Winning Over the Public

| 13th September 2013
Craig Bennett, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Friends of the Earth, asks what it means to campaign in the twenty-teens?

For many people, it was public campaigning that defined the birth of the modern environment movement as it emerged just over 40 years ago. The 1970s saw a series of headline-grabbing actions by the newly formed Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, stimulating mainstream public debate on issues ranging from whaling and endangered species to packaging and toxic chemicals, nuclear power and acid rain, and much more besides.

This was a young and passionate movement shouting to make itself heard. And it was heard – partly because of the fresh new tactics, and partly because of the fresh new message.

Today’s generation of campaigners have a lot to thank that previous generation of campaigners for. Through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, they largely succeeded in winning the argument that the planet was in crisis and that this was happening because of human activity.

Political leaders queued up to tick the green box and give the impression, at least, that they were tackling the issues. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the 1988 Conservative Party conference in which she said, “It’s we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth – we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come”? And remember all those world leaders, including President George Bush, turning up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit?

There are many people in the movement who yearn for the good old days. “Where has the gung-ho, do-anything-say-anything-spirit of the 1970s gone?” I sense them mutter.

I don’t believe that today’s generation of campaigners have any less passion than their predecessors. But I do believe that one of the lasting legacies of the previous generation was to develop many new possible routes to achieving change, and that perhaps the environment movement has been too slow to fully understand this and adapt accordingly. Did we collectively become so bewildered by the choices on offer that we lost some of the focus we had in those early days?

What is a campaign?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a campaign as “a series of coordinated activities ... designed to achieve a social, political, or commercial goal”.

As a campaigner, I like this definition. I like the recognition that a campaign has to consist of several activities, not just a one-off stunt or report launch. I like the recognition that a campaign has to have an element of design. Good campaigners will always need to be that rare breed of person who can adapt and change plans at a moment’s notice. But this needs to be within the context of a carefully designed political or change strategy.

What I most like about this definition, however, is the assertion that any given campaign will exist to deliver a goal (singular), and not goals (plural). This was, surely, one of the secrets of the previous generation’s success. They campaigned to “Stop Whaling”, “End Toxic Waste Shipments” and “Stop Acid Rain”. They knew, of course, that many complex things needed to happen to realise each of these goals, but they didn’t let this complexity confuse their purpose and focus.

In contrast, when I reflect on many of the environment movement’s campaigns from the last decade, they seem to me to have been over-complicated and confused. Perhaps this is partly because there are so many people in the environment movement now with deep issue and policy expertise. This can be a problem just as much a gift. As the old adage goes, if you want a simple answer, don’t ask an expert. But I think it is also because we are trying to pack too many objectives into our campaigns now, as if campaigning in the short term for anything less than the totality of sustainable development feels like a cop-out.

We need to give ourselves a collective break. If we want to make real progress towards a more sustainable world within the next 40–50 years (and the science tells us we barely have as long as this), we need to divide the quest for sustainability into small, manageable chunks. We then need to allow each other to focus on a particular chunk, and to understand and respect how it all fits together.

I find it helpful to break the jobs down into the long-, medium- and short-term.

Campaigning for long-term change

What is our vision for the kind of world we want four decades from now?

In my view, the environment movement has never been very good at this when compared to the competition. Take the neo-liberals, for example, who set out a vision in the 1960s and 1970s of a world of ‘free markets’, ‘deregulation’, ‘small-government’, and ‘economic growth’, and adopted this common and beguiling vocabulary to communicate their vision, consistently and relentlessly. They were so successful, that neo-liberalism remains a dominant political ideology despite failing spectacularly its own terms, as evidenced by the financial crisis (caused largely by deregulation).

Now is precisely the right time to be developing and promoting an alternative vision to neo-liberalism, and for the environment movement to work out what a sustainable world might really look like and what the big changes are that will actually get us there.

For too long we’ve talked about ‘sustainable development’ as an academic concept rather than what it could and should be: a practical reality. For too long we’ve debated sustainability in a conceptual sense, as if we’ve got all the time in the world, when we know that time is actually our most scarce resource. And for too long we’ve allowed our critics to frame environmentalism as a step backwards, when we know it to be a critical step forward for humanity. It’s curious, for example, that there are very few dedicated environmental think tanks.

So it’s time for some of us to focus on campaigning for the long term, and to learn how to do this well. Part of the movement needs to work on our route map to a more sustainable world in 2050, and to set out the big changes and milestones that need to happen, decade on decade, to get us there – in a joined-up and holistic way.

But if we’re going to do this well, we need to see it as a separate job from campaigning on specific issues in the short or medium term.

Campaigning for change in the medium term

Long-term visions and route maps serve an important purpose, but they don’t directly result in the development of new, well-thought-out policy measures.

At one time the environment movement didn’t have much influence in policy circles and preferred to shout loud from outside the tent and hope that sooner or later someone on the inside would respond. But thanks to the success of the previous generation of campaigners, today’s generation can sometimes have a direct impact on shaping policy. Given that this is the case, we need – as a movement – to get really good at it, and not confuse access with influence.

It has been well documented how those leading the campaign for a living wage worked very effectively behind the scenes when Labour was in opposition during the 1990s to develop the detailed policy proposals to enact the minimum wage. As a result, they were pretty much ready to introduce to parliament the moment Labour got into power. Similarly, much has been written about the clever policy work undertaken by the anti-smoking movement ahead of securing the ban on smoking in public places.

So we need a group of us to be focusing on campaigning for change in the medium term, thinking carefully about the policy developments that might be winnable three to ten years from now, and engaging the right people in the right discussions ahead of time.

Campaigning for hearts and minds, right now

The reason some people yearn for the good old days of environmental campaigning in the 1970s is because it was so good at winning over hearts and minds.

My sense is that the reason those campaigns were so effective in capturing the public’s imagination and shifting the zeitgeist is that campaigners back then were totally focused on messaging that worked for mainstream audiences. They weren’t being invited to policy roundtables or expected to submit evidence to yet another government consultation or planning inquiry – at least not nearly as frequently as today’s generation of campaigners are.

And as a result they continued winning the hearts and minds of the public with slogans such as “Save the Whale”, rather than “Support IWC moratorium on killing of whales for commercial purposes” – even if this was the main policy win that resulted from this campaign.

So in this decade we need a group of us in the environment movement to focus on campaigning to win the hearts and minds of the public once again. Our campaigns need to deliver the zeitgeist shifts that will be necessary to win big policy changes in the medium term, and transformational change in the longer term. But they mustn’t be required to refer to these in a literal or deterministic sense, or they will fail to engage the audiences we need to win.

If the environment movement is to avoid being overwhelmed by the opportunities available to it in the years ahead, we need to get better at identifying the different jobs that need to be done, and to get really good at them. Only then will we bring about the scale of change we really want. 

Craig Bennett has been instrumental in restructuring the Friends of the Earth Policy and Campaigns Department.

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