Community environmentalism

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Community environmentalists and professional environmentalists are the purposive activists in Szerszynski's terms. What they share is a secular, or instrumental, emphasis, a focus on results, on changing policies and political decisions rather than on changing beliefs. Some of them retain in their own persons something of the spiritual, or ethical, motivation that played such a strong role in the early days of environmentalism, but in most of their activities the spiritual side is toned down. In terms of their relations to knowledge, both community and professional environmentalists tend to favor the factual, the empirical or scientific-technical approaches over the normative, or moral-philosophical; and their practices or dissemination strategies are more argumentative and rational than exemplary and ethical. In many countries, environmentalists have emerged from a common "movement" origin but as the years have progressed have tended to drift apart. The community environmentalists have tried to uphold the original strong democratic ambitions while the professionals have responded to an expanding range of opportunities that have opened up (see Fischer 2000). As we saw in chapter 3, in the 1970s at least some activists found ways to turn their environmental engagement into professional careers, and the career trajectories have diversified and multiplied ever since.

Community environmentalists emerged from the largely decentralized groups that oppose particular cases of environmental destruction and develop alternative initiatives for environmental improvements in their communities. Their work thus consists, in large measure, in the mobilization of "local" knowledge and experiences. There are, of course, many different kinds of such groups around the world, but what they all have in common is the ambition to empower local groups or communities by providing some new factual information. The information is primarily of two main types: empirical details about particular environmental problems (factories discharging effluents into the air or water, plans for new projects, and so on) and information about solutions to problems that are already known (how to recycle or distribute waste matter, how to calculate environmental impact or "ecological footprints," how to change projected plans or halt projects by suggesting alternatives). Community environmentalists thus produce and disseminate information. What is involved for them is local research and promotion of their findings.

Until the 1990s most of this community environmentalism was technical or medical, a kind of grass-roots engineering and lay epidemiology, or what Alan Irwin has called citizen science (see Irwin 1995). The idea was to disclose the hazards, risks, and environmental dangers that were lurking behind the scenes in the local community and to develop ways of mobilizing local skills in the creative resolution of those dangers. And while there are many amateur and now highly competent citizen scientists working throughout the world to identify problems and develop solutions, what has been added in the 1990s is an ambitious and much broader social agenda. For sustainable development is not merely about environmental problems: it is also about local governance, about making democracy work. So the knowledge and skills - the cognitive praxis - that are involved have become much broader to include techniques of communication, the translation of concepts, and, most crucially, combination, or synthesis. Community activism today is about synthesizing local knowledge and experiences with global challenges, and it is important that we understand the difficulties involved. No longer "environmentally centered," the challenge for local activists is to create processes of dialogue and facilitate what might be termed "social innovations of strong democracy."

In Europe it has been primarily under the rubric of "Local Agenda 21" that such groups have been given both a mandate and an ever more influential role to play in environmental politics and policy-making in recent years (O'Riordan and Voisey eds. 1997). Many of these activities were started in the aftermath of the Brundtland Report of 1987, Our Common Future, which was the work of an international commission headed by the former Norwegian prime minister (and environmental minister) Gro Harlem Brundtland, presently the director of the World Health Organization (WHO). In the Scandinavian countries as well as in Germany and the Netherlands substantial "follow-up" programs were established after publication of Our Common Future. In Denmark there have been a large number of local projects in urban ecology so residents have been given the opportunity to propose and develop environmentally friendly improvements in their neighborhoods: collective gardens, the installation of solar heating panels and wind-power plants and, perhaps most significantly, the creation of new procedures for energy conservation and recycling of household waste (see Holm 1999). In many of these programs particular techniques have been developed for taking into account an individual's or a family's ecological impact in terms of energy use and food consumption. The idea is that a community, or neighborhood, or region, can calculate its "ecological footprint" and on the basis of such information may devise local agendas for reform and strategic improvement (for details on these developments in different European countries see Lafferty 1999).

In Norway, Brundtland's home country, there has been, as might be expected, a somewhat more organized effort to respond to the call for sustainable development than in many other countries (see Aall 1999). A campaign for environment and development was launched in 1987 and, after a round of planning and preparations, the parliament established a new kind of "umbrella" organization in 1990 to operate at a local level with various kinds of initiatives in sustainable development. The Environmental Home Guard, as the organization has come to be called, was formally created in 1991 and to date it has some 75,000 members. As with similar activities elsewhere in Europe the Home Guard operates through specific agents who work in offices at the municipal level, but it is the voluntary involvement of people in specific activities with which the organization is most concerned. The activities are often carried out in cooperation with schools or daycare centers and involve attempts to produce various kinds of change toward more environmentally friendly behavior and consumption. One important feature of the Home Guard is its close alliance with the main environmental organizations in Norway to provide expertise in specific topic areas, but also channels of dissemination and communication.

In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil produced an ambitious political agenda for the twenty-first century, the so-called Agenda 21, which formulated a large number of specific tasks at different levels of society as a way to implement more sustainable paths of socio-economic development. In many European countries laws were passed requiring all municipalities to produce their own Local Agenda 21 documents, with various plans and projects for implementation. One criterion for these plans has been the participation of members of the public in measures to achieve sustainable development. But interpretation of what public participation means in practice has varied enormously from municipality to municipality and from country to country (see Jamison ed. 1998).

A comparison of three municipalities in Sweden gives a good indication of the range of interpretations of "public participation" (Andringa et al. 1998: 90-98). Malmo, the largest of the three, has also had the most diverse activities. There, the "official" Local Agenda 21 activity consisted primarily of the drafting and eventual negotiation of a formal planning document, ofgeneral principles and aims for the achievement of sustainable development. At the sub-municipal level, however, Agenda 21 program funding made it possible for particular neighborhoods to carry out projects in urban renewal. Perhaps the most innovative result has been the establishment of a Green House in Malmo, where the different local activists can exchange experiences and discuss common problems. It should be noted, however, that of the three municipalities Malmo provided the least amount of funding per inhabitant. And it can be questioned how sustainable the overall development strategy for the municipality is in light of the massive highway expansion that has been carried out in connection with the recent construction of the bridge to Denmark.

In Lund, Local Agenda 21 appears to have had a greater impact on local government and public administration. For one thing, those who were hired to carry out the general operation of the activity were located physically in the municipal government building, and they were given resources to organize a number of thematic study groups around the town in collaboration with environmental experts at the university. Many more people were thereby involved in the actual formulation of a Local Agenda 21 document, and thus there were a number of specific proposals in relation to transportation and waste recycling that were able to be implemented more or less immediately.

Finally in Vaxjo, the third municipality, a significant amount of new productive industrial activity was directly stimulated by the Local Agenda 21. As a kind of "pilot" project, the national conservation society placed one ofits own experts in the town and helped to bring together, in the process, people from different social constituencies. In particular local businessmen, interested in developing the commercial use of "wood chips" for energy production, were given the opportunity to meet informally with representatives of local environmental organizations as well as with the local governmental authorities. One result has been a new kind of renewable energy technology that has great potential in areas that are surrounded by forests, such as Vaxjo, where wood chips are an inevitable and often under-utilized waste product from the lumber industry (see Lofstedt 1996).

In other parts of the world similar projects of community-based en-vironmentalism have been stimulated by the calls for sustainable development that have emanated from international conferences and national governments (see Low et al. 2000). William Shutkin has described how in the Dudley area of Boston local residents have teamed up with former New Alchemist John Todd to develop plans for community gardening and ecological food production (Shutkin 2000: 143ff). In Oakland, CA, Shutkin also reports how plans for revitalizing the downtown area have been developed in conjunction with the improvement of the local collective transportation system's station facility. Further north, much like many of their counterparts in Europe, local government officials have formulated a plan for a "Sustainable Seattle" with a system of indicators of sustainability by which people can be made accountable for their actions (Connelly and Smith 1999: 300-305).

In Southern Europe (Greece, Spain, and Portugal), community-based environmental activism in the decades following the collapse of dictatorial regimes made significant steps towards the amelioration of environmental problems. These advances were mostly urban, defensive, and exposure-related forms of resistance which transcended the political traditions of the past and, when needed, established networks with national as well as international professional environmental organizations to try and solve serious environmental problems at the local level. Official responses to these local citizen and environmental activists, however, have been primarily negative (Kousis 1999).

In many developing countries there is a substantial community-based environmentalism that is often supported by development-assistance organizations in the industrialized countries. These efforts at "ecodevelop-ment," or green development, as William Adams has called them, were, at an early stage, stimulated by the training programs and other activities of the United Nations Environment Programme which was established after the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 (Adams 1990; Sachs 1994). Over the years involvement of non-governmental development and environmental organizations in these projects has increased to the point where many environmentalists have developed an expertise in both project management and particular techniques of public participation and collaboration (Chambers 1997).

Ideas and procedures of "participatory rural appraisal" and the concept of sustainable development itself, both linking environmental protection to economic production, were born out of these experiences. In the 1970s WWF, IUCN, and UNEP together formulated a World Conservation Strategy which criticized the relegation of environmental protection to a special and often marginal sector in the world of "development" (Sachs 1999). What has changed over the past thirty years is the involvement of the private sector. Now, as elsewhere, there is often a commercial interest in many of these projects. As development assistance has been linked in many countries to the needs of the national industry it is sometimes more difficult than before to see who is actually benefiting from specific sustainable development projects.

Many of the programs that have been established in the 1990s follow the precepts of ecological modernization, or green business, in trying to "economize" ecology and translate community activism into new forms of management and engineering. As such, the meanings of participation are highly varied, and often incompatible. The participation of a local government official is very different from the participation of a potential consumer of the products from a "cleaner" local factory. While empowerment is the aim for all participatory activities of community environ-mentalism it is important to recognize that empowerment is not without its contradictions. In the words of Robert Chambers, "whether empowerment is good depends on who is empowered, and how their new power is used. If those who gain are outsiders who exploit, or a local elite which dominates, the poor and disadvantaged may be worse off" (Chambers 1997: 217).

In many respects these new kinds of activity may be considered as an outgrowth of the environmental activism that first manifested itself in the 1960s and 1970s. It was primarily as a collection of specific local groups, with specific local grievances, that an environmental movement emerged in many parts of the world, and this category of resistance thus represents a kind of continuity across the decades. What has changed and developed is what might be termed the social or political consciousness among them.

The NIMBY, or "not in my backyard," label came into use in the 1970s as this kind of environmentalism took on a greater political significance, particularly in the United States, in the so-called "toxic waste" protests that began in the Love Canal area of Buffalo, New York, when local citizens discovered poisons buried under their communities (Szasz 1994). Like most such labels NIMBY was coined by the opponents of the resisters and so undercuts the true meaning of community-based environmental activism (Dowie 1996: 126-140).

In general, these kinds of protest have a number of common features that are useful to characterize. They have been mobilized by concerned citizens, often new to politics, who have reacted to particular local problems. They have been specific in the sense that they have focused on particular cases of environmental degradation. And they have been temporary. Sometimes there have been recurrences, or remobiliza-tions, and in many cases expansions, extensions, or even institutionalizations, in terms of forming local parties or alliances with similar groups. But the actual process of resistance has been difficult to sustain or to make into a permanent feature of community life.

In some European countries community-based environmentalism has been, to a large extent, state supported, and organized through particular projects and local initiatives: what Carlo Aall, writing about the Norwegian case, has termed "sustainability light" (Aall 1999; see also Bovin and Magnusson 1997). In Denmark a special "green fund" has been created, by which resources are allocated through the Ministry of the Environment to local projects in sustainable development, and there has been a program for "green guides," people who have been placed in municipalities and business firms on a temporary basis, to serve as catalysts for activities in energy conservation, urban ecology, transport planning, etc. (L^ss0e 1994; Holm 1999). The critical, and oppositional, elements of environmental activism - and knowledge-making - have inevitably tended to be toned down and the result, in many countries, is a kind of popular science activity in the name of ecology that serves as a complement to official research and development programs. What has emerged is thus a kind of surrogate and highly circumscribed movement which receives public support for its activities, but, on the other hand, is given little role to play in official decision-making processes (see L^ss0e 1999).

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