North overconsumes resources, but efficiently

Friends of the Earth (FOE) in Netherlands has been fighting unsustainable lifestyles in the world's affluent societies by campaigning vigorously for sustainable development. Manus Van Brakel, who looks after FOE's Third World operations, talked to Down To Earth on the political effectiveness of FOE's campaigns and its concerns in a world with changing environmental perceptions.

 
By Sumanta Pal
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:57:02 AM

As a representative of an NGO from the North that looks into issues of the South, how do you react to conflicts between the South's priorities in sustainable development and those of the North?
It's a curious situation for an activist to realise the despondency of the situation. It's not that you need to be an environmentalist to appreciate the necessary initiatives. It's just amazing that people in the North, constituting one-quarter of the world's population, consume three-quarters of the world's resources. One agrees that consumption levels in the North will have to be reduced by more than 70 per cent, but I am not sure if a single consumer in the North will be too happy to do so. We have been trying through our campaigns to attack wasteful use of resources.

But consumption is not the same as wasteful use of natural resources. While one recognises the needs of the South, one has to think of the overall limitation of the earth's natural resources. The North is using its energy twice as efficiently as the South. One feels alarmed, therefore, that with less efficient technology in the South, the gap can only widen between the North and the South.

Are you suggesting that the North need not act first, though perception in the South is that this is what the North must do?
I think the assumption that the North must take the initiative is a fallacy. To the extent the issues have been globalised, the North and the South will have to supplement their activities. The common assumption that the North is responsible for colossal ecological damage, may not be a practical assumption.

Environmental campaigns have a tendency to wind up as a whimpering fund-raising activity. How politically effective have your campaigns been?
It's difficult to measure the political effectiveness of a campaign. Are you looking for an impact on the government in terms of legislation? Or, at consumers responding to your campaign? And, what about the captains of industry? The political effectiveness of campaigns is to a large extent dependent on the specific groups at which the campaigns are directed. I don't think campaigns die a natural death. On the contrary, they are necessary because you can't talk of sustainable development without involving the person on the street in the issues. FOE's campaigns, spearheaded by more than 30,000 members, have been issue-specific. So far, FOE has organised anti-timber, anti-packaging, anti-energy and anti-traffic campaigns. Each of these campaigns was preceded by careful strategy. hence, without losing the political context of the message, FOE campaigns have made significant contributions in evoking consumer awareness.

Are you therefore suggesting that FOE's campaigns are mostly consumer campaigns? Do you think awareness can be an end in itself?
Over the years, we have realised that it is more important to have consumers understand their stake than force the government to announce umpteen regulations. When we talk of sustainable packaging, it's not just a question of changing the packaging; it's a case of a society reacting to a system that for long has been accepted as natural. It's one thing to insist on producers reducing wasteful packaging, but quite another to get the consumer to use less packaging. For instance, the industry can be forced to re-use plastic bottles for shampoos. But, it is more important for consumers to be persuaded to return the used bottles. I am not suggesting awareness will ensure dividends, but awareness must precede legislation.

Have your campaigns kept pace with changing environment perceptions in the North?
Yes. Today, it is less to do with bottles or packaging and more to do with the people. "Right to Survival" has become a key issue and so the accent of our campaigns has changed. Therefore, FOE campaigns, as distinct from political propaganda, don't simply mean distribution of leaflets or using the media. An attitudinal change is what we are aiming at.

As for the political effectiveness of campaigns, the one for carbon dioxide reduction is an example of a campaign with a human face. We did not start this on a local level; it was more a national debate. But the greenhouse effect and carbon dioxide reduction turned into issues through local campaigns. This gave us a better basis to discuss these at the national level. Consumers were able to identify themselves with a cause and, in turn, they could pressurise the government to enact legislation for environmental protection. The problem with campaigns, however, is that they reach out to only 5 per cent of the population. In Europe, this percentage isn't small, but the majority of the population does remain out of the purview of such campaigns.

But if your campaigns reach only 5 per cent of the people, doesn't it mean that environmental movements organised through such campaigns, are merely peripheral?
Yes and no. One admits FOE campaigns cannot be equated with mass campaigns, at least not beyond a point. While 95 per cent of the people in Europe may be indifferent, they are not averse to our campaigns. Even industry accepts that what we have been saying is right. But the 95 per cent who are indifferent to our campaigns don't matter, because the other 5 per cent may consist of a core group that would ultimately affect the decision-making processes. Most important, a campaign directed at 5 per cent of the people may not ultimately be a dangerous thing!

How coordinated have your efforts been to use local municipalities in your campaigns? In this context, how have you been able to integrate local concerns with national concerns?
FOE has always laid emphasis on working on local municipalities through its local organisations. This has been one of the targets of our anti-energy campaigns. After discussions in the Climate Alliance in Germany, we are following up an agreement where Amazonians have promised to do their best to save their rainforests and Europeans have agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emission levels by 50 per cent. In Germany, 80 municipalities have joined the Climate Alliance. This is a success because even in a conservative city like Maastricht, participants in a discussion with local parliamentarians argued it was politically possible to reduce energy consumption by 50 per cent.

As far as integration of local and national issues is concerned, FOE has managed to frame local issues in the larger perspective of the national. The timber campaign is a good example. The Netherlands government has been forced to agree that by 1995 it will import only sustainably logged timber. The majority of municipal committees have reduced the use of tropical timber. But this issue had political ramifications as well. Timber traders and the Netherlands minister of economic affairs were linked in seeing this as a threat to usual practices. So, it was also necessary for them to develop alternative policies. That's how local initiatives can have an impact on national problems.

How has the national government responded to your campaigns? What kind of hurdles, if any, have you faced?
Today, you can't talk in terms of national governments because ministries have conflicting priorities. The ministries of agriculture, economic affairs and environment often are at loggerheads with each other. Let's take the case of the carbon dioxide reduction campaign. As the minister for economic affairs and the minister for trade were the more powerful, grassroot organisations sought to pressurise the minister for economic affairs to change his policies. Though the ministry of environment had been vested with regulatory powers, it had no role to play as far as policy decisions were concerned.

However, there are occasions when you can get results without governmental support. Take the case of the ban on PVC packaging. In more than 100 cities, consumer groups started targeting supermarkets, which finally had to concede to consumer demands because they realised more and more consumers were greening their consumption. In this case, the packaging industry could be made to succumb to consumer pressure, despite lack of governmental support.

You talk of industry responding to consumer demands. Do you think that though environment continues to remain an issue for industry, it has been dropped from the political agenda?
A tantalising question. If one goes by the number of green advertisements in the North, you can say with some degree of confidence that environment continues to remain an issue. On the other hand, industry has always tried to boost consumption levels, which is against the principles of sustainable development. While industry hasn't developed counter-campaign strategies, it has been successful at keeping pressure groups at bay. Some NGOs have adopted new strategies to fight industry's indifference to the environment, but legislative action has been scarce. In Japan, trade unions have started taking up environment initiatives independently of pressure groups, including NGOs.

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