Social Change Movements

By Eckersley, Richard | Ecos, August-September 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Change Movements


Eckersley, Richard, Ecos


The 21st century has seen a proliferation of new social change movements driven by grassroots community activism. On the issue of climate change, for example, scores of community-based groups have formed in Australia over the past few years to provide forums for discussion, local action and public campaigns. Behind these movements is a growing body of 'concerned citizens' united by a sense of urgency, a vision of a better world and mapping a pathway for getting there.

When the modern environmental movement came into existence in the 1960s, people were optimistic that environmental problems could be solved. In a symbolic cover story in Newsweek on 26 January 1970, both the President of the United States and the head of General Motors were prepared to commit themselves to the task.

Now, almost 40 years later, despite the gains in some areas such as ozone depletion and urban air and water quality in developed nations, people appear more pessimistic about our environmental prospects. We can see now that we were naive about the gulf between the magnitude of the task and the scale of our response. For all the efforts governments are making, the gap between what we are doing and what we now know we need to do continues to widen.

Closing this 'political reality gap' will mean paying more attention to the social aspects of environmental problems. Of the 'triple bottom line' of sustainability--the environment, economy and society--the political focus has been firmly on the economic and environmental, on trying to balance and reconcile the needs for both economic growth and sustainable resource use.

Social movements are, fundamentally, about changing people's attitudes and behaviour, and so allowing--even forcing governments to do more.

Over the past decade, researchers have revealed that about a quarter of Americans and Europeans are 'cultural creatives', who have made a comprehensive shift in their worldview, values and way of life. They are disenchanted with materialism, greed, status displays and glaring social inequalities. Instead, they are placing emphasis in their lives on relationships, communities, spirituality, nature and the environment, and real ecological sustainability.

According to the researchers, cultural creatives represent a coalescence of social movements that are not just concerned with influencing government but with reframing issues in a way that changes how people understand the world.

Other surveys have shown that about a quarter of Australians and Britons are 'downshifters': people aged 30-59 who, in the past 10 years, have voluntarily made a long-term change in their lifestyle that has resulted in their earning less money. The means included cutting back work hours, taking a lower-paid job, stopping work and changing careers. …

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