainable whaling” (pp.598-9).

Ideas from the animal rights discourse were present on occasion (though as McGregor notes, it is a little ironic that the relevant discussions revolved largely around the right of animals to a humane death). Concepts from 1970s survivalism were also heard, eg in representations of nature “as a fragile resource.” These additional ideas were generally brought to bear in ways that enhanced rather than contested the goals and norms of sustainable development (p.599).

In his analysis, McGregor also identifies a less structured narrative that he terms ‘naturalism,’ described as “arguments based on the premise that non-human or ‘natural’ spaces and processes are to be treasured and protected whilst human-influenced spaces and processes are of much less value.” This perspective “was not used to critique development or capitalism” however; instead it was “selectively used in ways that reinforced sustainable development arguments” (p.600).

Other green critiques, such as eco-socialist, social ecologist, bioregional, eco-feminist or deep ecology discourses, were largely or entirely absent from the conversations. Only one person in the entire group of 32 used the word ‘ecocentric.’

Given the setting of the research McGregor has conducted, his concluding comments are immediately applicable only to Australia, but I feel they certainly ring true for Aotearoa New Zealand as well, and maybe farther afield too.

McGregor suggests that the dominance of the sustainable development discourse is alarming because the range of ecological and social issues that green activists can address is very limited if the public only possesses a story about sustainability. “It becomes extremely difficult to mobilise a population around issues that do not relate directly to sustainability” without the ideas, logic and language (eg critiquing global capitalism) that can be used as “rallying points” on other issues (p.603).

Furthermore, “naturalising sustainable development discourses within a potentially radical and politically challenging social movement makes the movement much more amenable to relatively conservative environmental goals.” More radical political actions (eg raids on battery farms) become “ostracised” along with the discourses that support them and so the actions we can conceive of are reduced to “green consumerism, recycling, energy conservation,” etc (p.603).

A strong environmental movement must be “comprised of multiple viewpoints and discourses continually challenging and probing the status quo” (p.604), which I take to mean the status quo of both the socio-political context in which we exist and the organisations to which we belong. However, the apparent evolution of a dominant set of largely unquestioned attitudes, assumptions and objectives, clearly signalled by Andrew McGregor’s research, is a serious warning sign of creeping conformism and stagnant thinking in the green movement.


Andrew McGregor (2004) Sustainable development and ‘warm fuzzy feelings’: Discourse and nature within Australian environmental imaginaries. Geoforum, 35, 593-606.


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