Response to "Fighting for the Environment -- and Getting Democracy"

The following was received in response to our March/April 2004 InPrint cover story.

GUOBIN YANG: In the March/April , Joanne Bauer observes that environmental issues have become an impetus for grassroots political participation in transitional societies. I could not agree with her more. Given the magnitude of the environmental challenges facing countries like China, the environment may well turn out to be the fulcrum of great social and political transformations in the 21st century.

That said, I would also sound a note of caution. Approaching democratic change through environmental activism can be a tortured path. It is important, therefore, to bear in mind the challenges as well as the opportunities this situation poses.

As Bauer says, environmental issues have afforded a degree of legitimacy to grassroots movements inside states with a low tolerance for unauthorized political activity. And she is right to cite China as a prime example. In recent years, Chinese environmental groups have seized the opportunity to organize citizen action. But to succeed, such groups must find the means – consisting of skillful leadership and flexible tactics – to navigate treacherous political waters; otherwise, they will end up sacrificing their autonomy.

Bauer also says that environmental problems such as air pollution, because they touch all citizens, have the potential to mobilize large numbers of people to work together, thereby fostering broad-based grassroots participation. But environmental crises do not always work that way. The environmental movement in many countries remains a middle-class, urban phenomenon, failing to incorporate the views of those who occupy the lower strata of the population, some of whom may have no choice but to work under conditions that degrade the environment.

Finally, and on a related note, Bauer mentions that the global ethic of environmental sustainability can have a positive influence on movements at the local level. True enough, but this, too, can spark social tensions. In China, for example, environmental groups receive both material support and intellectual inspiration from the transnational environmental movement. China’s green discourse borrows generously from the global discourse. Yet this has sometimes led to tensions between environmental activists and the groups of people who stand to lose their incomes because of more stringent environmental requirements. Thus grassroots organizations face the sometimes daunting challenge of creatively adapting the global movement to local cultures and realities.

Read More: Environment/Sustainable Development, China

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