Grassroots power

Environmentalism from below: Ashley Dawson in conversation.

Militant action, including armed resistance by people whose environment has been threatened, has been ongoing for decades in Global South countries. That resistance doesn't always get labelled ‘environmentalism’, but it is often a form of defence of the environmental Commons. 

Ashley Dawson is a professor at the City University of New York. Originally from South Africa, his interest in environmental issues grew while living in New York City, where he joined environmental justice movements across New York’s working-class communities of colour that were, and remain, disproportionately impacted by the city’s polluting energy and infrastructure projects. 

His latest book, Environmentalism from Below: How Global People’s Movements are Leading the Fight for Our Planet (Haymarket 2024), builds on many years of studying grassroots environmentalism.

What do you mean by ‘Environmentalism from Below’? How would you contrast it with the kind of ‘environmentalism from above’ that we are perhaps more used to in the Global North?

‘Environmentalism from below’ describes the kind of popular movements that are reacting to threats to the ecosystems that they depend on in an immediate way for their sustenance and for their cultural heritage. 

In that definition I'm building on a tradition of analysis that comes out of the Global South. Ramachandra Guha, for example, wrote extensively about the movements to defend Indian forests from the national forestry service, a bureaucracy initiated by the British Empire in India. That case of the Chipko movement in India is what I mean when I use the phrase ‘environmentalism from below’.  

We can contrast that with ‘environmentalism from above’ where that carries two different expressions. First, in the context of settler colonialism in the USA, for example, we have a historical preservationist approach. 

Here, as settlers arrive at a frontier, they push Indigenous people off and then start to develop the land through agriculture and then industrialization. Eventually this results in efforts to set aside some of that land as it becomes recognised as particularly beautiful and part of national patrimony. 

Through this route we witness the invention of the National Park system which in the US expresses itself through Yellowstone and all the other ‘great’ national parks. 

The central idea behind this approach is that we need to conserve ‘wild’ places. But such wilderness preservation is based on enforcing a kind of dichotomy between people and nature. Nature must be seen as a thing ‘out there’, separate from human communities. And nature, in that assumed condition, needs to be preserved somehow by the state. 

This neocolonial environmental vision is a direct product of settler colonialism. It reinforces the false and alienating dichotomy between people and nature and is a powerful illustration of the ‘metabolic rift’ that capitalism creates between society and ecology. 

Seen from the perspective of environmentalism from below, there is a second problematic legacy that flows from development of the environmental movement itself. The Western environmental movement from the 1960s and 1970s onward was highly important and impactful, and of course had a very populist component to it. 

Militant action, including armed resistance by people whose environment has been threatened, has been ongoing for decades in Global South countries. That resistance doesn't always get labelled ‘environmentalism’, but it is often a form of defence of the environmental Commons. 

In the US, for instance, Rachel Carson testified before the US Congress to advocate successfully for the banning of DDT pesticides. That then led to the creation of various government regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and positive legislation through the Clean Air Act. All those developments were tremendous victories that still resonate but they crucially rely on the state to protect the environmental Commons. 

However, that’s turned out to be a kind of flawed environmentalism from above that places all its eggs in the basket of state environmental regulation – a weakening force anyway under neoliberalism. Such top-down approaches are problematic in comparison to what environmentalism from below entails – mass mobilisation of people who want to defend the environmental Commons that they depend upon.

Today, the significance of environmentalism from below is not restricted to the poorest of the Global South – those who the historian Ramachandra Guha referred to as ‘ecosystem people’ – but to all of us. At some level today we are now all ‘ecosystem people’ facing ecocide, climate change and mass extinction. 

What I argue in the book, is that there's a lot of political potency in an idea of environmentalism from below and the kinds of movements that sustain it as they are spreading all around the world today. 

We need to pay attention to them and what they are doing, particularly since the main institutions that we think characterise so-called Western civilization – capitalism, the state and urbanisation – are all so ill-fitted for the current moment.

In the next few decades, we’re likely to blow through a series of key tipping points, from the collapse of the Gulf Stream to levels of heating that are going to displace a third to half of humanity. 

People will need to be able to move, and they will need to be able to engage in forms of bottom-up mutual aid and disaster communism. That's what my book ‘Environmentalism from Below’ is looking at; how people are already really doing that kind of thing in a variety of different organisational forms, in a variety of different scales, and taking that kind of project very seriously.

In the West our environmental politics is often dominated by environmental NGOs – Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF. But even where these are supported by a mass membership base it feels sometimes that they are trapped in a form of top-down and substitutionist environmentalism. Does environmentalism from below offer a more empowering approach? 

I would say that it does, but I'm not trying to argue that there cannot be a role for nonprofit organisations. But if these NGOs, pressure groups and progressive political movements are not connected to the people who are really mobilising on the ground then they risk becoming co-opted top-down entities. 

Western NGO campaigns have produced some exciting policy proposals around Green New Deal initiatives. But these often fail to address our environmental problems in terms of the planetary system and, most of all, are not oriented around what is needed for the Global South and communities on the front lines of climate crisis. 

What I try to do in the book is to redress that imbalance by exploring a variety of different issues that are of primary importance in the Global South, starting with agriculture, followed by urbanisation, energy transition, biodiversity conservation and migration. 

Across those themed chapters I try to look at a variety of different forms of organisation on different scales. For example, with the chapter on ‘Decolonizing Food’ I look at the global peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina, which is a transnational organisation that has its own forms of representative governance built in. 

This movement doesn't seem to suffer from the kind of substitutionalism that you're characterising in relation to the nonprofit environmental sector in the West. It really does try to mobilise people in a quite direct democratic fashion, including a strong gender equality component. 

La Via Campesina probably lies at the most organised end of the spectrum of the movements that I look at in the book. I also look at groups that some might see as “disorganized”, in the sense that they are not utilising hierarchical representative structures and transnational governance models. I'm talking about things like squatter groups in the neighbourhoods of Global South cities where people are fighting against eviction. 

The kinds of mobilisations I look at need a bottom-up approach. They would be hard to understand clearly without that because they have a very flexible and, one might even say, spontaneous mode of organising. In the book I have tried to reveal that broader spectrum of mobilisation formations that are developing in a Global South context.

In the context of that broad spectrum of mobilisations, do you think there are any shared organisational strengths that are revealed through bottom-up environmentalism? 

Well, popular movements are sites of political ferment and contestation. While these movements are fighting to defend the environmental commons, they are also always under pressure from elite interests and the state. Leaders can sometimes be bought off, and people can be cowed into silence. 

But what I found in terms of a kind of set of principles is that a lot of these movements are thinking about environmentalism in a very extended sense. In contrast, elite interests are trying to narrow the lens of environmentalism. 

Elites might admit that we have a climate crisis, but they narrow its scope to focus purely on carbon dioxide. That allows them to argue that the crisis can be taken care of through technological fixes like carbon capture and storage. Or they can push neoliberal carbon offsetting mechanisms as narrow solutions. That elite narrowing hides the truth of our environmental crisis and its myriad different interwoven and intersecting facets. 

I think that the actual complexity of environmental issues is better understood by people on the ground where, for example, the climate crisis is really hitting. Just by virtue of their material circumstances, they and their movements have more accurate understandings. 

If there is one set of unifying principles across all those struggles, then it is the kind of intersectional environmentalism where people really are making connections because they are directly exposed to these multifarious crises on the ground. 

That kind of environmentalism contrasts sharply with the top-down and narrowing types – where efforts are spent on saving one part or one issue in the environment – that are so readily co-optable by neoliberal discourse. 

Does the kind of bottom-up and radical-holistic approach you explore hold the key to infusing serious environmentalists with a newfound sense of radical optimism? 

We are only going to win the environmental struggle if we get mass movements engaged. That is the only way to do things because environmentalism from above, despite some of its successes, is clearly always going to be vulnerable to political backlash. 

And, of course, that danger of political backlash grows stronger and stronger as the climate and the environment more broadly goes into deeper crisis.

I guess if we are going to think seriously about optimism then, it must be about being able to mount some kind of meaningful bottom-up opposition to the kind of liberal duplicity that encourages fossil capital and energy transition simultaneously, and the kind of fascist response to climate crisis that increasingly attacks migrants.  

There are some good signs that the need for radical action is resonating in the West. As an indicator we might think about Andreas Malm’s book ‘How to Blow up a Pipeline’ becoming a bestseller, being adapted into a film, and his work being profiled in the New York Times and so reaching a much broader audience. 

At the same time, you have Extinction Rebellion in the UK that has been in the lead for this kind of bottom-up and youthful radical protest. The kind of radicalisation and holistic perspectives that we have been talking about are happening, but the resulting repression is also a serious issue.

Of course, that pattern has been unfolding for a long time in the Global South and movements there have been blowing up pipelines and defending the environmental commons for a while. 

Militant action, including armed resistance by people whose environment has been threatened, has been ongoing for decades in Global South countries. That resistance doesn't always get labelled ‘environmentalism’, but it is often a form of defence of the environmental Commons. 

These major political forces that are at work in the current global moment are unfolding at a time when everything that we have taken for granted in the relative climate-stability of the Holocene is being upended. 

Going forward, all the political certainties that we have become used to – nation states, national boundaries and the world’s mega-cities – are about to be thrown up in the air, probably within our lifetimes but certainly by 2100. 

Preparing for those massive reconfigurations, while trying to build the necessary transitions from below, is the key set of environmental struggles we have before us.

In the face of all those realities we need environmentalism from below to help build other forms of solidarity and alternative ways of being in relation to the planet. In a neat reversal of the Thatcherite slogan, we must do that because there is no alternative. 


This Author

Ian Rappel is an activist and ecologist. Ian works for the UK's Real Farming Trust, and the Black Mountains College in Wales.

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