As the Occupy tents get carted away from St Pauls Cathedral, my mind went back to the discussion we had at Tipping Point Newcastle last week about the role of pressure groups in the corporate sustainability movement. Although my politics are rather mainstream compared to the archetypal dreadlocked, anti-capitalist Occupier, I always respected them for holding attention on the swamp turbo-capitalism had got itself into, and expressing anger at what happened: the greed/idiocy of the financial sector in allowing a debt bubble to grow and burst, the failure of those in power to prevent it and where the burden of digging ourselves out of the resulting hole has fallen. But can activism make a difference? Is anger enough?
I’ve never been a natural activist in the Occupy sense. Having had my Damascene conversion to a green life mission after witnessing acid rain damage in the Russian Arctic, I checked out the local Friends of the Earth group when I got back to the UK as I thought that might be a good place to start. The activists at the meeting I went to agreed to go to the station and give train users sweets to thank them on behalf of the planet. I couldn’t think of anything more patronising and pointless so I went and planted several hundred trees with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers instead. Ross Perot famously said “The activist is not the person who says the stream is polluted, the activist is the one who cleans up the stream.” That has been my attitude ever since.
So where is the role of pressure groups in Corporate Social Responsibility? Well, Greenpeace’s rating of electronic manufacturers, and targeting of Apple as a laggard using a brilliant spoof website in 2006, was a genius piece of campaigning that reaped rewards – creating competition between businesses and penalising those in last place. Forum for the Future did the same for whole cities with their sustainable cities index, now sadly defunct. Campaigns against rainforest destruction, acid rain and, more recently, fracking have been very effective at making decision makers and, often, corporates stop and think.
But activists can undermine their self-appointed position by cherry-picking or twisting scientific evidence, being against everything and/or failing to understand the hopes and fears of ordinary people. Dogmatism has undoubted held up progress in many areas - the nature of many environmental problems mean a less than ideal solution now can be much more effective than holding out for an ideal solution in a decade (or never as the case may be). At the risk of writing the shortest possible tautology: pragmatism works.