community engagement, environment, NGO

Will the real environmental movement, please stand up?

If we have based our judgement on news coverage that Australians are pouring out on the street to support environmental atrocities, you might be right to think the environmental movement is well and alive. Think about all the photos and the tweets in your stream for campaigns organised by groups like Lock the Gate, 350.org to the Solar Citizens and you would believe the green agenda is back in the black.

Professor Peter Christoff from University of Melbourne shared some excellent observations during The Future of Environmental Movements seminar which highlights that formal membership in mainstream NGOs is collapsing and what remains supporting its membership are passive participants. The reliance on a tax exempt status for charities or state-based or legislative funding is also threatened as freedom evaporates from our political agenda.

What we stand to lose as traditional NGOs are steadily being replaced by smaller social and grassroots organisations who have a razor sharp focus on an issue rather than a multitude that more established NGOs tend to have. The support for these local social movements have also showed Australians are more concerned about what is happening in our country over global environmental issues.

The threat of the RET being axed has also shifted industry associations like the Australian Solar Council into high gear with funding from its members being directed towards community events across Australia to spread the message. What impressed me with what the ASC was able to do was the speed at which it had raised funds to run its campaigns through some generous donations from its members. What might seem as an exercise to protect the interest of members in an industry association, I see as an example of how the broader community enjoys the benefit of speed, funding and agility to take it message to market much quicker.

Perhaps this razor focus for NGOs to have on specific issues rather than a multitude of global and Australian causes is the new mantra of what we would fight for and believe. It may be hard to rally financial support to champion the Great Barrier Reef, Indonesian forests, the overfishing of oceans globally and saving the Arctic under one umbrella because who ultimately determines which cause is much more worth supporting over another?

Should we applaud or discount armchair activists who stand for an issue, sign an online petition but wouldn’t rock up to a protest? Is power truly in numbers where people rally or is it in the invisible force that brings the word out through social media platforms?

Perhaps a future with smaller and less rigid environmental NGOs will return community action to the agility and speed it needs to keep up with change. And a rethink of funding and organisational structures could bring physical bodies back to rallies and events once again.

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