What makes a social movement?
What makes a movement?
Is it hanging a banner on a coal stack? Flying a drone over a whaling ship? Chants and marches? Or minutes, agendas, and long, repetitive planning meetings?
Who makes a movement?
Are they the paid staff with funds and strategic plans? Your neighbour giving an hour a week in their after work time? The local team planting trees in their reserve on a Saturday afternoon? Or people sitting and sharing links and posts on social media?
Defining the environmental movement: who’s who, and what they do
Research about these questions has tended to focus on the operations of groups that shout the loudest. These groups are frequently those that are skilled at attracting media attention as part of their tactics, are the easiest to study, and have the systems in place to support external research. As a result Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and other large multinational groups feature predominantly in the environmental movement literature.
But is that image of a Greenpeace banner down a coal stack, or a 350.org rally with shouting, placard holding people really representative of what environmentalism in the field actually is? What about what everybody else is doing?
There is a lot more to the environmental movement than its biggest, most vocal players.
A closer look at what’s going on in the environmental movement in Australia quickly uncovers the overwhelming diversity of issues, approaches and actors that together create this movement.
Over 500 groups with websites across Australia are active in some form of environmental advocacy—spanning diverse issues including pesticide use, population growth, climate change, catchment management, feral dog management and species conservation. If we add in those only using social media and word of mouth to promote their cause, then in fact thousands of groups, made up of tens of thousands of members and supporters are active in some way in creating this movement.
What of campaigning, that classic approach to building a movement?
Over 700 active campaigns are being promoted via Australian based websites. These range from local issues against coal mines to complex national campaigns focusing on marine protection, clean energy and land clearing. They involve tree planting, placard waving, wildlife rescue and letter writing. It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot going on.
The vast majority of environmental groups in Australia have no paid staff, do not receive any substantial media attention, and do not use protest techniques or direct action to promote their cause.
While they may not ‘win’ all, or even many, of their causes, clearly there is something special about the environmental movement that has united such a diversity of voices in such a short span of time. I’d like to get a sense of the collective action tactics and strategies used by these campaigning groups and the failures and successes that they are experiencing in the course of their activities. My PhD research aims to look under the surface of the latest protest banner and begin to understand why, what and who actually makes the environmental movement the global phenomenon that it has become today.
- Robyn Gulliver
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All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.