Environmental Movements, States and Left Parties in the 21st Century: Strategies and Dynamics.

After decades of raising awareness, the degree of transformation required to face environmental issues is still the subject of intense debates. While the answers proposed by European governments remain at an embryonic stage, it seems that the Covid crisis has not provided the opportunity environmentalists had hoped for to thoroughly question states’ attachment to the

After decades of raising awareness, the degree of transformation required to face environmental issues is still the subject of intense debates. While the answers proposed by European governments remain at an embryonic stage, it seems that the Covid crisis has not provided the opportunity environmentalists had hoped for to thoroughly question states’ attachment to the infinite economic growth model.

In some respect such a situation could be reminiscent of the emerging welfare state in the 20th century. As industrialisation spread across Europe, governments agreed to renegotiate their commitment to economic growth in favour of more redistributive policies under the pressure of an increasingly powerful labour movement. Can what happened with the social question be repeated for environmental issues? To what extent is the current environmental movement able to make a difference regarding the priority the state places on ecology and the way the issue is addressed? What role can left parties play in this matter?

Confrontation or assimilation? Environmental movement and the state since the 1970s

The relationship of the environmental movement to the state has followed different patterns over time. When it emerged in the 1970s, the environmental movement adopted a confrontational posture under the influence of the May 1968 spirit of dissent. Opposition to nuclear power, which has taken the form of plant occupations and sometimes violent confrontations with the police, became the site of a more general protest against the technocratic state. Such a virulent adversarial attitude, however, did not hinder the spread of atomic energy in Europe. This acknowledgement of failure, combined with the dissipation of the combative spirit of May 68, finally led ecologists to move away from confrontational strategies.

Since the 1980s, environmentalists have opted for an assimilative stance, seeking concrete advances through official decision-making mechanisms. As a result, the movement has undergone a substantial process of institutionalisation, as reflected in the growing size of environmental organisations, their transnational expansion, and an inclination towards moderate forms of action (expertise, lobbying, petitions, etc.). This moderation, if it meant giving up revolutionary ideals, produced several achievements. On a national level, the cooperation of ecologists with public authorities enabled the state to integrate several environmental issues into its sphere of intervention (from the management of different forms of pollution to the protection of natural areas). On a transnational level, the activism of major NGOs allowed the organisation of key climate conferences during which states announced concrete commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite these achievements, states’ action to tackle climate change have proven to be largely insufficient. Recent official reports have for example highlighted the significant inadequacy of measures undertaken by the British and French governments to meet their emission reduction targets (Climate Change Comittee’s 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, Rapport annuel du Haut Conseil pour le Climat 2021). While environmental policies so far adopted by states have been feasible within the current economic model (the protection of natural areas, for instance, does not imply proper restrictions on economic activity), the scale and speed of current transformations (collapse of biodiversity and climate change) is now prompting states to renegotiate their relationship with capitalism.

The current dynamics of the environmental movement can be understood through this prism. Thus, in 2007 the Climate Justice Now! network formed to challenge the managerial approach endorsed by the main environmental NGOs during international meetings, advocating instead a critique of globalised capitalism. In the same way, the widespread school strikes and climate marches of 2019 have brought to the fore the necessity of putting strong pressure on states to meet their commitments and endorse a more systemic conception of environmental issues. This momentum has led to the adoption of a controversial mode of action: civil disobedience.

Exposing climate inaction and reframing environmental issues: strengths and weaknesses of civil disobedience

To exert pressure on the state, the labour movement used to possess two powerful modes of action: strikes and demonstrations. While the former provided a strong economic leverage by interrupting production, the political strength of the latter lay in the threat of public disorder it conveyed. What modes of action are currently available to the environmental movement?

The adoption of a more confrontational stance since the 2010s has primarily led to an increase in the number of street mobilisations around climate and environmental issues. In the spring and fall of 2019, millions of people marched for climate in dozens of cities around the world. Dissatisfied with the efficacy of these marches (which has not led to a greater involvement of states) several activist groups turned back to a once popular mode of action of the 1970s environmental movement: civil disobedience. In April 2019, for several hours, thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists from the UK occupied a series of central points in the capital before being evicted by the police. These types of actions have since been repeated in many countries, often targeting sites of political and economic power.

While it is not easy to assess the effectiveness of such strategies, two specific points are worth noting. First of all, civil disobedience appears to be a helpful medium for denouncing climate inaction. While governments enthusiastically value their environmental commitment, civil disobedience actions, by staging a withdrawal of citizens’ consent, highlight the inability of current policies to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction agreements. The underlying idea is that if some people are ready to break the law, it is because they feel they are facing an imminent danger to which states fail to adequately respond.

By pointing out the role of the state, civil disobedience also participates in a reframing process of environmental issues. While current policies rely on market mechanisms to encourage consumers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, civil disobedience movements reject such individualisation and depoliticisation of climate issues. By contrast, they invite states to endorse a more systemic approach to ecology by questioning their attachment to globalised capitalism. Present in the climate marches (through slogans such as ‘change the system not the climate’), these claims are expressed even more clearly in acts of civil disobedience that directly target polluting infrastructures and states that refuse to regulate them. For example, since 2015, the German movement Ende Gelände has frequently broken into mines to stop extraction and denounce the government’s energy policy. In a similar vein, the Extinction Rebellion movement frequently targets symbols of economic and political power while emphasising that ‘we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame’.

Despite these strengths, there are also limitations to civil disobedience strategies, which remain at an early stage of development in the environmental movement. In particular, the low number of participants in these actions does not allow civil disobedience to exert any real economic pressure and to actually represent a threat to public order, unlike labour strikes and demonstrations in their time. Thus, the impact of civil disobedience remains primarily symbolic. Another weakness lies in potential interpretation discrepancies that can surround such a strategy. While some conceive civil disobedience as a proxy for a more radical definition of ecology, others who are more moderate hope to use it as a way to gain a voice and access to the negotiating table. The dynamics of the environmental movement and its acceptance of or reluctance to embrace radicality will be particularly interest from this point of view.

Converging social and environmental issues : a role to play for left parties

During the 20th century, communist parties made it possible for the labour movement to find political outlets. To what extent can the left parties participate in (and benefit from) the dynamics spurred by the environmental movement?

At first glance, left parties may seem distant from ecological issues. On the one hand, green concerns can sometimes appear distant from social reality, as exemplified by the cliché of urban middle classes riding bicycles and eating organic food. On the other hand, environmentalists sometimes suspect the working-class routed left of being too ‘productivist’ to genuinely care about ecology. These prejudices deserve to be rejected. As revealed by extreme weather events, the lower classes and minorities are the ones most affected by climate change (see for example Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Broke). The articulation of social and environmental issues is is increasingly being recognised as a political reality, as demonstrated by the French Yellow Vest movement which popularised the slogan ‘end of the world, end of the month: same fight’. At the same time, ecologists are trying to take a stand on social issues by forging alliances with other movements (protection of social rights, anti-racism, promotion of LGBT+ rights, etc.)

However, such convergence between environmental and social issues around ideas of social justice remains too weak and deserves to be intensified. Indeed, ecology still is among the matters which are not very divisive among the electorate (few people oppose environmentalism in principle) and thus allow different political groupings to put forward their own definitions. For example, liberals only see ecology as an issue compatible with economic growth and technology, while conservatives speak of ecology in terms of local traditions to be preserved. In this context, the game of alliances appears crucial. While coalitions between greens and liberals (as in Ireland since June 2020) or conservatives (as in Austria since January 2020) weakens the critical potential of ecology, an alliance between left-wing parties and greens could contribute to the reframing of green issues in a more capitalist-critical direction focused around ideas of social justice, as the environmental movement tries to stimulate. This convergence could either be established through the formation of a new party (as with the Danish Red-Green Alliance since the early 1990s) or within a specific programmatic platform, outside of or within political parties. Such a path is well illustrated by the US ‘Green New Deal’, an ambitious programme to fight climate change that allows left-wing Democrats to promote a more radical conception of ecology and shift their party’s centre of gravity on the issue.

Beyond the political party area (political alliances are not always so easy in practice), the convergence between social and environmental issues can also be achieved by the promotion of specific policies. While some measures rely on market-based incentive mechanisms (taxes on polluting products, awareness campaigns, etc.) that target individuals and refuse to question capitalism, others are likely to address inequalities and involve the state rather than individuals. For example, a state-financed renovation of heating systems in buildings (which would greatly reduce the carbon footprint of housing) could allow many households to benefit from decent housing. Similarly, the redevelopment of rail and public transport networks to reduce car use would also help to limit certain effects of geographical segregation, while the relocation of many industries could secure and create new jobs in Europe. If these policies have an important cost, they could legitimise a vast programme of income and wealth redistribution that fits perfectly into a left agenda.

The establishment of links between ecologists and left parties could finally be of interest in terms of electoral mobilisation. If participants in civil disobedience (and young people in general) often express a lack of interest in or even distrust of representative democracy, they are sensitive to parties that could stand up for their issues. They might in particular be attracted by proposals for institutional reforms that would introduce more citizen participation that could put social justice issues back at the centre of the political landscape. While several European states are planning to put restrictions on civil disobedience actions, the defence of civil liberties by left parties could also be an important axis of convergence with environmental activists. In March 2021, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the British government proposed making ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’ into an offence that could greatly penalise public-space occupation actions. Similarly, in July 2021, French deputies voted to make trespassing on airport runways into an offence as a result of several actions of this type undertaken by climate activists. Clearly opposing these repressive measures could thus send an important message of support to environmental activists.


In this first part of the 21st century, the environmental movement seems to be regaining the contentious dynamics of its origins – after several decades of institutionalisation, ecologists are back in the streets. Through marches and civil disobedience, they are exposing the climate inaction of states and promoting a definition of ecology grounded in a critique of capitalism. While the strength of this movement remains limited in some respects and the political content of ecology is still a matter of debate, environmental activists and left parties have every interest in pooling their strength in order to be once again at the centre of social protest and achieve the necessary convergence between social and environmental issues.