Arid Environment

Turf wars not just a case of environmentalism vs populism

In 1993, the sociologist Hilary Tovey made a distinction between what she described as “official” environmentalism and “populist” environmentalism emerging at the time in Ireland.

Official environmentalism was predominantly urban-based and consisted of NGOs and professional experts (including academics) whose principal concerns were heritage and conservation.

Populist environmentalism was drawn from predominantly rural communities, whose livelihoods and health were being adversely affected by state regulations and new industrial developments.

This was a time when multinational companies were being courted by the Irish State to set up in Ireland. Growing foreign direct investment (FDI) was enabled by financial incentives as well as the provision of land zoned for industrial use, water resources, and weak environmental regulations.

Populist environmentalism was drawn from mainly rural communities, whose livelihoods and health were being adversely affected by state regulations and new industrial developments.

Official environmentalism was notably quiet on the social and environmental implications of these new industrial developments, focusing instead on the “blight” of one-off housing in rural Ireland and conservation of the countryside.

According to Tovey, this was because official environmentalism was broadly aligned with the Irish State when it came to national development and modernisation.

Instead of engaging in criticism of State development policy, the focus was displaced onto the ‘irrationalities’ of traditional features of Irish politics and culture.

In contrast, populist environmentalism carried a strong critique of the economy and society Ireland was becoming. Top-down state planning and unquestioned support for multinational companies were seen as actively undermining local development and community control over place and resources.

Rooted in the community Resistance to external interference, there was always a strain of conservatism in this form of place-based environmentalism. But there was also an outward-looking perspective that involved forging links with transnational movements critical of unfettered globalisation.

Environmentalism today

Much has changed in the past 30 years, but Tovey’s characterisation of these two opposed forms of environmentalism remains useful.

Recent commentaries around the so-called “turf wars” have made this apparent. While there is no question that the draining of bogs and burning of peat needs to stop, the way in which the proposed ban was introduced and debated reveals familiar tendencies.

Official environmentalism, with its emphasis on expert knowledge and cultural modernisation, presents rural claims to ‘traditional ways of life’ as no longer compatible with the imperatives of public health and climate change.

Opposition to wind farms has been vocal.
Opposition to wind farms has been vocal.

Populist environmentalism defends livelihoods, community and local control over resources and place.

The broader political and economic context is also important. Talk of a just transition for the Midlands or affordable retrofitting of housing has largely remained just that; mistrust of the State’s commitment to rural development is based on long experience.

Meanwhile, continued State support for data centers perpetuates the view that the interests of multinationals (and Ireland’s FDI-dependent model of development) are favored over certain sections of the population.

In the context of energy consumption and emissions, the scalar mismatch between data center energy consumption (now accounting for 14% of electricity nationally) and individual household consumption (rural households account for 12% of electricity nationally) has become a key point of contention.

Beyond rural/urban

While the turf wars are more complicated than any neat binary allowed, Tovey’s distinction between official and populist environmentalism is helpful because it shows that these conflicts are not best understood as environmentalist vs anti-environmentalist.

They are about more fundamental differences in political culture rooted in different relationships to State development policy. We see this play out in numerous sites today, whether through local opposition to large-scale wind farms, forest plantations or new gold mining ventures.

Thousands of anti austerity water protesters march through Dublin city center in 2015. Picture: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of anti austerity water protesters march through Dublin city center in 2015. Picture: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Crossing the urban/rural divide, the water charges protests, largely based in urban areas, expressed something similar.

Opposition was less to do with the public’s relationship to water than it was the State’s relationship to the public.

While official environmentalism sided with the State in pursuing water charges as a necessary conservation measure, the anti-water charges movement stressed that the main issue was austerity, not water conservation.

If the State was committed to water conservation, they argued, it would be best to focus on repairing public water infrastructure and limiting the expansion of water-intensive sectors of the economy.

Popular environmentalism

If official environmentalism continues to assume that the main obstacle to action is the “public” — those sections of the population that have yet to ‘buy-in’ to the environmental agenda — then not only will policies fail to be implemented, but more and More people will be driven away from the real urgency of environmental problems.

When people object to environmental policies or “green” infrastructures, it isn’t that they are necessarily against environmental action but the terms on which it is being determined.

As Tovey made clear, the disagreement is not about whether there should be environmental action or not, but the direction of Ireland’s development and the interests it serves.

For Tovey, populist environmentalism was not necessarily a negative term. Of course, we have seen the dangers of right-wing, reactionary populism, and that should be a cautionary tale.

But environmental campaigns and policies should aspire to be popular with ordinary people.

And there is no shortage of suggestions: free public transport; shorter working week; universal basic services and basic income; greater investment in (low carbon) care work and ecological restoration including agroecology; and a nation-wide, deep retrofit.

These are proposals that can improve the quality of life for most people, reduce pollution and restore damaged ecosystems, meaningfully engage local communities, and address deep spatial and social inequalities in Irish society.

Whether or not they are pursued depends a lot more on power, ideology and contrasting visions of development, than concern about the environment.

Dr Patrick Bresnihan is a lecturer in the Department of Geography in Maynooth University


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