Jeff Angel at a Green Capital event, Sydney 2012

14 February 2013 – Ahead of a Green Capital breakfast next Thursday in Sydney, Jeff Angel flags the topic of debate: Is the business world in retreat from environmental gains, or are the more extreme climate deniers, making responsible business feel uncomfortable? And is this year a tipping point for either side?

The idea of environmental groups working with business to improve sustainability is nothing new. Now, however, some groups are asking if the hope for a more collaborative era is really just a false dawn? As a seasoned NGO (non government organisation) now in its 40th year, TEC and its Green Capital program are looking to discover what the future might hold.

The more radical in the movement are saying: “I told you so … you can’t trust business to be a responsible member of the community”. These doubts are being voiced well beyond our shores too, with The Guardian’s respected Sustainable Business blog reporting this week on rising levels of mistrust between business leaders and the heads of big international environment and development NGOs.

In Australia, collaboration sceptics are getting a serious hearing as the attack on the carbon tax and the federal environmental approvals system gathers political force in the run-up to the Federal Election.

In New South Wales the threat to close down the Environmental Defenders Office championed by the Minister for Energy and The Australian, at the behest of the Minerals Council, has demonstrated to many, particularly in the absence of any business defenders of the EDO, the real colour of business. They want a return to radical action, and even more of it, including use of the tools of social media to trash corporate brands.

Not all environment groups however, are ready to give up on collaboration – just yet. They argue that the pendulum will swing back to a more reasonable position even though the resource and property industries are pushing hard to de-fang environmental controls – believing that green groups have amassed too much influence on decisions about their projects.

But the public is more sophisticated these days, say NGOs. Take the clear and present danger to the Great Barrier Reef from uncoordinated and excessive industrial and mining developments, and the extremist position of the Queensland government. Business can no longer swat environmentalists away as it did in the 1960s.

While key NGOs recognise the force of the attack on environmental law and balanced decision making, they argue that this can be a positive dynamic for movement building, as long as you act responsibly in your campaigns and continue to inform the public about the situation and what’s at peril.

The community will take the side of the environment, and business will appear reactionary and extremist. There is now far greater public sympathy for environmental goals than existed five decades ago.

This year will be crucial.

The more radical elements on either side could win.

However, I’m convinced that business has the most to lose. It is much easier to portray community activism and opposition to environmental damage created by business activities, as being in the public interest, than it is for business to attack the environment movement and find widespread support.

Compare this to what often appears as the ranting and insults from the more aggressive business advocates and right wing political commentators.

This may have worked in the early days of the growth of the environment movement but it won’t now. Furthermore, they end up tarring business in general with the same brush – particularly if the more moderate parts of the business sector stay silent or worse still allow their industry associations to campaign against environmental gains.

There is another element of which governments will need to be wary. With the disgraceful revelations from the ICAC hearings in NSW and the unsavory past of Queensland, it doesn’t take much for the public to suspect the motives of government when it appears to do the blatant bidding of business.

Too much time spent with lobbyists or too much gung-ho rhetoric advocating business and mining deals, doesn’t look good.

Governments need to demonstrate that they are really working for the public interest, and simply delivering big holes in the ground, new casinos and rampant urban sprawl are not the same thing. Social and environmental responsibility or sustainability are not just public relations terms – a better, cleaner, fairer economy has to be seen and felt to be believed.

What do you make of this critical juncture of the debate between business and the environment movement?

Jeff Angel is executive director, Total Environment Centre, and Green Capital

Speakers at the event will be: David Ritter, chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and Andrew Petersen, CEO Sustainable Business Australia. Panellists will include: Nicolette Boele, principal, Banarra;  Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of WWF Australia; and Tina Perinotto, managing editor and publisher, The Fifth Estate.

Details here