University Of Tasmania
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Social movement leadership and the Tasmanian environmental movement : a case study

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posted on 2023-05-28, 09:24 authored by Wells, PE
The environmental movement, like many 'new social movements,' is comprised of participants who tend to eschew claims of leadership in preference of egalitarian, collective decision-making strategies, best described as 'direct democracy'. However, this does not mean that environmental movements do not have leaders. Environmental leaders inspire and mobilise, they act strategically and influence the outcomes of movement activities, even though many do not have a public profile. Partly due to the rhetorical stance of movements, social movement leadership remains a largely under-researched topic. This is particularly the case for environmental movement leaders. This research deficit is important because over the last 40 years environmental concerns have transformed from 'radical' or 'fringe' issues to become 'mainstream', with Greens politicians prominent in Australian state and federal politics, and Greens parties propagating across the western world. As a result, environmental issues are no longer new or exciting, but have become routinized, with their political potency reduced. These changes affect the structure of organisations within environmental movements, as well as the activities, frames and discourses considered as legitimate means of expressing environmental concern. Consequently, the demands imposed upon leaders may have changed from the broadly charismatic to the bureaucratic, in line with Max Weber's theory of routinisation. While the semantic expression of environmental concern by environmental leaders is important, so too is the dissemination of environmental messages. Contemporary social movements have a complex relationship with media, and the environmental movement is no exception. Social movements rely on news media to communicate their goals to the general public, but the 'newsworthiness' of the movement often rests upon negative framing of their activities. In addition, news media tend to conflate notions of leadership with those of celebrity, which can undermine both leaders and the broader movements they represent. As such, the interaction between the environmental movement and news media are critical for understanding the formation of environmental concern. This research examines environmental movement leadership in Tasmania, a physically and symbolically important site for environmentalism both nationally and around the world. Empirically, it relies upon semi-structured qualitative interviews with leaders in the Tasmanian environmental movement and textual analysis of these interviews to identify key themes and trends. A tripart analysis of Australian and Tasmanian news media, and snowballing, was used to identify the leaders interviewed in this research. Several key findings emerged in relation to environmental movement leaders. Leaders in theTasmanian movements do not appear to share many of the traits and characteristics of other kinds of leaders, such as business leaders, or leaders involved in representative politics. Nor does a principal theory of leadership for the social and political sciences, 'elite theory', have the sufficient explanatory power for understanding leaders of the Tasmanian environmental movement. While environmental leaders have some of the characteristics of political elites, they are not able to exercise power, and have very limited authority over movement participants. A possible exception to this rule is the charismatic former politician Dr Bob Brown. If environmental leaders are not elites, what do they contribute to the movement? The roles and responsibilities of leaders are varied and in a state of flux. Some leaders take on multiple roles, yet previous accounts of the Tasmanian environmental movement suggested a far greater division of labour was apparent in previous decades. The basis of leader status gained through experience and dedication to environmental causes is discussed, as is the role of women in leadership. Leaders' effective use of market-based activism is examined through two case studies. Of particular interest is the influence of market-based activism on the relationship between leaders and the wider movement, and its implications for wider 'financialisation' in the movement. Finally, the relationship between leaders and media is considered through a discussion of leaders' interaction with news media, and social media. News media are particularly important for the success of Tasmanian environmental leaders, while social media are far less central than contemporary social movement literature suggests. This research highlights how leader-centred accounts can provide particular insight into current operation and future direction of environmental social movements.


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