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A Fierce Green Fire: The Current Status of Public Discourse and protest in Environmental Affairs

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

A Fierce Green Fire;’ the title of Philip Shabecoff’s novel, documented the early environmental [1] American activists of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, we too are witnessing ‘fierce’ activism but on [2] a larger, more global scale, and with a more diverse range of participants. I will be looking at how and why environmental activism has developed over time. Its potential as well as its limitations to be overcome.

The Changing Public Perception of the Environment: Protesting for a Fundamental Right.

The first gathering of environmental action began in the United States in the context of the 1960’s and 1970’s peace movement. It began amongst left-wing populists; appealing primarily to those involved in grassroots politics. According to John Dryzek, several similar historical, social and political temporal developments brought ‘the environment,’ as a political concept, into being. It [3] was through these small-scale campaigns that the environment became visible as both actionable and political in the eyes of the public when it has previously only existed as a scientific concept.

In the 1990’s, the environment began to exist in the realm of ‘rights’ and a healthy environment being defined as a fundamental human right. ‘The environment’ became more socially ingrained as an enforceable action amongst the public. If a right was violated, then activists could use their democratic right to protest and demand a remedy. Particularly recently, environmental harms [4] have been framed in terms of rights violations and have been recognised by courts globally. In 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated a healthy environment was ‘a fundamental right for the existence of mankind.’ The Court of Justice of the European Union has been [5] “greening” Articles 2 and 8 in its interpretation of legislation and the United Kingdom’s Supreme [6] Court has recently declared that ‘environmental rights are not “human rights” in the ordinary sense’ but ‘are much more than that.’ The environment, viewed as a universal human right, [7] escapes the past limitation of viewing it as belonging to a certain political group. Its conception as a human right politicises the environment and thus is now able to be discussed and campaigned for globally.

The Problem: A Continued ’fragmented’ Discourse.

Although contemporary public discourse about environmental issues is far more united than past movements; there still exists a ‘fragmented and contradictory’ discourse. Concerns are brought [8] forward by a wide variety of actors. There are hostile actors including right-wing leaders which [9] exclude the environment as a topic from their political discourse; as well as economically interested parties who voice concern in regard to their own vested interests.

Most importantly, the many involved fields which should cooperate, often struggle to do so. Jaye Ellis argues that the highly specialised social systems involved, including science, politics and the law, conflict in their aims and so struggle to bring about a clear solution. The divided actors limit [10] the potential results from the current powerful force of public protest.

What needs to happen?

Of course, not everyone will agree on the seriousness of environmental issues therefore division can be expected. However, the problem of ‘fragmented and contradictory’ needs to be resolved through communication. Ellis states that it is ‘absolutely necessary’ to have ‘communication between different discourses, expert and non-expert.’ That is to say, communication between [11] scientific bodies and political authorities as well as the public so as ‘to integrate scientific knowledge into political decision-making.’ In order for political protest to be effective, there needs to be cooperation between all bodies.

Are Environmental protests still worthwhile?

Public discourse and protest undeniably benefit environmental issues.

According to the Guardian , environmentally friendly states such as New York have cut their greenhouse emissions [12] whereas others with higher scepticism, such as Texas and Wyoming have rising emissions. Fundamentally, public contribution is one of the main sources required of a constitutional democracy. And the broadness of the environment’s problems requires ‘all the institutional and legal resources of a constitutional democracy to operate.’ [13] However, a constitutional democracy requires all parties to communicate and cooperate. In order for the protests to have any effect, they must be heard by the other essential institutional bodies so as to ensure that actual change is made.

Jemima Gravatt

Feature Writer

Environmental Law


  1. Philip Shabecoff, ‘A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement’ (rev edn, Island 1 Press 2012)

  2. Phoebe Weston ‘Climate strike: Key stats from protests as more than 4,6000 events are held in 2 150 countries’ (The Independent, 20 September 2019) < environment/climate-protests-greta-thunberg-strikes-global-warming-number-countriesa9113976.html> accessed 17 February 2020

  3. John S Dryzek, ‘The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses’ (OUP 1997)

  4. Katherine Lofts, ‘Environmental governance and rights-related discourse: A study of human rights -and rights of nature-based discourses in the international climate change regime from 1992-2015’ (Master of Laws, McGill University, 2016)

  5. Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Advisory Opinion OC-23/17 (November 15, 2017)

  6. Robert Carnwarth, Justice of The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, ’Human Rights and the 6 Environment, Justice Human Rights Law Conference 2018, London’ (10 October 2018) <>docs>speech-181010> accessed 16 February 2020 (p 3)

  7. Robert Carnwarth (n 6) (p 6) 7

  8. Maarten Hajer & Wytske Vertsteeg , ‘A Decade of Discourse Analysis of Environmental Politics: 8 Achievements, Challenges, Perspectives’ [2005] Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 175

  9. Dom Phillips, ‘Jair Bolsonaro launches assault on Amazon rainforest protections’ (The Guardian, 9 2 January 2019) <> accessed 16 February 2020

  10. Jaye Ellis. ‘Perspectives on Discourse in International Environmental Law: Expert Knowledge 10 and Challenges to Deliberative Democracy’ in Brad Jessup and Kim Rubenstein (eds), Environmental Discourses in International and Public Law (CUP 2012) (pp 123-142)

  11. Jaye Ellis (n 10)

  12. Damian Carrington, ‘Environmental movement making a real impact in the US, study finds’ (The 12 Guardian, 15 June 2015) <> accessed 17 February 2020

  13. Elizabeth Fisher, ‘Unearthing the Relationship Between Environmental Law and 13 Populism’ [2019] (Journal of Environmental Law, Vol 31, Issue 3) 383-38

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