The state of the environmental movement

Colin James is respected around Parliament as someone who, more than most people who write on politics, takes the long view. He is perceptive and, generally, fair.

That’s why all parties take his prognosis seriously. His column in the Herald this morning about the state of the environmental movement deserves to be read, by Greens and non-Greens alike. He makes the following points:

  • There is a new strand emerging in the environmental movement which is “questioning the assumptions, methodology and statistics of orthodox green positions”.
  • This strand of the movement is uncomfortable with “alarmist proclamations”, which bring with them two dangers – first, that if you sound an alarm for too long, people will turn off and relegate you to irritating background noise; second, people typecast you as “extremist” and stop taking you seriously.
  • This strand of the movement is also wary of using regulation to change behaviour, preferring the market and its instruments because, James says, market mechanisms “coax more than goad”.
  • For the Greens to have lasting influence in the New Zealand political scene, they will have to learn these lessons.

Jeanette is trying to get a right of reply to this column, and I’ll link to it if the Herald gives her this opportunity. For now, though, I’d make the following points:

  • James is wrong if he thinks debate isn’t happening within the Green Party about the nature and future of the environmental movement. One of the most lively debates on the Green Party members’ forums in recent months has centered around two pieces of environmental movement navel-gazing emanating from the United States: the first called “The Death of Environmentalism” and the second called “The Soul of Environmentalism”. The fact is that all political movements go through periods of change and renewal which aren’t always obvious to outside observers. They may become obvious to the media in other parties because of leadership stoushes. The Greens, as a consensual bunch, do things more continually and gradually rather than in a stop-and-start fashion.
  • The environmental movement has not “cried wolf”. Rather, on issue after issue – from climate change to ozone depletion to dioxins to DDT to species extinction – we have been opinion-leaders. That is to say, the environmental movement has raised these issues before they were taken seriously by major political parties, the media and industry. Slowly but surely, they have become mainstream, accepted opinion, and it was the impact of the original “doomsayers” that led to attitudinal and behavioural change in the first place.
  • Like all parties, the Greens face the problem of getting the mix of negative and positive messages right, of offering both problems and solutions. The problem is that the media tend to latch on to the negative but not the positive. Lots of people know that the Greens are worried about our dependence on oil, but not as many understand what we want to do about it. That’s not because we don’t offer solutions – just go read Jeanette‘s state of the planet speech – it’s just that journalists don’t tend to stay alert for that long. The soundbite only lasts so long.
  • The Greens are not instinctively in favour of regulation and against market mechanisms. We’re not old-style socialists. As I’ve argued before, regulation and the market are not polar opposites. You have to regulate markets into existence: regulation provides the rules that allow markets to function. And if you look closely and listen carefully, many of the solutions the Greens offer to our most challenging environmental problems rely on market mechanisms. When we’re talking about putting out a competitive tender for solar water heaters or implementing average fuel efficiency standards for imported cars or applauding tradable quota systems with fisheries or carbon credits, we’re talking about using market mechanisms to solve environmental problems.

2 Comments Posted

  1. ok..take the lomberg reference as a boo-boo..but i don’t think you can dismiss everything he says..

    the most recent example is on this blog where jeanette proposed some bureaucratic overlord to some quota system regulating car importers as the solution to our fuel/pollution problems ..cor!

    i, and others, shot this down and proposed a range of more workable models, most involving market forces of some ilk..

    but of course the greens are fully in support of a lessening of a focus on personal taxation and a move to environmentally based revenue gathering..and using this as a carrot and stick approach to effect change..

    and that is surely using market forces?..something james claims the greens aren’t doing/thinking about..he’s wrong on that but right that there needs to be more solutions..less just identifying of/banging on about, problems..


  2. I clicked through to the link in the Herald – to find Colin James shooting himself in the foot in the second paragraph. Just in case James doesn’t know, Lomborg is funded by the very industries that are causing massive environmental problems.

    In the case of Lomborg vs some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists (including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences), the jury has come back with a verdict.
    The warning issued originally in 1992 (see has changed for the worse. That’s not alarmist, but backed up by hard data.

    Verdict on James article. “Could do much better” if he bothered researching first.

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