Environmentalism from Below

Appraising the Efficacy of Small-Scale and Subaltern Environmentalist Organizations

By Marianna Dudley

As the recent World Congress of Environmental History in Guimaraes (Portugal) confirmed, our discipline is a truly international endeavour. But while conferences provide opportunities to present work, discuss ideas and make new friends, busy schedules make it hard to consolidate these experiences into getting work done. Workshops, by contrast, offer a dedicated time and space to work with colleagues to develop ideas and engage in extended discussions of the issues and concepts that underpin – and challenge – our work. The Rachel Carson Center has made the workshop model a core part of its series of events, and was one of several supporters of the ‘Environmentalism from Below’ workshop held in Edmonton, Canada, this August.

Participants at the Environmentalism from Below workshop.
Participants at the Environmentalism from Below workshop.

Organizers Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper (University of Alberta) invited fifteen academics and activists to the University of Alberta to explore the efficacy of small-scale and ‘subaltern’ environmental organizations. Between us we crossed North America and the Atlantic Ocean to get to Edmonton, and represented a range of disciplines from environmental history to gender studies, to anthropology, to social archaeology, to geography. Our differences in approach would drive our discussions, as we worked together to define environmentalisms, asking each other: What is radical? What is fringe? What makes successful environmental activism, and should we evaluate small-scale activism in terms of success and failure?

We pre-circulated our papers before the workshop, and in addition to reading all the papers, were tasked each to offer constructive comments and criticism on one specific paper. These comments were given in sessions that lasted 40 minutes per paper, and were elaborated upon by the group. I had not experienced this before, and found the process quite intense as we defended our individual approaches and took on board comments and suggestions for improvement. However, this structure provided some detailed feedback to take away with us, and themes emerged over the first two days that we were able to discuss in the final third session that focused on themes and outputs. Several things became clear, as we worked through the papers. Though there had been no time-scale imposed on us, we were all focusing on a period falling roughly between the 1960s and the 1990s; we were discussing groups and individuals who often would not necessarily have identified themselves as environmentalists; the activism we study is place-based, with place and scale informing notions of success and efficacy; and it often encompasses multiple dichotomies, such as insider/outsider identification. From grass-roots organization to state approaches to environmental activism, a rich history of environmentalisms in the twentieth century emerged during the workshop.

By the final session we were able to identify these features as key themes that will bring our diverse papers together as an edited volume, the primary output of the workshop. This final stage was both vital and rewarding, the point where we really moved beyond differences to focus on commonalities and points of connection. As Zoltán Grossman pointed out, a diversity of subject and ideas in a volume appeals to both students, and their teachers compiling the reading list, and will be a strength of our publication. Jonathan and Liza have identified a publisher, and will edit the volume. The working title is Environmentalism on the Ground: Processes and Possibilities of Small Green Organizing.

Helmut Trischler, Director of the RCC and Head of Research at the Deutsches Museum (Munich), was able to join us in Edmonton and offered thoughtful insights throughout the workshop. In the final session, a number of us agreed that the RCC Perspectives would be a suitable outlet for many of the issues discussed over the course of the workshop, and will be putting together papers focusing on knowledge and place for submission in due course!

A number of papers looked at First Nations environmental activism in the US and Canada, which will form a key theme of the edited volume. These papers widened our understanding of environment as a cultural resource, and offer empowering examples of localized and hard-fought environmental justice campaigns – issues brought up to date by the keynote speaker, Emery Hartley. Hartley is an environmental activist working with the Friends of Clayoqout Sound, Vancouver Island (British Columbia), a non-profit society founded in 1979 to protect the area from industrial development. Since then the organization has coordinated peaceful direct action by the local community to protect the environment of Clayoquot Sound. Their 1993 campaign against the British Columbia government’s decision to log 74% of the Sound’s ancient forest became Canada’s largest peaceful civil disobedience, with over 12,000 participants blockading the logging area. Emery’s keynote presentation reminded us all of the ongoing difference small-scale environmentalism can make to places and people. Efficacy can be measured in many ways. Our papers will reveal efficacies of environmental activism, while acting themselves as testament to the efficacy of the workshop as a productive way of working in the environmental humanities.  


One Comment on “Environmentalism from Below

  1. Pingback: Environmentalism from Below - A guest blog for the Rachel Carson Center

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