The sustainability challenges that we face in the 21st century are daunting. That much most folk can agree. Whether it’s the challenges facing global conservation, or climate change mitigation and adaptation, or the challenge of food security in world with 7 billion people and soon to be 9-10 billion people (around the year 2050), or many other such challenges, these are major and often highly contentious challenges. Some recent work experiences, my own research and some material I’m currently reading have led me to look into the underlying dynamics of contentious politics.
The book Dynamics of Contention (by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly) is a fascinating attempt to distil some insights from a study of eighteen contentious episodes ranging from the French revolution, to nineteenth-century nationalist movements through to contemporary Muslim-Hindu conflict and the Tiananmen crisis of 1989 in China. In particular, they seek to “identify causal mechanisms and processes that recur across a wide range of contentious politics”, without over-reaching and trying to identify covering “social laws” (akin to the physical laws developed by physicists).
Two of the core processes they identify appear to also be highly relevant to contentious sustainability challenges. They are:
- Actor constitution: this process refers to the constitution of new political actors and related actors’ identities. This process is related to the distinction between “contained contention”, which is waged by pre-existing and well-defined actors, and “transgressive contention” which in contrast introduces additional groups (e.g. previously apolitical or unorganised groups) into such processes and often results in identity shift. Through the latter process groups or segments of the population acquire new names and, often, public political standing. For example, the civil rights battle in the United States in the 1950s generated a strong and enduring racial consciousness and a related shared racial identity amongst U.S. civil rights activists (McAdam et al., 2001). This process often also hinges on other mechanisms such as category formation (defined below) and certification.
- Polarisation of groups within contentious episodes: the process entails both the “widening of political and social space between claimants in a contentious episode” and the “gravitation of previously uncommitted or moderate actors towards one, the other, or both extremes” (McAdam et al., 2011, p. 322). Thus, gravitation towards extremes is central to this process. When such polarisation occurs in can have many effects, e.g. “it vacates the moderate center, impedes the reconstitution of previous coalitions, produces new channels for future ones, [and] fills even the most concrete of policy issues with ideological content which can block their solution, and can lead to repression, armed conflict and civil war” (p. 322). Examples are given from revolutionary France (in the 18th century) and from more recent crises in Indonesia (e.g. the Maluku civil war of 1999) which led to polarisation along religious lines and separation of Muslims and Christians.
The process of polarisation is argued to support by a number of interconnected mechanisms, including: category formation (creating new named boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, with associated organised relations), brokerage (linking previously unconnected social sites), competition and political opportunity/threat spirals. Similar mechanisms are involved in identity formation.
Considering the dynamics of contention and sustainability
There is lots of polarisation within and between groups in sustainability, and these also often involve the constitution of new actors. If we adopt Tilley and Tarrow’s definition of contention as “making claims that bear on someone else’s interests” then sustainability advocacy and actions are often inherently contentious. Some high-level examples of polarisation – beyond the obvious battles between so-called “warmists” and “skeptics” (who are usually actual climate denialists) – include groups with contrasting views include:
- Those concerned about imminent limits to growth Vs those that don’t believe ‘strong’ environmental limits exist (and/or that don’t believe that they are imminent)
- Peak-ists Vs non-peak-ists (e.g. regarding peak oil, or some other potential resource constraint)
- Techno-pessimists that advocate a core focus on transforming behaviour and cultural change Vs “Promethean environmentalists” who advocate for high-tech solutions
- Those staunchly anti-nuclear power Vs those arguing that nuclear power is an important part of the solutions to climate change
- Those staunchly anti-genetically modified crops Vs those advocating further development and use of GM crops
- The free market (e.g. advocating for market-driven change) Vs calling for interventionist approaches (e.g. via public policy and a range of other roles that can be played by governments)
The issues are further emphasised by the fact that, for example, some professors of environmental sustainability are pro-nuclear power and advocate a stronger focus on techno-fixes (e.g. Barry Brook) whereas other professors of sustainability and related experts take the opposite view (e.g. Ian Lowe, Jim Falk). So within the sustainability field itself there is polarisation, in addition to the wider community.
Personally I’ve witnessed and often experienced the pressure to pick sides and the intense polarisation that often eventuates. In some cases I refuse to pick a side – for example I think that both the ‘peak oil’ activists and their non-peakist opponents tend to have a partial view of a very complex issue; this can result in “peak-ists” overestimating some risks and “non-peak-ists” being too complacent. Perhaps the net result of such debates is an appropriate level of consideration of such issues, but I doubt it. Often such debates just seem to lead to intense social conflict; i.e. all pain for no gain (or very little).
Often there is an expectation that as an environmentalist you will have a set of associated views, often on the basis of very little knowledge, such as being an opponent of genetically-modified (GM) organisms (e.g. GM foods) but having little or no relevant scientific knowledge. Activists like Mark Lynas have spoken about their trajectories as environmentalists, highlighting associated social pressures.
So what? Why should we worry about polarisation?
Two aspects of polarisation worry me, consistent with McAdam et al’s claim (2011): 1) that gravitation towards extremes “fills even the most concrete of policy issues with ideological content which can block their solution”, the potential blocking of solutions being the worrying aspect; and 2) that such polarisation can lead to escalations of tensions and conflict rather than mobilisation of actions that are focussed on addressing particular social problems or policy issues. Additionally, polarisation can result in warring activist tribes rather than the broad constituencies for change that are often required.
McAdam et al (2011) further contend that mobilisation and polarisation processes often occur together in episodes of contention, so perhaps polarisation is sometimes unavoidable. Still, the downsides of polarisation suggest that greater attention to this process and ways of avoiding it is required.
McAdam, D., Tarrow, S. & Tilly, C. 2001, Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge University Press.