Emancipation vs neo-colonialism in the environmental movement

Environmentalism can mean very different things to different people, as some of the previous articles on Well Sharp have shown most clearly. How can we try to make sense of this diversity of opinion? In two articles published in the same issue of Environmental Politics, Brian Doherty and Timothy Doyle offer a very interesting attempt to do just that. They identify three distinct ‘story-lines’ or frames for environmentalism – post-colonialist, post-materialist, and post-industrialist – that are dominant in different regions of the globe.

These authors base their work on reported studies (by themselves and colleagues) conducted in Bosnia, Burma, France, Hungary, Iran, and Madagascar, and on organisations such as Friends of the Earth International, Greenpeace, People’s Global Action, the global trade union federation ICEM, and WWF UK.

Let us begin with the post-colonialist environmentalism which is “descriptive of the majority of the earth – the South.” As Doherty and Doyle explain:

Large numbers of environmental activists in the developing world would describe themselves as Marxists, seeing the key cause of environmental degradation being that resources and production are in the hands of a ruling class. Solving these problems does not lie necessarily in better management or more efficient and sustainable practices. Rather, the first part of the answer lies in local people gaining control over their own resources, their own lives. (p.707)

In stark contrast, in the United States and Australia in particular, environmentalists have tended to be “more interested in the rights of ‘other nature’,” that is, in the post-materialist issues of conservation, threatened species and wilderness. In these countries, such issues “have been interpreted in a particularly apolitical manner by the largest environmental organisations” (p.706) which see themselves as “service providers … endorsing profit-based market solutions … rather than mass mobilisers” (p.888).

Finally, we have the political ecology movements typical of western Europe which combine post-materialism with “a broader New Left-derived analysis of power” leading, for Doherty and Doyle, to a significantly different, post-industrialist green ideology. From their inception these movements “wrestled with questions of structural change and multiple forms of social inequality … alongside traditional nature conservation issues” (p.706). For me, this is the starting point of green party politics.

Doherty and Doyle accept that their neat and tidy geographical compartments do not tell the whole story by any means, especially given the transnational nature of many environmental organisations. However, in taking on board the fact that the movement does try to work across borders and divides, they insist we recognise that “the actual environmental issues on the ground are profoundly different in the South than in the North” and (quoting Doug Torgerson) that these divisions of the planet bear the “unmistakeable mark of the legacy of colonialisation” (p.708).

On that basis, Doyle and Doherty identify two quite different modes of transnational environmentalism: governance and emancipation.

Emancipatory groups “argue that only by engaging with the subjective voices of the local, traditional and indigenous peoples can adequate ecological management strategies be assembled” (p.888). They aim to build regional and global networks, often through informal and transient grassroots organising and often in “rugged opposition” to global neoliberalism (p.883). This is environmentalism as a social movement.

Some groups from the South, such as People’s Global Action, clearly reject capitalism because they see transnational capital as “the only real policy maker” (p.885). Emancipatory groups from the North, such as Friends of the Earth, strive the address the issue of a “divided planet” and the “gross inequities of consumption patterns between North and South” (here’s just one example). But for some in the South even this is not enough because it still fails to acknowledge the historical “ecological debts imposed on the South by centuries of colonial exploitation” (p.886).

Governance groups, on the other hand, are fully integrated into the global neoliberal project. They “prefer the guidance of an objective western science, masking as apolitical and technical what is in fact a profoundly ideological position” (p.888). The powerful and well-resourced environmental governance NGOs, working out of their bases in the North, use the limited range of post-materialist concerns outlined above to “discipline societies that do not mirror their own constructions of nature” and organise “diverse forms of environmental opposition into one omnipresent story – such as climate change,” thereby obliterating the local story (p.883).

NGOs such as the WWF “work so closely with the interests of transnational capital and nation-states that they often become part of the same donor consortiums” (p.886). In Bosnia, for example, this has led to the ‘top-down’ emergence of new, national level NGOs that respond to the expectations of these donor consortiums, thereby completely ignoring the earlier history of environmentalism under the former Yugoslav regime; similar events in Hungary in response to aid from the US and the EU had the result of depoliticising environmentalism. Overall, the outcome is “an orientation towards external funders and away from representing local people … as indigenous networks are shunned” (p.887). Thus the politics of neo-colonialism continues through the agency of environmental NGOs.

The work summarised here presents a picture of global environmentalism that is complex, fragmented and highly political (whether the protagonists are willing to recognise it as such or not). Very different ideological positions on fundamental questions mean that people and organisations who might equally claim the label ‘environmentalist’ do not often find themselves working as allies. Thus the urgency of global ecological crises does not evoke a coherent response, even from that part of humanity that is most concerned to ‘do something’ about the crisis.

This research does end on an upbeat, however. Despite the money and power of the environmental governance NGOs and their implicitly neo-colonial agenda, Doyle and Doherty see the majority of environmental groups around the world persisting in their attempts at environmental emancipation. And while they worry about the “amorphousness and structurelessness” of such groups delivering even more power to the powerful, Doyle and Doherty see the emancipatory groups continuing to “forge resilient societal alternatives, emerging from a continued reverence and respect for diverse localised experiences within the multitude of ecological communities” (pp.891-2).


Brian Doherty and Timothy Doyle (2006) Beyond borders: Transnational politics, social movement and modern environmentalisms Environmental Politics, 15(5) 697-712.

Timothy Doyle and Brian Doherty (2006) Green public spheres and the green governance state: The politics of emancipation and ecological conditionality Environmental Politics, 15(5) 881-892.


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