POSITIVE PROGRESS HAS been made in meeting a wide range of environmental challenges. Today, the specific ‘wins’ and the general acceptance of the ‘green’ case are a huge achievement for the environmental movement. But despite the progress there is a vast and growing pressure on ecosystems and the atmosphere. Both trends are directly linked to how we use natural resources and dispose of our wastes. The effects are seen in an impending mass extinction of species, rapid global warming and the depletion of various natural resources. These trends are set to collide with one another and threaten, in the coming decades, to lead to massive environmental change, economic collapse and humanitarian catastrophe.

In the face of this crisis, how can greens best build on their impressive track record and scale up their impact on the political and economic systems and public culture that determine environmental outcomes?

Greens tend to be governed (formally or not) by various principles and cultural norms that define their philosophies. These range from anti-hierarchical principles to a strong commitment to independence and democratic participation. The philosophical tenets that shaped modern green activism are, however, still a minority perspective and have so far not inspired mainstream support. In this situation, do we need to change some of the underlying beliefs in order to achieve the step change in engagement that is necessary to avert disaster?

The first point to note in answering that question is the fact that we are running out of time, especially on the climate change issue. If we don’t get a major shift quickly then millions of people will die and much of life on Earth will be lost. Even after years of campaigning it is generally only a small group of people who will act voluntarily: to source fair trade products, seek out sustainable timber or search for recycled paper. For whatever reasons, most people won’t or can’t act voluntarily. Under these conditions it seems that campaigns of non-cooperation, market boycotts and other forms of direct action will not work on a sufficiently large scale to make the breakthroughs needed. There simply aren’t enough people who will do it.

Even on top of the most recent wave of green concern, campaigners are failing to scale up the numbers who will take action for change. Although these and other organisations are getting the message out and inspiring really effective activism, the coalescing of significant new support around the existing values of the green movement is evidently failing to take place.

INSTEAD OF TRYING to incrementally change our system, another strategy would be to wait for it to collapse. Indeed, some greens do regard the prospect of major financial crisis or peak oil shock as an opportunity for transformation. That could indeed be the case, but it might make matters worse. Recession will most likely provoke governments into even more unsustainable actions, such as aggressive policies aimed at securing sources of cheap energy (for example agro-fuels or tar sand mining). Kick-starting economic growth in a crisis situation will be based on extreme policies to promote competitiveness, predatory resource extraction and global trade.

At a time of economic crisis, when people are losing their jobs, public opinion will be even less disposed than now to support apparently painful choices. It’s hard enough to garner popular support for many environmental measures (for example flight ticket price increases or fuel taxes) at the best of times, never mind during a time of economic stress.

Another approach is to see the recent rise of the green agenda and political acceptance of the environmental science as a remarkable turning point that must be quickly built upon via new strategies. We are into a new phase, but it is a messy phase in which some of the old assumptions need to be set aside. To be successful in this new environment, campaigners must acknowledge that compromise will be necessary, that new alliances and partnerships are warranted and that the old categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ must be reassessed. The venture capitalists who are helping to start an energy revolution could be our allies, as could the marketers of new products that embody environmental design, and the policymakers who deregulate to promote environmental innovation might be brought into our tent.

All too often the most entrenched and determined enemy of change is ideology. If we are not prepared to reconsider our own fundamental beliefs and values, why should we expect anyone else to look at theirs?

If greens don’t do this, then my fear is that the transformations that do occur will go too slowly, will be poorly targeted, will be even more unjust and will be bathed in gallons of greenwash. The environmental movement will be sidelined as new ventures backed by vast financial resources take off. Greens will, through their attachment to what they have always done, become less relevant. We can criticise capitalism all we like, but the fact is that it is mature enough to adapt to new conditions when circumstances dictate. I wonder if greens can do that.

So is it time to consider the unthinkable – to work with consumerism, rather than against it, to find common cause with multinationals and to do deals with the hedge funds and other institutions that have such a profound influence on the behaviour of capital and development of markets? Is it time to abandon the derogatory references to ‘techno-fixes’ in favour of measures to initiate a technology-driven green industrial revolution?

Adopting a strategic approach that finds common cause with elements of what was previously regarded as the ‘dark side’ might not lead us to the green society that many of us have worked towards, but it might just help us avoid disaster. At this late stage, what have we got to lose?

Tony Juniper steps down as Director of Friends of the Earth later this year. He will continue working to bring about more sustainable societies.