A collection of environmental campaign case studies published 45 years ago has been reprinted by Routledge, surprising and delighting co-editor Professor Jeremy Richardson, former Oxford University Professor of Comparative European Politics and currently Adjunct Professor at the University of Canterbury’s National Centre for Research on Europe (NCRE).
“As a very early political science work on environmental pressure groups and campaigns in the UK, Campaigning for the Environment provides context for today’s environmental activists, so I think that is why it is still seen as relevant,” Professor Richardson says. “I suppose we, [co-editor] Richard Kimber and I, were a bit ahead of the curve as two young lecturers; we were quite early in the field.”
The collection, originally published in 1974 and reprinted by Routledge, captures a bygone era, when localised issues dominated, campaign methods were simpler, and environmentalists had more chance of success because their demands were so much more achievable, he says.
“Compared with the current campaigns, the striking thing is how parochial environmental campaigning was 45 years ago. People were opposing a motorway through their beautiful countryside or they didn’t want an airport in their back doorstep or they didn’t want heavy lorries going through their village. They were certainly concerned about the environment but it was their local environment.
“Now we are all worried about our whole future and it is a much bigger issue of global warming.
“In the early 1970s, environmental campaigners could be successful because governments were addressing very local issues and could, for example, select a different route or even cancel the motorway altogether. Campaigners were concerned about quite small issues by today’s standards. They weren’t trying to change the world.
“Today, the challenges of climate change should involve governments taking much bigger and harder decisions. Now governments have to make some really tough decisions that are going to affect everybody. So while environmental groups are more vociferous and better organised, using social media, getting huge publicity and organising mass demonstrations, their effect on climate change policies so far is actually quite small.”
Environmental lobbying has changed radically from the “old-fashioned lobbying” of 45 years ago, which relied on contacting MPs, writing letters to the newspapers and getting some media coverage, through to the new social-media age where some campaigners are almost superstars.
Professor Richardson salutes new leaders, such as the Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, but questions their ability to affect global political change.
“I am an admirer of Greta; she has great courage to stand up and challenge big names like Donald Trump. She is certainly good news, but the central question is will politicians come forward advocating the sort of very tough policies she is advocating and, if they do, will sufficient voters support them?
“I am also strongly in favour of groups like Extinction Rebellion, because they help set the political agenda. As a result of their efforts, we are all aware of the climate change crisis. We now know there is a huge problem, but few of us are really prepared to fundamentally change our way of life. We take individual actions like not using plastic bags, and recycling materials, but that will have very little impact on the climate problem. The problem will only be solved by governmental action via big, and controversial, changes in public policies. As the saying goes, ‘if it is not hurting it is not working’.”
Professor Richardson has specialised in researching the dynamics and efficacy of pressure groups during a 50-year academic career. Focusing on environmental lobby groups was an early strand of his work, which grew from a common interest in environmentalism with his co-editor Richard Kimber.
· Campaigning for the Environment will be of interest to those working in the field of environment and sustainability, conservation and political studies, and is available in print and online.