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Researchers investigate environmental movements and neoliberalism

August 22, 2016

SEATTLE -- The dynamics of global environmentalism, ranging from indigenous people's rights to the reliance on non-governmental organizations, have been marked by a resurgence in environmental movements that more aggressively resist natural resource extraction, according to two University of Kansas (KU) researchers.

"Environmental protestors are now being taken more seriously by environmental policymakers," said Brock Ternes, a KU doctoral student of sociology.

This shift likely has occurred because many activists have become frustrated at the inadequacy of environmental policies, said Ternes and co-researcher David Cooper, also a KU doctoral student in sociology. They found that since the 1970s, many large environmental organizations have tended to adopt reformist policies -- typically identified as neoliberal -- that tend to focus more on economic expansion and technological advancement as a solution to climate change and other environmental issues.

"The unique irony right now is we're faced with all sorts of environmental threats, including climate change and a host of other issues. Yet at the same time we seem to be the least capable of responding well to these challenges, as a society and through political institutions," Cooper said. "One of the big arguments is that many environmental activist organizations have become corporatized in the way they think and behave, so they are more focused on reproducing the status quo than trying to change the way we run our carbon-based systems and move off of oil."

For example, many non-governmental organizations now have hundred-million-dollar budgets. As a result, these agencies have aligned with corporations that depend on fossil fuel extractions. Furthermore, these organizations tend to view technological improvements as a "silver bullet" to solve environmental consumption problems without further changes to the underlying economic and social system. This perspective favors the current political-economic climate that protects the profits of fossil fuel interests, Ternes said.

"Technical efficiencies are going to play an important role, and investing heavily in renewable energy is pivotal for reducing emissions and pollution, but many environmental activists would argue we still aren't making the big enough changes. Challenging the economic order, neoliberalism, remains an essential step for various environmentalists," Ternes said.

Still, recent events and more outside-the-box activist responses to disasters such as the Gulf oil spill or the movement opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline also could be indications that many who do care deeply about environmental issues are taking matters into their own hands, the researchers said.

"It's not necessarily that the public support has declined, but rather it's just been more challenging to stay effective at getting these protections on the political table," Ternes said. "Protesting or demanding serious action will be integral to the formation and passage of bold environmental policies or initiatives."

Outcries within the realm of civil society are going to be increasingly important to ensure that policymakers are held accountable to protect citizens from environmental problems and enforce such policies, the researchers said.

"Grassroots environmental groups are becoming louder, more attentive, engaging, and they're asking for bigger changes in order to avoid these catastrophes in the future," Ternes said.

Ternes and Cooper will present their findings at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
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Papers presented at the ASA Annual Meeting are typically working papers that have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.

University of Kansas

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