A detailed examination of the Australian environmental movement demonstrated that in 2017 there were 497 groups undertaking environmental activism, almost half of which focused on conservation issues and worked at a local scale, while collectively running 960 different campaigns.
Scientists and policy makers around the globe are calling for more grassroots activism to demand meaningful action to address our environmental crisis. Historical research and lived experienced demonstrates how powerful activism can be in driving social and environmental change. But we know little about what this grassroots activism looks like across an entire country, nor the kind of campaigns and activities grassroots activists actually do. We took a close look at the Australian environmental movement to help build our understanding about environmental movements at the national scale.
The first question we wanted to examine was how many groups were involved in environmental activism in Australia. To do this we created a large database of 2,688 groups gathered from sources such as the Australian Register of Environmental Organisations, the member lists of umbrella organisations such as Conservation Councils, and links contained on each environmental group website. We then looked individually at each group to see whether it had a website, and whether it stated that the group was engaged in some form of environmental activism.
We found 497 environmental movement groups that fit these criteria. We then read through all of the website text for each group to identify their key characteristics. This followed a detailed methodology; contact the author for the full paper or download the data on the Open Science Framework.
What did environmental groups focus on?
Almost half of groups in 2017 focused on conservation issues and worked in local areas.
- Conservation Issues
241 stated that they worked primarily on conservation issues. This included activities such as anti-logging campaigns and water conservation projects.
- Climate Change
The second most common issue was climate change, with 83 groups focusing on this.
- Renewable Energy
A total of 33 groups worked on renewable energy.
63 stated that they worked on sustainability.
Of the 37 anti-mining groups found, 13 targeted coal mining and 11 targeted unconventional gas mining. Groups focusing on nuclear, pollution, and waste were rare.
While there were 13 groups focused on waste, three exclusively focused on plastic bag bans.
In contrast, the eight pollution groups varied widely: two of the groups focused on specific pollution events, and the remainder advocated against mining-related pollution, air pollution and pesticides.
At the time no groups said they focused on environmental justice.
Almost half of all the groups said they operated at a ‘local’ level. These included local climate action groups, small community conservation groups and environmental centres. A quarter of the groups said they worked at a national level. Many of these were the most well-known groups, such as Sea Shepherd and The Wilderness Society.
What campaigns did these groups run?
A total of 960 separate campaigns were listed on the websites of the 497 groups. Almost two thirds of these campaigns were run by groups that focus primarily on conservation issues. Examples include the ‘National Kangaroo Campaign’ by Australian Wildlife Protection Council, which seeks to ‘bring an end to the commercial kangaroo killing industry’, and the ‘Save the Reef’ campaign listed by Greenpeace Asia Pacific.
Only 30 campaigns were listed on more than one website; for example, three groups listed the ‘Fight for the Reef’ campaign and two highlighted their work on the ‘Forests for Life’ campaign. While many groups share campaigns, this finding indicates that few groups ensure that shared campaigns are communicated to supporters on their websites.
Who did the campaigns target?
We also looked at the goal and target for each campaign. Just over half of all campaign targets were political entities, such as State governments and individual politicians. This was not consistent across all groups though; groups which focused on climate change, renewable energy and sustainability issues more often targeted individuals or business entities. Many campaigns did not clearly state what their goal or target was. Campaigns that targeted individuals – such as household energy reduction campaigns – will be unable to be assessed in later years to see whether they were successful.
Of course, this data only reflects the information that was included on each group’s website. Some groups do not have the resources to update their website frequently, nor fully include all the details of each campaign. Even so, it is striking how remarkably active the Australian environmental movement is, and how much work it is doing across a range of environmental issues and locations.
What activities did these groups do?
In Person Events
The last characteristic we captured data on in this project was the activities that were promoted on each website. Many websites had an ‘Events’ page, or listed activities they were engaged in. We recorded each of these and then categorised them into five different event types: actions (such as rallies), meetings (such as AGMs), information sharing events (such as seminars and film screenings), eco-activities (such as tree planting events) and social/fundraising events.
Table one shows the range and frequency of offline events. The most common type of offline event was an information sharing activity. These include examples such as the “You, Me and Biodiversity Workshop” (Wombat Forestcare Inc.), and “Public Meeting on Rocky Hill Coal Project” (Groundswell Gloucester). Following this, 30% of groups advertised an eco-activity, such as clean up events, bushcare working bees, and ﬁeld surveys.
We also looked at the online actions (namely petitions and template submissions) and requests listed on each website. Table 2 shows that 37% of groups included a petition or online action on their website. A total of 56% of groups asked for a donation, while 41% included a sign up button for volunteers.
Why does this matter?
It matters because as Ripple and colleagues (2017) stated in the Second Warning to Humanity, vocal grassroots activism generated by people centered in local communities may be essential for convincing power holders to take action on the global environmental crisis.
In addition, researchers, activists and observers have long noted how a diverse and active movement may be more likely to reach out to different constituencies to build stronger support for their cause. Our data shows that the Australian environmental movement may be meeting these requirements because:
- It is geographically diverse, focuses on a wide range of environmental issues and engages people around the country in a wide range of activities.
- It runs hundreds of different campaigns targeting politicians and businesses demanding they create meaningful change.
- Additional topic modelling analysis of website text undertaken by the authors indicated that while there was very low prevalence of words related to justice and inequality, the recent growth of campaigns on environmental and climate justice suggests this is rapidly changing for the better.
How can groups improve their messaging?
Our findings also point to areas where environmental groups could find efficiencies in their activities and improve how they convey their messages. This can be done by:
- Working together with other groups
Working together with other groups on shared campaigns will prevent duplication and help pool resources to more efficiently build power.
- More support for smaller groups
Larger groups could increase their support for smaller groups working on less well-covered issues such as waste, nuclear waste and pollution.
- State the campaign goal
Ensuring that campaign information presented to the general public clearly states what the campaign goal and target is. Consider including more online one-click actions on websites, such as for volunteers, donations and online event participation.
- Maximising the website
Most of all, groups could consider that websites present the face of their work to the world; they offer an opportunity to engage and inform people across the country. Maximising this potential to bring in new supporters and convince the unsure may help build the movement and create a louder, stronger, more powerful wave of change.
The link to the full article, The characteristics, activities and goals of environmental organizations engaged in advocacy within the Australian environmental movement, can be found here (behind an academic paywall). The authors are more than happy to share a copy; please contact Robyn on [email protected]
About the authors
- Robyn Gulliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland researching the Australian environmental movement.
- Kelly S. Fielding is a Professor in the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the social and behavioural dimensions of environmental sustainability.
- Winnifred Louis is a Professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her research interests focus on the influence of identity and norms on social decision-making.
You can find further information related to this paper here:
- Civil Resistance against Climate Change: What, when, who and how effective?
- An investigation into the Australian Environmental Movement’s characteristics and activities
- What helps Motivate People to take Action?
- World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice
- Coalition Building Resource Collection
- Theories of Change Resource Collection
- Diversity and Inclusion Resource Collection