Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

US Environmental NGOs: New Strategies for New Environmental Problems?

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

US Environmental NGOs: New Strategies for New Environmental Problems?

Article excerpt


Finding an exact measure of NGO influence in policy-making is impossible. Nevertheless, it commonly held that NGOs have come to play an increasingly important role in policy-formation processes, at least in the Western world. In the USA, the environmental movement has become a major force in the political system, often capable of altering the political agenda and winning significant victories against dominant industrial and commercial interests. US NGOs have never had larger constituencies or received more funding than now, despite the current slowdown in the US economy. Whereas many social movements tend to lose momentum during periods of economic recession, this does not seem the case with the environmental movement. As environmental NGOs exert an undeniable influence, it is relevant to study whether their mode of working has changed in response to a new generation of environmental problems.


Issue orientation--or the problems targeted by NGOs--is but one among several factors which may influence the choice of strategies. In this article, we develop a framework for understanding NGOs' use and change of strategies. Important elements are goals and values--by which we mean the overriding philosophy held regarding mankind's relationship with nature.

The value system, i.e., the man-nature-relationship, may change over time. Man could be seen as merely one among the equal creatures in the ecosystem, or as the creature--a superior species with special rights to change nature in the best interests of mankind as well as special obligations to manage nature to the benefit of mankind. Throughout history, different views on values have had an impact on what kind of social organization is preferred--which role markets should play and how much state intervention is considered necessary for a certain value system to be achieved. The market-economy has traditionally been regarded as a system allowing man to pursue his own selfish interests, whereas state intervention has been seen as allowing a more holistic approach in which the interests of humankind and nature itself can more properly be taken care of. A consequence of this approach is that the market economy will clash with a value system in which man and nature are regarded of equal value, whereas the state has more resources to ascertain a societal order compatible with such a value system.

That goals regarding societal order influence the use of strategies might seem self-evident, even tautological. If the market economy is accepted, one should also expect the simultaneous acceptance of so-called economic instruments. The relationship may be regarded as tautological if the empirical question of whether NGOs accept economic instruments is also an indicator that NGOs accept the market economy as a societal goal. The two variables are strongly related. We choose to distinguish between them, however, in order to maintain the indirect link between values and strategies.

'Targets' refer to specific problems to which NGOs devote time and effort. Examples include 'wilderness' and 'wildlife' (first generation of environmental problems), 'pollution' (second generation) or 'global climate change' (third generation).

That the issues themselves, the targets, have an impact on the use of strategies, is scarcely controversial either. That the target may have a feedback impact on goals is, however, less straightforward. Here the reasoning would be that, since an issue (a problem) has certain distinctive features (such as scope, complexity), solving it demands particular strategies and thus a particular kind of societal order. Since some of the new environmental problems (like global climate change) are so broad in scope and complexity, an effective solution will require a complex set of strategies. With the greenhouse effect, both causes and consequences are uncertain. So far, fossil fuel combustion has been assumed to be the single most important cause. …

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