From movements to institutions

It is one of the underlying arguments of this book that the political quest for sustainable development is best thought of as an ongoing series of cultural transformations by which the visionary ideas and utopian practices of the environmental movement are working their way into the social lifeblood. From this perspective, the ever more cooperative, or "constructive," roles that many environmental organizations and former activists have taken on can be said to represent a transition from movement to institution, as ideas and activities that were previously considered radical or alternative are now being translated into more acceptable forms (Eder 1996). As the environmental "movement" has come to be redefined, however, and, in the eyes of many, reduced primarily to the machinations of large, "non-governmental" organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, something rather fundamental seems to have changed. In the process of winning influence and organizational strength the messages that are being projected and the activities that are being carried out have been transformed in subtle ways. In choosing to join the mainstream there has been a certain narrowing of focus, as well as a kind of professional differentiation, by which the different organizations have divided up what was once a "movement space" into their own specialized areas of operation (Jamison 1996).

Institutionalization has not gone unchallenged, however. In a variety of ways there has been a number of reactions to the new "institutions," both within the establishment itself, as well as among some of the former allies of the institutionalizers, who have begun to identify themselves with some of the losers, or marginalized victims, of the process. A fragmentation, or diversification, of what was once a smaller, but more unified, movement has thus developed. And it has become far more complicated to retain a sense of autonomy and coherence in relation both to the dominant and more residual cultural formations. The challenge has become twofold: on the one hand, not to give in completely to the "rules of the game" of the established social actors, and, on the other, to avoid the ideological simplifications of many of those who are critical of the compromising and conciliatory requirements of institutionalization.

In this chapter I attempt to place these processes in a longer-term time perspective. The general claim is that many social movements of the past, much like the environmental movements of our time, have provided a seedbed, or alternative public space, for the articulation of utopian "knowledge interests" that have then been translated into more socially acceptable forms of knowledge-making (Eyerman and Jamison 1991). Social movements, that is, have periodically served as important contexts for the reconstitution of knowledge.

Francesco Alberoni has distinguished between the "nascent states" of movements in formation and the institutions that movements often become, and has placed their interaction at the center of his theory of social change. As he put it: "It must be remembered that all institutions and all value systems arose originally as a nascent state and often are only a way of channeling and conserving its tremendous energies" (Alberoni 1984: 83). The nascent state, or social movement, mobilizes enormous amounts of human energy and creativity and it is, we might say, only natural that societies have great difficulty in "taming" or institutionalizing those energies. It is also natural that there will be those who object to the efforts by the powers-that-be to bring social movements under control, that is, to get them to stop moving. By exploring some of the historical precursors to contemporary environmentalism, we might be better able to appreciate what is at stake in the contemporary conflicts over environmental politics, particularly in relation to the greening of knowledge. If we can tap into a "usable past" we might even be better prepared to keep the emerging ecological cultural formation from being watered down into meaninglessness and being destroyed by the reactions it unleashes. We might indeed be able to learn something from history.

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