EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Accelerating the Transition: NGOs and Individuals

Few areas of human activity have been so dominated by NGOs as the environmental movement. Broadly speaking, NGOs evolve to fill gaps left by government and the business sector. Literally thousands of such groups have been formed in both industrial and developing societies. Most NGOs are public interest groups as opposed to special interest groups.

Environmental groups are sometimes local, single-issue organizations with a handful of members. Others are full-spectrum groups that are global in their membership and orientation. Membership may vary from a handful of people to several million. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for example, with a worldwide membership that climbed from 570,000 in 1985 to 5.2 million in 1995, has an influence on environmental policy that exceeds that of many governments. Environmental groups play a major educational role through their press releases, magazines, newsletters, Web sites, and electronic mailing lists. When coalitions mobilize to focus on a single issue, they can become a formidable political force.30

Using the Internet to mobilize political support for environmental actions is a valuable new asset in the effort to build an eco-economy. Thousands of environmental NGOs have Web sites and electronic mailing lists that provide information on key issues. Concerned individuals can develop their own electronic mailing lists, distributing environmental information to hundreds, if not thousands, of friends and associates. Research by environmental groups provides information to guide environmental activists. The Worldwatch Institute, founded in 1974 in Washington, D.C., was the first such global environmental research group, followed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 1982, also in Washington, and the Wuppertal Institute in Germany. Research by these and other groups underpinned much of the discussion at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The annual State of the World report launched by Worldwatch in 1984 was designed to fill the gap in the series of U.N. annual reports. For example, the World Health Organization produces The State of the World's Health, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization publishes The State of Food and Agriculture, and the U.N. Population Fund, The State of the World's Population. But until UNEP launched a comprehensive Global Environmental Outlook report, the United Nations had failed to produce a regular state of the environment report. As evidence of the hunger for environmental information, Worldwatch Institute's annual State of the World report has been translated into more than 30 languages.

The World Resources Institute is anchoring a worldwide collaborative effort on a "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment." This project, in which WRI has involved the World Bank, UNEP, and the U.N. Development Programme, is by far the most ambitious, detailed assessment of global ecosystems ever undertaken. Involving major scientific bodies and hundreds of scientists, this project is designed to provide information on the present and likely future condition of the world's ecosystems to guide future ecosystem management.31

At the other end of the environmental spectrum is Greenpeace, an activist organization. It shares the same goals as the research institutes, but whereas they rely on analysis and information to bring about change, Greenpeace relies primarily on political confrontation and media events that can rally public opinion. Even the threat of a boycott of a company product can induce changes in corporate policy. This was perhaps most dramatically displayed in 1996, when Shell was planning to dispose of a wornout oil rig, the Brent Spar, by simply dumping it in the North Sea. Greenpeace's attack on Shell over this plan took the form of a boycott of service stations in Germany. In the face of declining gasoline sales, Shell acquiesced and developed another means of disposal.32

NGOs have greatly strengthened their role at the international level as a result of advances in communication, including the fax machine, e-mail, and the cell phone. In 1998, for example, governments of 29 of the more affluent countries entered into closed-door negotiations on a multilateral agreement on investment. NGOs mounted a worldwide challenge to this secretive process and aroused so much public concern that they were able to bring it to a halt. The groups that objected to these negotiations were concerned that this agreement on investment would lead to a downward spiral in both environmental standards and wages
in the words of one analyst, "a race to the cellar."33

In late 1999, the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was founded in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, convened a meeting in Seattle to develop the agenda for a new round of trade talks—the Millennium Round. Although only a few years old, the WTO had gained a reputation for recognizing only bottom-line economic issues. It seemed more or less oblivious to environmental and social issues affected by trade policy decisions. In virtually every case involving conflicts between trade expansion and environmental protection, the WTO had ruled in favor of trade expansion.34

The WTO had set off alarm bells for those in environmental groups, in organized labor, and in developing countries, which often came out on the wrong end of trade liberalization negotiations. The Seattle meeting was attended by some 5,000 delegates and political leaders, including environment and trade ministers, from more than 150 countries. But there were also 50,000 protesters who used civil disobedience to disrupt transportation and the convening and progress of the talks. The U.S. National Guard intervened, using tear gas and arresting hundreds of protesters in a response reminiscent of anti-war demonstrations of the early 1970s. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed. Fifty square blocks in downtown Seattle were set aside as a "no protest zone."35

In the end, the talks collapsed largely because of public criticism of the failure to consider environment and poverty adequately. WTO officials were in a state of shock and may never be the same again. Nor should they be. If they were not aware of environmental and social issues before the protests in Seattle, they are now. Most U.N. agencies, the World Bank, and national governments now recognize that NGOs are stakeholders, that they often represent societal interests even more effectively than do elected politicians, who are sometimes corrupted by the political process. NGOs have acquired experience, expertise, and skill in analyzing issues and in confronting governments that they believe are behaving irresponsibly. They are now treated less as mere critics on the sidelines and more as partners in negotiations and in developing agendas for international conferences.

From time to time, a government or group of governments sides with NGOs on an issue. In 1997, for example, Taiwan announced a plan to dispose of nuclear waste in North Korea. Unwilling or unable to dispose of it within its boundaries, the government was taking advantage of the abysmal poverty in North Korea to buy a place to dump the waste from nuclear power plants. The government of South Korea and the powerful Korean Federation of Environmental Movement combined forces in opposition to this plan. In the end, they succeeded.36

In 1997, a loose array of some 400 NGOs and the Canadian government launched an effort to ban the use of landmines. Although the United States was opposed to the effort, the NGOs mobilized enough public opinion to get the signatures of 122 governments on the landmine-banning treaty. By now, 117 countries have ratified the accord, which went into force on 1 March 1999. New communications technologies played a central role in mobilizing worldwide political support in support of the ban.37

Individuals also play an important role in the global environmental movement. Indeed, Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, is widely credited with being the founder of the modern environmental movement. Her book, which dealt with the use of pesticides, such as DDT, that were threatening bird populations, filled a gap because the U.S. government was not responding to this threat.

Ted Turner, founder of CNN, set the standard for individual philanthropy when in 1997 he announced his gift of $1 billion to the United Nations to support work on population stabilization, environmental protection, and the provision of health care. He created the UN Foundation to serve as a vehicle through which the resources could be transferred. Turner could have waited, leaving a bequest to set up the foundation after his death. But given the urgency of the situation, he argued that billionaires needed to respond now to the world's most pressing problems before they spin out of control, becoming unmanageable. It is quite likely that Turner's initiative affected Bill Gates of Microsoft and other newly minted billionaires. Gates himself has now set up the world's largest foundation and is allocating sums of money that dwarf the resources of many governments in an effort to improve health and stabilize population in developing countries.38

At the grassroots level, Wangari Maathai, who has organized women in Kenya to plant trees, serves as a model for environmentalists everywhere. She wants to reforest Kenya and restore its environmental health. Because she often challenges corrupt political leaders, she has been beaten and threatened numerous times. Similarly, Chico Mendes organized rubber tappers in the Amazon who depend on the trees for their livelihoods. They opposed the large ranchers who wanted to convert these forested regions to rangeland. Although Mendes paid the ultimate price when he was gunned down by killers hired by the ranchers, the movement he started continues.39

NGOs and individuals have been instrumental in bringing about many basic changes, playing a leading role in bringing the growth of nuclear power to a halt, in raising public awareness of climate change, and in putting water scarcity on the global agenda. The challenge to environmental groups now is to broaden their agendas so they can promote a shared vision of an eco-economy and can work together to make it a reality.


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30. WWF membership growth from Curtis Runyan, "Action on the Front Lines," World Watch, November/December 1999, p. 14.

31. World Resources Institute, World Resources 2000-2001 (Washington, DC: 2001).

32. Greenpeace and Brent Spar in P.J. Simmons, "Learning to Live with NGOs," Foreign Policy, fall 1998, p. 90.

33. Runyan, op. cit. note 30.

34. "A WTO Primer," Time, 5 December 2000.

35. Richard Lacayo, "Rage Against the Machine," Time, 13 December 1999.

36. Choi Yul, Director General of Korean Federation of Environmental Movement, discussion with author, 3 June 1997.

37. From International Campaign to Ban Landmines, www.icbl.org, updated as of 17 July 2001.

38. David Rhode, "Ted Turner Plans a $1 Billion Gift for U.N. Agencies," New York Times, 19 September 1997; John Donnelly, "Bill Gates, Caregiver: The Microsoft Founder is Spending Billions to Provide Health Services to the World's Poor," Boston Globe, 24 December 2000.

39. Elissa Sonnenberg, "Environmental Hero: Wangari Maathai," Environmental News Network, 25 September 2000; Andrew Revkin, The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest (New York: Plume, 1994).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute