Why can’t environmentalists just all get along?

Dr Clare Saunders, from Southampton University, was awarded the first British Journal of Sociology prize for her 2008 ethnographic work on environmental organisations in London.

You can hear a podcast of her describing her research, and read the original article (as long as someone you love your institution subscribes to Wiley Interscience).

She argues that:

‘collective identity’ is related to group rather than movement level processes, and although it can unite activists within a single movement organization, it is not always beneficial for the broader social movement.’

Her study of three different london-based environmental groups shows that they each have a different impact on the construction of a broader ‘environmental movement’. She claims collective identity at the group level is the key. The conservation group is so weakly committed to a group identity that membership hardly requires any awareness of, let alone commitment to an environmental movement. An interest in ‘nature’ is all the participants need share.

Contrasting with this, the direct action group has a strong sense of collective identity, and many social expectations of its members, such as being sympathetic to veganism and antipathetic to car ownership. Ostensibly this strong group identity would contribute to the collective identity of a broader social movement, but in actuality it doesn’t. The collective identity at the group level is so strong that it produces an ‘us and them’ mentality. In result, other environmentalist organisations are seen as the enemy, not as allies.

Hence the ‘double edged sword’ of the paper’s title. A very strong group allegiance undermines itself by expanding the elements that are out-group. Rather than strengthening the wider environmental movement, strong group identity, ironically, weakens it.

“activists who are most committed to an organization with an encompassing collective identity develop a strong sense of solidarity with other activists similarly committed to that organization. The resultant solidarity leads to the construction of a ‘we–them’ dichotomy between organizations within the same movement, increasing the chances of hostility between organizations and factions within the movement.”

Saunders’ practical conclusion is that members of the environmental movement who have a strong and factional group identity should recognise that the tendency to factionalism relates to their strong group-level solidarity, and in doing so should further recognise that the wider environmental movement may be strengthened by a reduction in factionalism.

Grid-group cultural theory could contribute to this argument at a number of points.

First, theoretically, the kind of solidarity or cultural bias Dr Saunders is observing can be said to be the strong group, weak grid Egalitarianism identified by Mary Douglas‘s Grid-Group typology, and further developed into ‘Cultural Theory‘.

Second, This interpretation of group solidarity  is in principle empirically measurable. For instance, the work of the Cultural Cognition Project has indeed measured Egalitarian and other cultural biases, in relation to the US National Values Survey and elsewhere.

Third, the Grid-group approach clearly offers an explanation for what is observed in Saunders’ three London case studies: the stronger the Egalitarian bias, the more sectarian the group becomes. Mary Douglas saw this as the Achilles heel of terrorist organisations, where enclavism sets in and the group attempts to resolve its internal problems by pushing them out beyond its own boundaries (us-and-them). In 2003 the International Leadership Forum Digest published an extended interview with Douglas on these matters.

Fourth, the Grid-group approach makes sense of the way in which an emphasis on one cultural bias to the exclusion of the other three ends up undermining itself. Each cultural bias sets itself up as the one true way, but in reality needs the other three, both to define itself against and to resolve the issues it does not even recognise as issues. We tend to seek ideologically elegant solutions to social issues, but it is the clumsy solutions that include several cultural biases that tend to actually work (at least temporarily, it should be said).  Saunders’ suggestion that factional groups should become less factional for the sake of the wider movement is a hard pill to swallow. According to Douglas and Mars, enclavism is less an active choice of some persons in leadership and more a structural feature of the group’s organisation. In other words, the group may not be able to control its own factionalism, but relations with the group by other entities may affect it (an example might be how the animal rights movement is criminalised guides how far animal rights activists are driven to engage in criminal behaviour). If self-knowledge helps at all the call to be less factional may be made more palatable by referring to the  idea that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dealt with in your philosophy’ and that the Grid-group typology clarifies what they are.

Fifth the Grid-Group approach reinterprets what constitutes a ‘social movement’ at the wider scale. The wider movement is not ‘environmentalism’ but ‘Egalitarianism’. Environmentalism is a vehicle for a broader Egalitarianism. Notice how many environmentalist books, articles and speeches end with a call to change our values, to live simpler, more caring lives. This is a kind of meta-environmentalism that is well (if not exactly elegantly) described as weak grid, strong group. All weak grid, strong group institutions recognize one another as such, and share roughly the same enemies. In some places, environmentalists are referred to as ‘water melons’ because they are perceived as green on the outside and red on the inside. What such nomenclature is recognising is not that there is a clandestine communism in the green movement, but that both environmentalism and communism are in different ways, closer to the weak grid, strong group bias than other institutions and organisations.The other cultural biases spot this very easily.

This claim is likely to be very troubling/annoying to many who see themselves as environmentalists, and is likely to be rejected. But we can ask:

If the Environmental movement is not deeply committed to Egalitarianism, why does it routinely see Individualist, Hierarchical or Fatalist solutions to environmental issues as highly suspect, and Egalitarian solutions as highly preferable?


Mary Douglas and Gerald Mars (2003) Terrorism. A positive Feedback Game. Human Relations, Vol. 56, No. 7, 763-786

Clare Saunders (2008) ‘Double-edged swords? Collective identity and solidarity in the environment movement’ British Journal of Sociology 59 (2), 227-253.

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