It has been argued that there is room in any social movement for both reformers and the more radical and so the environmental movement should be able to accommodate both negotiators and activists. However, tensions arise not only from differing perspectives and ideologies but also from the practical effects of differing strategies.
Negotiation requires a degree of compromise and trust, as well as shared goals and assumptions between the negotiating parties. Activism is confrontational and is therefore not an option for those who wish to maintain respectability and gain the trust of decision-makers.
Negotiation is not an option which is available to more radical environmentalists. Leaders of environmental groups who are attempting to form links and alliances with the power structure will be wary of those in the group who undermine the group’s “respectability” with activism that challenges and confronts that power structure.
Good activism is designed to foster a sense of urgency and crisis so that people will cry out for change. Negotiation, however, can work against this by diffusing that sense of crisis and giving the impression that there is no need to worry since environmentalists are leading government in the right direction. This can be a false sense of confidence given the lack of power of negotiating environmentalists, particularly in times of recession.
Yet for negotiation to achieve change, those at the table have to be willing to walk out and take direct action in order to have any leverage. Without that, environmentalists are usually weaker than their corporate opponents, in terms of resources and economic power, and are therefore disadvantaged in any negotiation.
For many dark green environmentalists the existing power structure is itself the problem and they cannot see environmental problems being solved whilst that system remains in place. To endorse corporations or products made by corporations whose first priority is profit and who use their power to ensure that environmental reforms do not inhibit their ability to make profits is alien to them. To endorse political parties whose first priority is economic growth is similarly seen by them to be short-sighted pragmatism.
Activist Ally Fricker has criticised the ACF and TWS for their willingness to work within the system in this way:
This conservation grouping is dedicated to the system as we know it, but desires minor modifications and reforms. They promote a world of nice, sensitive developments: well-managed and striking a perfect balance between greed and need. They are dedicated to going ‘hand and hand’ with developers but not into the wilderness... they criticise economic growth but bend over backwards not to be categorised as anti-development.
Activism generally aims to engender public debate but negotiation tends to inhibit it because the debate takes place behind closed doors and only emerges when the parties fail to agree. It is what Brian Martin calls an “appeal-to-elites approach” and is aimed at decision makers rather than the community in general.
Superficially, it might seem that convincing or pressuring elites holds the best chance of achieving environmental goals. The difficulty with this approach is that elites in government and industry are often the ones with the most interest in policies and practices which damage the environment. Chemical companies and electricity authorities, for example, depend for profits or bureaucratic expansion on the increasing use of their products. Those who rise to high positions in such organisations therefore have a strong stake in maintaining profit and expansion. Logical argument is notoriously inadequate to convince a person who maintains a vested interest in a contrary view.
Negotiation does not attempt to achieve change through providing information, building networks and creating a public demand for those changes. Rather large environmental groups try to establish themselves as the representatives of all those who are environmentally inclined and to act on their behalf in negotiations with those in power.
To some extent this can disenfranchise those of the dark green complexion because the more successful some environmental leaders are at persuading the public and the policy makers that they represent the environment, the more those environmentalists who hold different viewpoints are marginalised and the more difficult it is for their viewpoints to be held. This can effect which issues get on the environmental agenda.
Negotiation also disenfranchises the wider public. When the CEO of a large environmental group negotiates with a corporation over emissions s/he does not represent the public who have no say in the final outcome. S/he may represent the board of his organisation but does s/he even represent the non-voting members/subscribers to their organisation?
Of course any one environmental group will have different types of people as members and it is not so easy to characterise large groups as light or dark green. However large environmental groups tend to be dominated by an elite, often professional environmentalists employed by these organisations:
The professional elite speaks the language, utilises the same arguments and is beginning to think in the same way as the governors of our society. No more arguments about wilderness; no more talk of scientific diversity; instead the game is mainstream politics: deals, bargaining, pragmatism and money.
The decision to to support the Labor Party during the Australian 1987 election under the banner "Vote for the Forests" was made by elite decision makers in the ACF and TWS, consisting of the paid professionals in those organisations based in the major capital cities without consultation with other campaigners or the membership. They argued that the alternative was a Liberal/National government that would be devastating the natural environment.
Due to the key positions of power this national elite held, they were able to convince the politicians, the media and the general public that their actions reflected the wishes of the movement in general.
The director of TWS, Jonathon West, had previously worked for the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Environment, Barry Cohen, in the Labor Government. During the election campaign it was West who negotiated tradeoffs and deals between the environment movement and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
In the 12 months before the 1987 election, the professional elite concentrated its efforts more on direct lobbying techniques aimed at influencing powerful people in the mainstream political sphere. The days of mass mobilisation campaigns, for which TWS was renowned, were over. The power of the movement was now in the hands of a small network of professionals who were far more interested in dealing with their counterparts in government than generating grassroots action.
The ALP won the 1987 election and the ACF and TWS again supported the ALP in the 1990 election, claiming the ALP victory was due to that support. ACF's director, Philip Toyne, was later employed by the Labor federal environment minister in 1994.
One problem with engaging in electoral politics in this way is that: "It does not challenge existing structures such as the bureaucratic organisation of the state and the profit system. Rather, entering election campaigns reaffirms the value of existing structures." Also it is not particularly effective at ensuring ongoing environmentally-friendly government policies in a business-managed democracy where governments have to maintain business confidence and tend to bow to business lobbies.
The shade of green a group is can determine the sort of issues it focuses. Phil Tighe and Ros Taplin noted at the Ecopolitics IV Conference:
Forestry and wilderness issues in Australian have been distinguished by three related features: they attract significant middle class popular support, particularly in the capital city electorates; they centre on the preservation (or destruction) of aesthetic landscapes at considerable distance from these urban centres of greatest support; and they never directly challenge the dominant economic and material concerns of their supporters.
More importantly the stance that one takes on an issue will be determined by one’s shade of green. In practice this can lead to environmentalists taking opposing sides in a controversy. The involvement of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in the hazardous waste issue in the 1980s was one of working with government. They were represented on the four member Joint Taskforce on Intractable Waste which was set up to establish a high temperature incinerator for burning hazardous wastes. They negotiated with government to ensure certain conditions were incorporated into the legislation and in return they helped to convince the public that the incinerator would be completely safe and to get other environmental groups to support it.
However the high temperature incinerator was an issue that highlighted the differences in attitudes between light and dark greens. The ACF was opposed by other environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who raised questions about whether environmentalists should help industry to dispose of wastes that should not have been produced in the first place; questions about whether it was likely governments would build an expensive end of the pipe solution for hazardous wastes and still do all that was necessary to minimise wastes once it was built; questions about whether enough is known about hazardous waste incinerators to guarantee their safety; questions about whether, if incinerators are not safe, a rural community and its environment should be sacrificed so hazardous wastes could be moved out of the city.