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Sociology from Turkey

The Sociology of Environmentalism in Turkey

Environmentalism can bridge the gap between environmental activism and civil society mobilization against authoritarianism. Credit: congerdesign/Pixabay, Creative Commons.

June 20, 2022

The course and forms of environmentalism in Turkey have progressed in parallel with the social transformation of the country as well as with its politics. With the transformation of environmentalism, it is possible to follow the struggles for the development of civil society, the ideological forms of neoliberalism, and the social divisions created by class differentiation, in addition to political debates.

Although the history of social reactions to environmental problems in Turkey can be traced back to the end of the 1970s, the emergence of an organized environmentalism was only possible at the end of the 1980s. This first period of organized environmentalism contributed both to the destruction of the psychological barriers to social organization produced by the 1980 military coup, and to the formation of a new political ground by reclaiming the language of protest in the 1970s, which associated environmental problems with politics and economy. The environmentalist discourse, with an emphasis on integrity beyond the political language of the period, was sought to be represented directly in politics by the Green Party. However, this attempt was short-lived because early environmentalism, although it had an innovative perspective, was stuck in a narrow middle-class practice and did not reach the masses. After this unsuccessful political attempt, environmental discourse continued to be produced in different forms through environmental non-governmental organizations.

The 1990s: the institutionalization of environmentalism

The 1990s, when environmentalism turned into a component of civil society, were also years when environmental values ​​were integrated with middle class values ​​and when environmentalism became visible in the public sphere. In this period, environmental organizations went beyond being social organizations producing political demands regarding environmental problems. In line with an expanding civil society dynamic against state authority, environmentalism became a strong component of civil society. There are two main reasons why environmentalism had a strong impact on civil society. First, the social image of environmentalism as non-political enabled people who were depoliticized during the coup process to be re-included in the social organization. Second, the discourse created about the potential risks of the planned nuclear power plant, together with the pollution produced by industry and thermal power plants throughout the country, made it clearer that environmental problems were not regional but national, and accelerated the social circulation of the environmentalist discourse. For instance, the protests against the Bergama gold mine as the most well-known environmental resistance of the period contributed to the spread of environmentalist discourse among the middle class. Environmentalism, during this period, managed to form a backbone based on the middle class that has survived to the present day.

The emphasis on civil society enabled the formation of different environmental organizations and different perspectives on environmentalism. This period, which might be called the period of institutionalization, paved the way for environmental organizations to develop special interests and to be involved in different social processes. Environmental non-governmental organizations focusing on different and specific issues such as agricultural problems, protecting natural life, and combating erosion acted to increase social awareness and interest in the environment through educational activities as well as to engage in their own fields of interest. Special attention was paid to awareness-raising activities: environmental education activities for children and young adults were part of an effort to create a social group with high awareness in the following years.

Environmental protest in Turkey. Credit: Özkan Öztürk.

Also in the same period, not only environmental non-governmental organizations operating institutionally, but also environmental movements that directly target politics gained strength. Environmental movements, which lack the financial resources and therefore the means of propaganda available to institutionalized environmentalism, have continued to emphasize the political dimension of environmental problems, especially with the creation of joint working groups and local protest demonstrations for the expression of local problems. The common denominator between the political-protest attitude of environmental movements and institutionalized environmentalism, which was eager to separate environmentalism from its political content, was the aim of drawing the attention of a wider audience to environmental problems.

The 2000s: the professionalization of environmentalism

The institutionalization process, which gained momentum in the 1990s, provided new perspectives for environmentalism in the 2000s. The agendas of environmentalist organizations contained more detailed goals compared to the 1990s, as well as identifying the tools used to reach these goals. As a result of this process, which can be defined as professionalization, environmentalist organizations clarified their political and economic programs as well as the intellectual structure of their ideological position. However, many of the new “environmentalist” organizations that were established under the shadow of big companies produced the propaganda of a domesticated environmentalism compatible with the current economic and political practices of capital. This interest in environmentalism was not limited to organizations established under the control of large companies. Especially in the mid-2000s, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) consolidated its political power, conservatives and religious organizations who wanted to expand their social influence established environmental organizations with a religious-environmental discourse. The reference to a religious discourse suggested reconciliation within the current conjuncture rather than solving environmental problems within the framework of a common good.

The 2000s were also the years when environmentalism and social interest in environmental problems spread from the middle classes to the lower classes. Communication technologies like the internet had a significant role in spreading environmentalist discourses to a wider social base than ever before. However, more importantly, a larger social group has directly been involved in environmental problems due to the fact that the environmental policies of the increasingly authoritarian AKP, which are far from reconciliation, constantly produce these problems in a deeper way. Many examples, such as the damage caused by hydroelectric power plants built on streams to the regions where they are built and to hundreds of villages in these regions, or the plundering of national parks through mineral exploration works, have led to the local people’s direct experience of environmental problems along with political authoritarianism.

The fact that environmental problems are experienced today by more people brings environmentalist discourses to the forefront both in civil society and in politics. In this sense, environmentalism has assumed a role in the struggle against authoritarian politics as well as in the struggle against environmental problems. Reducing this role to its political nature would mean ignoring the path of environmentalism in its short history in Turkey. As well as direct political struggle, developing civic initiatives with an emphasis on democratic values ​​and initiating awareness-raising activities through environmental education have also strengthened the social quality of environmentalism.

Özkan Öztürk, Karabük University, Turkey <ozkanozturk@karabuk.edu.tr>

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