Fighting for the Environment -- and Getting Democracy

March 2, 2004

aFIghting for the Environment--And Getting Democracy

In my work for the Carnegie Council's environmental values project, I had the chance to speak with a Chinese environmentalist who was a high school student at the time of Tiananmen. He said he had watched the democracy demonstrations from his window and decided there must be a better way to achieve political change. This is why he went into environmental work.

The story illustrates how environmental issues have become an impetus for grassroots political participation in transitional countries. Advocates of democracy promotion would do well to take note.

An early example occurred in Japan, the first Asian country to industrialize. In the 1960s, victims of methyl mercury poisoning in Minamata took the difficult step of demanding the right to compensation and redress. The case awakened the Japanese public to the danger of putting economic development above all else and ultimately raised environmental consciousness.

Another noteworthy example is the former Czechoslovakia, where the Communist Party leadership encouraged environmental studies and citizens' involvement in environmental conservation. They did not count on Vaclav Havel tapping into the mounting discontent over the choking pollution that was threatening the health of the nation's children -- signified by the Prague Mothers' "parade of prams." Public awakening to the environmental damage perpetrated by the Communist leadership transformed the abstract appeal for "living in truth," made by Havel and other reformists, into the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Also in Taiwan, South Korea, and Brazil, environmental protests -- in Taiwan and Korea, against pollution-related health hazards; in Brazil, against the forces separating poor people from their land and livelihoods -- have paved the way for wider grassroots political participation.

Some observers are speculating that the environment could become a catalyst for the development of civil society in China. They see it as a hopeful sign that even as the ruling Communist Party tries to stifle unsanctioned organized activity, it has begun to allow limited grassroots activism on environmental issues. China's fledgling environmental movement consists of an assortment of groups and individuals who operate in a gray area outside state control -- but are never entirely free from it.

In all of the above cases, international pressure has played an important role. Vaclav Havel, for instance, drew upon the provisions of the Helsinki Accords, which incorporated the principles of environmental protection with respect for civil and political rights, to found his Charter '77. And the Chinese government's tolerance for local groups has to do in part with its embarrassment over the country's poor environmental record. (According to the standards of the World Health Organization, China is now home to nine of the world's ten most polluted cities.)

That said, governments in all of these cases have been motivated to listen to their citizens principally because it is in their best interests to do so. Continued economic growth -- and thus the government's continued legitimacy -- depends on taking measures to protect precious resources like air, water, land, and, indirectly, the health of the workforce. The legitimacy of these claims, and the groups making them, may be the real spearhead of democracy in years to come.