A threat to growth? Environmental activism in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis

Since the crisis states have raised the stakes for environmentalists, cracking down on dissent and stifling criticism of the ecological costs of economic growth

Since 2008 more and more governments have been framing protests and opposition against resource-intensive economic activity – such as mining and oil pipelines – as a threat to economic stability and corporate competitiveness.

In 2012, as protests were raging against a proposal to build an oil pipeline from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, penned a letter to all Canadians: ‘environmental and other radical groups,’ he wrote, ‘threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda’ and ‘undermine Canada’s national economic interest’.  Granted, Canada’s Conservative government under Stephen Harper has been depicting and handling environmental activists in especially sinister ways. But this government is far from alone. Across the world policy-makers and business elites have been blaming environmental activists for interfering with the speed of ‘recovery’ – and thus future prosperity.

Notably, while portraying environmentalism as a threat to job security and economic stability, states have enhanced their powers to track activists and suppress protests. Three trends stand out.

The first is a surge in the surveillance of environmental groups. Police departments and intelligence agencies in countries like the US, UK, and Canada are using informants and undercover officers to infiltrate protests such as ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and spy on organisations like Greenpeace. The Canadian police have gone as far as calling recent protests ‘forms of attack’. States treating environmentalists as disruptive and seditious is certainly not new. Yet, with the scope deepening, this is taking on a new importance as a way of suppressing debate about the sustainability of today’s global economic growth.

Secondly, politicians are investing heavily to combat ‘eco-terrorists’ and police advocacy organisations. For example, in 2013 in New Brunswick, Canada, the cost to police a protest against shale gas operations exceeded C$4 million. Spending such amounts to fight ‘eco-terrorism’ and ‘environmental extremism’ has little to do with security threats to the general public, and far more to do with depicting environmentalists as extremists. This is part of a larger strategy to protect the soaring profits of big oil.

The third trend that stands out is a growing use of tax and charity laws to contain or close advocacy organisations. In 2012 the world-renowned Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki resigned from the board of directors of the David Suzuki Foundation after federal authorities enhanced the Canada Revenue Agency`s powers to enforce a rule that no more than 10 per cent of the budget of a ‘charity’ could fund ‘advocacy.’ In such a hostile climate many environmental organisations see little choice but to scale back political activism and focus instead on advocating for more moderate goals and less controversial projects. This shift in strategy is understandable, but has further narrowed public and political debates on the environmental costs of economic growth.

Through these and other measures, governments around the world are raising the legal and financial stakes of environmental campaigns. Activists everywhere are facing hefty fines and criminal charges, with informants and new surveillance technologies (such as facial recognition software) making it easier for states to prosecute charges like vandalism or trespassing. In these conditions the organisational and legal costs of environmental activism inevitably rise. At the same time stricter bylaws, injunctions and mass arrests are making it more difficult for activists to organise – and especially sustain – anti-globalisation protests and anti-government campaigns.

Being an environmental activist is extremely dangerous in many parts of the world. From 2009-11, for example, Global Witness, found a near doubling in the murders of activists and journalists who were opposing (or scrutinising) human rights abuses around issues such as mining, poaching and logging. Moreover, as natural resources become ever scarcer, activists who oppose industrial-scale extraction and production may well face even fiercer opposition in the future.

Significantly, as states suppress more radical strands of environmentalism, big-brand corporations are funding and partnering with more moderate wings of the environmental movement. To give just a few examples, according to Time magazine, in recent years the Sierra Club has taken tens of millions of dollars from the shale gas industry; whilst the WWF is partnered with Coca-Cola, the Gap, Avon, Bank of America, IKEA, Nabisco and many others.

The reality is that these corporate-NGO partnerships and cause-marketing campaigns are legitimising the current capitalist order, while delegitimising critiques and alternative ideas.

This is dividing and weakening the environmental movement. Environmental NGOs that moderate their positions and collaborate with business are being rewarded with tax breaks and funding, while those that question or oppose corporate profits or economic growth are being treated with increasing severity.

While CEOs claim traditional economic initiatives, such as pipelines and offshore oil, are vital for global financial recovery, governments are stifling critics (as well as climate scientists and others) and side-lining and delegitimising questions about the sustainability of accelerating growth in this way.  Yet these are questions we ignore at our peril.

After all, one of the greatest threats to international economic stability is the escalating global environmental crisis. It is time for governments to invest in tackling this crisis, rather than in policing the activists who are trying to wake politicians up.

About the authors

Genevieve LeBaron and Peter Dauvergne are co-authors of the book Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014).