Environmentalism’s Radical Next Generation
By Ben Pile
This past week, a new group calling itself Beyond Politics (BP) threw buckets of bright-pink paint at the entrances to the London offices of four global NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.
“We have no words to describe our disgust,” messages left at the scene told their targets. “We accuse you of appeasing radical evil.” BP accuses NGOs of not taking the issue of climate change seriously enough. “In the face of this monstrosity, what have you done? Fuck all that’s meaningful.” This somewhat pathetic green-on-green hostility has yielded little media attention, but it illustrates the global environmental movement’s bizarre and longstanding contradictions.
BP and its petty vandalism were the brainchild of Extinction Rebellion (XR) co-founder Roger Hallam, who got himself excommunicated from his own movement after he told German newspaper DieZeit that the Holocaust had been “almost a normal event . . . just another fuckery in human history.” Hallam’s confidence was not dented by exile and charges of anti-Semitism, however. After all, he had seemingly driven an environmental movement from a standing start to a global concern in just a matter of months. Motivated by “the indescribable suffering and death of billions of people,” Hallam now demands that big NGOs either “drive your organisations into a final battle with this genocidal regime” or “disband yourselves.”
Though Hallam is credited with co-founding XR, he forgets the role of money in its ascendancy. It was through the generosity of, among others, billionaire hedge-fund manager Christopher Hohn that XR could afford offices, legal costs, and its protesters’ generous per diems. Though populated by self-identifying system-crashing anti-capitalists, XR suited Hohn’s £30 billion portfolio, which he uses to threaten companies such as BlackRock and Moodies with “divestment” should they fail to conform to green diktats.
Hallam is right about one thing. Green NGOs have developed cozy relationships with the establishment. Even XR, which managed to bring only a few thousand people out into London’s streets, nonetheless succeeded in shutting down those streets, thanks to the nearly full cooperation of the Metropolitan Police and the glowing, uncritical support of London mayor Sadiq Khan. Within a year, XR was invited by MPs to give evidence to committees at the very government departments that its protests had shut down. Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove held a conference with the group to discuss its demands. Parliament declared a “climate emergency” and convened a “Citizens Assembly” to hasten the government on a path toward its newly stated “net zero” ambition. All as XR had demanded.
How was this possible? XR has a high profile and cash in the bank, but it is an organization with just a few thousand members, with unpopular aims—bringing down governments and dismantling industrial, democratic, capitalist society.
It is the close relationship between radical environmentalism and the government that better accounts for XR’s success than any power XR generated for itself. XR succeeded not because it had mobilized the British public but because it used cash from philanthropic funds to reanimate a small army of surplus activists as an off-the-shelf PR outfit, with well-established strategic and communications teams and extant connections to media and government.
It was ever thus. Environmentalism has long been lucrative for the well-connected, who are able to tap into streams of cash from philanthropic foundations to service corporate social-responsibility virtue-signalling PR and government propaganda—big business, in other words. Very big.
The blueprint for this pact was established in the 1980s, when the United Nations appointed Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Brundtland’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, laid out the framework for a “sustainable” global political order.
In Brundtland’s schema, ordinary voters have no role in the body politic of the global ecological Utopia. In place of the democratic competencies of national governments, NGOs will serve as the real intermediaries between supranational governance, industry, finance, and science on the one hand, and the hoi polloi on the other. Thus, whereas green NGOs were once seen as single-issue campaigns or charities, they are today recast as “civil society.”
The quid pro quo has required NGOs to sustain two aspects. First, they must act like dignified members of global society, able to mingle politely with royalty, corporations, billionaires, dignitaries, and despots. Second, street-level environmentalists need to act as would a popular movement – a task which, despite the green movement’s half-century of history, it has not yet achieved. Hence, green activism is better characterized by high-profile, media-friendly stunts and shrill, alarmist rhetoric than by representative membership organizations with coherent constitutions and founding objectives.
This more performative role, however, has created a tension and a liability for the movement: the believers created by the unchallenged narrative of imminent doom are themselves left out of the cozy insiders’ compact.
Earlier this year, Michael Moore and director Geoff Gibbs’s film, Planet of the Humans, blew the green movement’s cover in the political mainstream. The film argued that, as radical as high-profile greens pretend to be, they are in fact the placemen of billionaires and corporate interests. Moreover, green energy turns out to be at least as environmentally destructive as any other extractive industry, and it requires the public—rather than the venture-capitalist backers of radical environmental movements—to provide subsidies for the demolition of forests and natural landscapes.
It is because the coordinates of the climate change debate are so easily turned upside-down that the green movement turns on its own with an aggression usually reserved for its putative enemies. Moore and Gibbs’s film was swiftly denounced as an abomination—a work of “far-right,” “white supremacist” fossil-fuel propaganda that must be censored.
Through its hostility to debate and dissent, environmentalism has spawned a growing movement of those whom it cannot accommodate and cannot answer: fire-and-brimstone ecological zealots that no policy will ever satisfy. Fearmongering, it turns out, is a Pandora’s box.
Pink paint is just the start. Coming over the horizon are Greta Thunberg’s contemporaries: an entire generation whose sense of the future is being shaped by ecological propaganda. What will this next generation do? They can’t all be bought off, as many in the first generation of environmentalists were, with jobs in eco-consultancies or NGOs to service the interests of hedge-fund managers. But they have learned from that generation’s teachers, scientists, and governments to despise democracy. And they have learned that the way to assert themselves is to take to the streets—not to give voice to carefully articulated grievances but to perform infantile tantrums.
Ben Pile is a researcher, commentator and blogger.