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Negotiating environmentalism in a democratizing Iran

The new environmentalists hail from affluent backgrounds and urban areas and their everyday consumption practices are imbued with political meaning, given the reduced space for organized channels to express discontent.

Simin Fadaee
28 September 2015
open Movements

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Iran has been changing from an isolated country with a repressive political structure to an emerging power in the region with ever increasing opportunities for civic engagement. In this era of transformation, the dialectics of movements and democratizing processes resonate more than ever.

The Constitutional Revolution in the early twentieth century paved the way for groundbreaking processes of democratization, and Iranians have since been involved in an ongoing struggle of social transformation. They have continuously replaced the old social and political structures with new orders and have functioned as active citizenry, at the forefront of various forms of struggle and transforming practices. For example, they have nationalized their oil industry, attaining one of the most remarkable revolutions of the twentieth century through their nationwide solidarity and collective action.

However, these political upheavals have simultaneously exposed many Iranians to the complications of struggle suggesting that the amalgamation of small-scale movements and diverse forms of civic engagement can occasionally function as a more fruitful vehicle of transformation in contrast to the inherent radicalism common in many parts of the global South.

Especially since the revolution of 1979 and the establishment of a complex political system, which restricted civic engagement in different forms, Iranians have been creatively combining old and new ways of doing politics. Going beyond conventional forms of struggle such as participating in demonstrations and protests or working with civil society organizations, many have been engaged in what is referred to as “subterranean politics,” i.e. forms of politics carried out in hidden fashion in a given political climate.

One of the most significant examples of such politics can be seen in the emergence and evolution of environmentalism; a movement which emerged in the late 1990s, which was subsequently diversified by a range of actors in different directions and is rapidly becoming institutionalized in many realms. Environmentalism, alongside the women’s rights movement and student movements, emerged within the framework of the reform movement and the proliferation of civil society organizations. Since its emergence, environmentalism in Iran has gone through two waves, each with a distinctive set of actors and characteristics.

Environmentalists of the first wave were in most instances highly educated and comprised of the socio-political activists of previous decades. Many became involved in environmental activism because it served as a relatively safe issue around which to mobilize in the dynamic political space of Iran. At its dawn, environmentalism was mainly materialized through NGOs i.e. within mobilized spheres of civil society. Issues such as the “conservation of nature” and “improvement of the quality of life” were among the most common subjects raised by almost all activists. However, because of the existence of certain laws which complicated receiving authorization for civil society organizations within the Iranian political system, environmental NGOs could never operate autonomously. Moreover, the existence of different and at times hostile factions within the Iranian political structure created uncertainties for environmental activists. Consequently, many environmentalists found themselves in what could at best be described as a dialectical position of consensus and confrontation. Confrontation occurred when environmentalists challenged the state and its inefficient institutions, and pushed the boundaries of civil society activism through demonstrations and confrontational campaigns. Otherwise, their actions were consensual when environmental groups collaborated with government institutions on specific environmental projects and initiatives.

As an era of reform was followed by a conservative government, popular mobilizations were restricted and activism within organized spaces of civil society became more complicated than before. However, surprisingly, in the aftermath of the suppression of civil society activism a diverse repertoire of practices emerged which were absent or rarely visible in the landscape of Iranian environmentalism. On many occasions these practices diverge from civil society mobilizations of the first wave. This new wave of environmentalism saw the emergence of lifestyle movements. Their advocates incorporated political ideals into their private lives, believing in the slogan that “the private is political”. People who opt for public transport, recycling their garbage and consuming less environmentally harmful products are a few examples of these emerging environmentally-friendly lifestyles. Occasionally these people advocate lifestyle change collectively through specific projects and associations.

Closely related to this aspect of the movement is the growing food movement among those who believe that today’s food economy is unsustainable. They promote consumption of organic and healthy food as a strategy aimed at preventing environmental and health-related problems. As a result, food politics and the revival of organic agriculture has picked up in workshops, seminars, newspaper articles and books. This has gone hand in hand with the proliferation of organic food shops and vegetarian restaurants which not only sell or serve healthy and environmentally friendly food but promote this culture through different initiatives.

Although such projects are more concentrated in the capital city of Tehran, other cities have been experiencing similar trends. The general characteristics of such projects are consistent with trends in many parts of the world, yet they exhibit characteristics that have been shaped by the evolution of state-society relations in Iran over the past two decades. Most importantly, they emerged in the post-reform era in response to restrictions placed on civil society mobilization. The actors mostly hail from affluent backgrounds and urban areas and their everyday consumption practices are imbued with political meaning, given the reduced space for organized channels to express discontent.

An organic food store in Iran. Some rights reserved.

Furthermore, in the new landscape of environmental activism alternative and innovative environmental spaces have started to emerge. Spaces such as eco-villages, nature schools, eco-cafés, eco-libraries, a vibrant virtual platform, etc. have emerged (or are emerging) as examples of alternative environmental spaces that have distanced themselves from the organized spheres of civil society and the state. 

Unlike the civil society organizations of the first wave, these spaces are very vibrant and encompass people from more diverse social groups and backgrounds. However, despite the emergence of these new modes of environmentalism in the post-reform era, some still emphasize the empowerment of civil society institutions and believe in confrontational strategies such as protests and demonstrations, while others still collaborate with governmental agencies and organizations and see this as a more effective way of practicing environmentalism.

Thus, at the moment three different forms of environmentalism exist in the socio-political space of Iran: confrontational, collaborative, and autonomous. The first and the second form are directed towards collaborating with or confronting the state and were more dominant in the beginning when the movement emerged first. Activism within civil society organizations and participation in demonstrations and campaigns were most popular among the confrontational and collaborative environmentalists. The emergence of lifestyle movements, food movements and environmental spaces like eco-cafes and nature schools, meanwhile, are examples of the new forms of activism among autonomous environmentalists.

Analysis of the diversifying environmental politics and constant negotiations that shape the essence of environmentalism in Iran is important for two reasons. On the theoretical level, in much literature, environmentalism has been analyzed extensively with reference to the context of post-industrial politics and in contrast to the ‘old’ class-based politics of labour movements of industrial era. It is argued that the transformation from industrial to post-industrial society has created new grievances and cleavages which are based on issues of identity, values and quality of life. This rationale has been dominant in the analysis of environmental struggles in the North.

On the other hand, environmentalism of the South is often conceptualized with regard to material issues and life chances driven by the poor and marginalized. However, environmentalism in Iran can neither be explained in relation to the context of post-industrialization nor with reference to its relation to the poor. The trajectory of industrialization in Iran was based on resource extraction, and Iran never had a large industrial workforce, nor is it a post-industrial society. Moreover, in Iran, the environmental movement emerged within a transitory phase of democratization and proliferation of civil society mobilizations. Hence, the emergence of Iran’s environmental movement was not limited to concerns about environmental issues but it was a manifestation of a wider social and political context and a reaction to changing political opportunities, societal transformations and democratizing processes. Thus, it is important to examine the extent to which environmental politics is a revealing reflection of these broader social and political concerns and debates.

On a practical level, this case study demonstrates the importance of taking into account that environmentalism can assume different meanings and forms depending on the context, and in particular the ways that environmentalists engage with the state and other social groups. The example also shows that even in societies with a rather restricted public sphere for democratic practice and change, societies which from outside seem rather repressive or empty of democratizing spaces, it is still possible to detect transformative spaces to create and progressive strategies to follow. These spaces and strategies can produce alternatives where ordinary values, norms and practices are challenged by new conceptual and practical proposals. However, this is only possible because of the existence of an ‘active citizenry’ that as Asef Bayat has noted “possesses the courage and creativity to assert collective will in spite of all odds by circumventing constraints, utilizing what is possible, and discovering new spaces within which to make themselves heard, seen, felt, and realized”.

How to cite:
Fadaee S. (2015) «Negotiating environmentalism in a democratizing Iran», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 28 September. https://opendemocracy.net/simin-fadaee/negotiating-environmentalism-in-democratizing-iran

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