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Which Activist Are You?

Take your pick. Apparently you can be light green, bright green, dark green…or no shade of green at all. As environmentalists, it’s interesting for us to not only consider our personal “shade of green”, but to also reflect on the specific roles we play as activists. When we challenge our own environmental perspectives (not just the perceptions of others), we have the opportunity to grow professionally and personally. We have the opportunity to be more effective in our actions toward a healthy and prosperous world. It all starts apparently with a certain shade of green…

For those of you who haven’t encountered the “shades of green” perspective, here’s a quick low-down:  Light Green environmentalists advocate personal action through lifestyle changes that benefit the planet (from composting food waste to supporting locally made products).  Bright Green environmentalists support innovation and design as the lynchpin for a sustainable future. From solar panels to eco-designed products, technological application and entrepreneurial zeal are viewed as the saviours of humankind and the planet.  Dark Green environmentalists, on the other hand, identify capitalism and over-consumption as the root causes of our planetary malaise. They advocate radical changes to the dominant economic structure of the modern industrial world.

Each type of “green” points toward its own version of sustainability.  Whilst they promote different forms of social change, these “shades of green” do little to facilitate deeper self-reflection on our effectiveness as environmentalists.  One inroad to this is Bill Moyer’s (1990) Movement Action Plan (MAP), which identifies four activist roles:

1. Citizen
2. Reformer
3. Rebel
4. Change agent

Like any role, these can be performed effectively or ineffectively.  Moyer suggests that the effective Citizen, for example, puts into daily action the vision of a good society. A citizen for sustainability promotes positive values, principles, and symbols such as environmental wisdom, democracy, freedom, justice, nonviolence. Their strength resides in being “normal” in the eyes of others. Their efforts are grounded in the centre of society, played out in everyday life.

The effective Reformer, on the other hand, strives for political change through their participation in mainstream systems and institutions. From Courts to Universities to Legislative Assemblies – the Reformer “agitates from the inside”. They advocate for the legal and political adoption of sustainability goals, values, and alternatives. From lobbying and lawsuits, to referenda and official rallies – the Reformer uses a “watchdog” function and what Moyer (1990) calls Professional Opposition Organisations (POOs) to facilitate social change.

The Rebel, however, uses different methods of sustainability activism. From protest and nonviolent direct action to public campaigns that say “NO!” to corporate or other violations of positive values – all these are examples of the Rebel at work.  The Rebel often targets official power-holders and institutions through subversive strategy and tactics. The effective Rebel raises public awareness and puts specific issues on the political agenda – often amid great excitement, courage and personal risk.

The fourth role – Change Agent – uses people power as its strength. The role strives to “educate, convince and involve the majority of ordinary citizens and whole of society in change” (Moyer, 1990, p.7, The Practical Strategist). Change agents may be individual activists, networkers, or campaigners with grassroots or mainstream organisations. They not only strive to put a particular issue on the political agenda, they also promote action to establish long-term social change. Nurturing and empowering grassroots change, they promote alternatives to the dominant paradigm and advocate a vision that engages and attracts people from potentially far and wide.

Most importantly, these activist roles are effective insofar as they promote positive values, positive emotions, creative tension, and democracy. The notion that environmentalists can be effective through negative messaging, despair, guilt and fear-mongering is counter-productive.

When we question the way we – as environmentalists – see and behave in the world, we enhance our personal and professional development. We join a growing movement of environmentalists who are self-reflective, self-challenging, personally and politically mature.

Whatever our “shade of green”, we have the opportunity to be increasingly effective in the world. All we need do is to discover and act upon two things:  to recognize the environmentalist we currently are, and then set a course to the environmentalist we ultimately wish to be.

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