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Russ Grayson
...by Russ Grayson, July 2007
A focus group looks at the decline of environment groups and ponders the future of sustainability activism in the new century

There's a feeling that now, in the early years of the 21st century, things are different. People want to engage with issues differently than they did 20 years ago. They want to engage with sustainability. But how do they do this and what should be done to identify, engage and support them?

That was the question of a focus group that gathered in late July of this year at the UTS building in Jones Street, Broadway. It was the second such gathering. That of the previous day had been for members of environmental advocacy groups. Today, it was the turn of a broader cross section, people drawn from a wider swath of community action groups. This group had been called together because the researchers saw it as representative of contemporary approaches to creating positive change in our society.

Decline forces reassessment

The UTS research that the focus groups form part of was instigated by a number of major, established environmental organisations that see the need for a new sense of direction. They want to identify the most effective course to take in the new century.

Behind the move lies something significant and disturbing for these peak environmental groups - a marked decline in membership. It seems the ground of public participation is shifting and their once-firm foundations are in danger of collapse. Even the once in-your-face Greenpeace is reported to have undergone a substantial membership decline.

The question underlying the proceedings was that of the structure and approach of these established enviromental groups. Are they still in synch with public thinking and practice? Is a new activism, new organisational structures and a fresh approach necessary to their continued relevance?

Those organisations - the Total environment Centre, ACF and others - are the products of the first phase of environmental activism and may, with nothing derogatory being intended, be considered as 'legacy' organisations. They date back to the 1970s in some cases and, sometimes, it can seem that their thinking has changed little since then.

Their structure can be narrowly campaign-based... campaigns to 'save' this or that, campaigns 'against' that or the other thing. Until recently, little was heard of campaigns 'for' the betterment of issues. Frequently, their focus is on the natural environment and species of wildlife, plant or remnant bushland rather than the built and social environments which is what most of us are immersed in. This is not to deny the importance of their campaign foci or of the value of a campaign-based approach, nor the fact that some groups have sometimes branched out into economic or other focused campaigns. The question is about the way a campaign should be structured to comply with contemporary thinking and living, and the pervasive presence of the new media.

What's the problem?

In discusssing how best to engage with people in the new circumstances of the early 21st century, a number of interesting points emerged:

  • is the focus on individual issues, such as particular environmental campaigns like those to save a forest or stop a mine, discouraging engagement with the broader philosophies behind sustainability?
  • engagement with broad issues such as global warming, rather than with narrowly defined campaign-based environmentalism, triggers thought on associated issues
  • stepping stones of easily accomplished tasks - known in sustainability educator's jargon as the 'low hanging fruit' - are necessary to motivate people to engage with bigger issues of longer duration
  • the mere provision of information is insufficient to create behavioural change.

This last point shows up in the findings of the Social Marketing methodology for community behavioural change. This approach, developed initially by Douglas McKenzie-Moore, goes well beyond the provision of information and 'awareness raising'. Those things remain important but they inform changes in behaviour and are not the main product or focus.

One participant said that people are choosy about the sustainability initiatives they participate in. This is the case where he lives on Sydney's lower North Shore. People there tackle some sustainability issues but avoid others and so do not make a complete change.

Another participant explained that the EarthWorks community waste reduction program was a success that could be emulated. Its focus was on developing community leaders who would take their own public initiatives in waste reduction.

The ACF Green Home program was cited as a success story. Green Homes was trialled in NSW and is now being implemented in Victoria. It consists of meetings over a six or so month period that build on each other and that aim to improve householder behaviour in areas such as energy and water conservation, safe home cleaning and home gardening. Meetings can attract over 200 people. Local government hires ACF to implement a Green Homes program. A learning that has emerged is that the program benefits from follow-up activities by councils to supplement the practices learned and to maintain a participant network.

One of the local government sustainability educators said that she has noticed an increase in participation in her sustainable living course in the past year or two. She said that the five week, one evening per week courses enabled people to learn from each other and that participants found support for their efforts from others in the courses. Another said that councils were finding difficulty in meeting the demand for hands-on education. This is likely to be attributable to the impact of the public conversation around global warming.

Further evidence that the modes of social engagement are undergoing change was cited:

  • local climate action groups have become part of the urban social milieu over the past year; membership of these groups has increased as that of environment groups has declined
  • the success of this year's Earth Hour in engaging an estimated 2.2 million people through locally based community action indicates the success of that model of social engagement
  • the focus of conflict is now between consumerism and sustainability; an indicator of this is the power of non-buying campaigns such as that directed against Nestle; culture jammers overseas run an annual 'buy nothing' day to draw attention to problems with the culture of consumerism
  • there has been an increase in enrollment in TAFE bushcare and similar courses, suggesting the attraction of hands-on environmental action
  • community gardens are becoming platforms for sustainability through providing educational services ranging from informal how to compost and make a garden workshops to accredited training in the permaculture design system
  • a green businessman said that he has noted a growing sense of people's 'control over money' leading to their investing in sustainability technologies; another questioned whether 'green' spending reinforced consumerism; that was challenged by the comment that it is a desirable type of consumerism because it leads to the adoption of the green technologies that form part of the move towards sustainability
  • the 'professionalisation' of environmentalism through tertiary courses makes careers available and so reduces the need to join established environment groups to effect change and enact participation in the field; this is 'mainstreaming'
  • people now take their activism online rather than to the established groups that make up the environment movement; participatory websites like GetUp (http://www.getup.org.au) are now the scene of campaigning; it is a no-membership organisation based on common interests, electronically linked; GetUp is stating to promote the idea of 'GetTogethers' so activists can meet.

Connectivity, mobility, community action

The GetUp strategy takes advantage of the online orientation of the younger demographic and the techno-literate of the older generation. That connectivity technologies are now an established part of our culture is undeniable; that mobile technologies, such as the mobile Internet via mobile telephony, are part of people's lives takes little more to confirm than watching people on the bus.

This seems to be a form of activism suited to the type of society we inhabit, applying political pressure through online media. That GetUp is promoting GetTogethers indicates that it may have a formula appropriate for the times, taking it into territory largely unexplored by the established environment groups and using communications technologies about which the leadership of many of the old groups are largely illiterate. In a time when even politicians make use of YouTube, environment groups that fail to use new media for delivering their messages are likely to find themselves talking to an aging and shrinking membership with few fresh faces to be seen.

It may be reasonable to suggest, then, that the leadership of these groups should seriously consider intergenerational handover or take a crash course in Web 2 to transform their thinking, their approach and their organisations. It may also be that these old environment groups that started out as a reaction to 'saving' the natural environment are a good idea whose time has passed, a legacy phenomenon.

The ACF may be the exception as they seem to have transformed the old, campaigning structure into an educational organisation that motivates behavioural and attitudinal change. Their use of web-based technologies, such as their online ecofootprint calculator, may play no small part in their apparent success.

The difficulty of language

There was agreement that naming was important in forming perceptions about sustainability and the role of individuals and organisations working towards it.

On of the green businessman said that big corporations have op-opted the term 'sustainability'. Another participant said that the term remains useful because, in its general interpretation, it has a wide currency in society.

The idea of identifying those present, along with others, as sustainability 'champions' received a mixed response. Useful it might be for publicity, it implies a competitive process that might not fit well with sustainability because of the need to make groups inclusive.

The language of legislation at the federal and state government levels filters thorough to local government and on into the sustainability dialogue. Thus, it become adopted. Language also transmutes. Waste 'avoidance' becomes 'consumption reduction'.

The use of negative frameworks by environment groups makes them appear reactive and defensive. This comes through the use of language such as the campaign 'against' something or that to 'save' something else. There's no denying that such language has been effective, probably by engendering the perception of impending loss and thus stirring people to action. But whether such language is attractive to a younger demographic or is merely seen an 'old' and reactionary to the initiatives of others is a good question. Is there a link between the way campaigns are framed and the declining membership of established environment groups?

It was suggested that proactively worded campaigns 'for' something that is perceived to be socially benificial and good might work better.

And so to permaculture

What does the research have to offer permaculture practitioners?

The first question is to do with the type of organisations permaculture people set up. Are they like the legacy environmental groups with their campaign based action? Are they a more viable form of organisation capable of encouraging sustainable behaviour? Are they  narrowly focused on home gardening or are they connected with the big challenges society faces, such as global warming and peak oil?

That would best be judged by looking at the trend in membership of local permaculture associations and at peak bodies like Permaculture International. Unfortunately, there is no objective assessment of the viability or trend in local associations as permaculture does not have a mechanism to monitor this. There is no peak body representing all of those in the design system, and the decantralised structure of permaculture in Australia allows no effective measure of trends. All we have to go on are the observations, guestimates and off-the-cuff assessments of permaculture groups and individuals. We have to weigh up the observation that some permaculture associations continue to be viable while others, once substantial and influential, have disappeared.

Permaculture Sydney would fit the latter category but why it went through two quite successful incarnations then disbanded remains only guessed at. In Australia's biggest city - almost five million people - there would seem to be room for multiple local groups. That this was the case in the 1990s simply adds to the dilemma. Then, Permaculture Sydney spun off Permaculture South and Permaculture Inner West.

Permaculture North grew from people associated with Permaculture Sydney who saw the need for a more regionally focused group on the North Shore. This can be attributed to the city's geography which, unlike Melbourne or Adelaide, is fractured by the harbour and river valleys, and which has evolved, because of state government policy, into a number of regional centres. There is also the possibility that the types of activities fostered by Permaculture Sydney - site visits and the like - became increasingly unattractive to members.

It is also likely that Permaculture Sydney arose at a time before permaculture had moved from the early adopter stage into early mass adoption. In contrast, Permaculture North exists at a time when it can take advantage of the design system's wider acceptance. An indicator that the organisation is taking the right approach comes from their partnership-like arrangement with a local government body and the resultant provision of education.

Partnerships with local government and other bodies should produce a multiplier effect for permaculture. Likewise those sustainability educators in local government that come from a permaculture background and others that are sympathetic to the design system. Building alliances, too, would seem a benificial move as would the participation of permaculture practitioners in organisations such as climate change and relocalisation groups.

Indicitative of the new opportunities that global warming and peak oil offer permaculture advocates is Tim Winton's Permaforest Trust (http://www.permaforesttrust.org.au) which is now offering training as 'post-carbon professionals'. This is further evidence of the way that emerging social trends can offer new directions for permaculture.

The ground of public participation is shifting but astute permaculture associations who can monitor trends can adapt, survive and thrive.

A focus group looks at the decline of environment groups and ponders the future of sustainability activism in the new centuryThere's a feeling that now, in the early years of the 21st century, things are different. People want to engage with issues differently than they did 20 years ago. They want to engage with sustainability. But how do they do this and what should be done to identify, engage and support them?

That was the question of a focus group that gathered in late July of this year at the UTS building in Jones Street, Broadway. It was the second such gathering. That of the previous day had been for members of environmental advocacy groups. Today, it was the turn of a broader cross section, people drawn from a wider swath of community action groups. This group had been called together because the researchers saw it as representative of contemporary approaches to creating positive change in our society.

Decline forces reassessment

The UTS research that the focus groups form part of was instigated by a number of major, established environmental organisations that see the need for a new sense of direction. They want to identify the most effective course to take in the new century.
Behind the move lies something significant and disturbing for these peak environmental groups - a marked decline in membership. It seems the ground of public participation is shifting and their once-firm foundations are in danger of collapse. Even the once in-your-face Greenpeace is reported to have undergone a substantial membership decline.

The question underlying the proceedings was that of the structure and approach of these established enviromental groups. Are they still in synch with public thinking and practice? Is a new activism, new organisational structures and a fresh approach necessary to their continued relevance?
Those organisations - the Total environment Centre, ACF and others - are the products of the first phase of environmental activism and may, with nothing derogatory being intended, be considered as 'legacy' organisations. They date back to the 1970s in some cases and, sometimes, it can seem that their thinking has changed little since then.

Their structure can be narrowly campaign-based... campaigns to 'save' this or that, campaigns 'against' that or the other thing. Until recently, little was heard of campaigns 'for' the betterment of issues. Frequently, their focus is on the natural environment and species of wildlife, plant or remnant bushland rather than the built and social environments which is what most of us are immersed in. This is not to deny the importance of their campaign foci or of the value of a campaign-based approach, nor the fact that some groups have sometimes branched out into economic or other focused campaigns. The question is about the way a campaign should be structured to comply with contemporary thinking and living, and the pervasive presence of the new media.What's the problem?

In discusssing how best to engage with people in the new circumstances of the early 21st century, a number of interesting points emerged:

  • is the focus on individual issues, such as particular environmental campaigns like those to save a forest or stop a mine, discouraging engagement with the broader philosophies behind sustainability?
  • engagement with broad issues such as global warming, rather than with narrowly defined campaign-based environmentalism, triggers thought on associated issues stepping stones of easily accomplished tasks - known in sustainability educator's jargon as the 'low hanging fruit' - are necessary to motivate people to engage with bigger issues of longer durationthe mere provision of information is insufficient to create behavioural change.

This last point shows up in the findings of the Social Marketing methodology for community behavioural change. This approach, developed initially by Douglas McKenzie-Moore, goes well beyond the provision of information and 'awareness raising'. Those things remain important but they inform changes in behaviour and are not the main product or focus.

One participant said that people are choosy about the sustainability initiatives they participate in. This is the case where he lives on Sydney's lower North Shore. People there tackle some sustainability issues but avoid others and so do not make a complete change.

Another participant explained that the EarthWorks community waste reduction program was a success that could be emulated. Its focus was on developing community leaders who would take their own public initiatives in waste reduction.

The ACF Green Home program was cited as a success story. Green Homes was trialled in NSW and is now being implemented in Victoria. It consists of meetings over a six or so month period that build on each other and that aim to improve householder behaviour in areas such as energy and water conservation, safe home cleaning and home gardening. Meetings can attract over 200 people. Local government hires ACF to implement a Green Homes program. A learning that has emerged is that the program benefits from follow-up activities by councils to supplement the practices learned and to maintain a participant network.

One of the local government sustainability educators said that she has noticed an increase in participation in her sustainable living course in the past year or two. She said that the five week, one evening per week courses enabled people to learn from each other and that participants found support for their efforts from others in the courses. Another said that councils were finding difficulty in meeting the demand for hands-on education. This is likely to be attributable to the impact of the public conversation around global warming.

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