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Death of Environmentalism?

Cubical of Doom

by MIKE ROSELLE

Missoula, Montana

We’ve been following, with amazement, the debate over the Nordhaus report entitled "Death of Environmentalism". We have read many things. Everybody is in agreement that we are getting our asses whooped but we don’t agree on who’s at fault. The consultants are blaming the strategists. Strategists are blaming the activists. The activists are blaming the funders. Funders are blaming the funded. Everybody is blaming the mainstream media, while the media is blaming an apathetic public. The public is blaming all of us because we can’t seem to get anything done. Victory has many mothers and fathers, but defeat is a red headed stepchild.

My reaction to all of this is a big so what. Yes, hundreds of millions of dollars are going into the coffers of the big green machine in Washington D.C. What do we get for it? It’s a fair question to ask, but not an easy one to answer. It takes money to get stuff done in the Great Satan. And the expertise necessary to operate a large non-profit organization does not come cheap. The members and funders of these organizations must be happy because they are still sending them money. Maybe we should blame them. So if you are a member or funder of a large green organization that is not already an oil company, I am talking to you. Are you really happy with the way your team is playing right now? Do they have the talent, the dedication, and the courage that you expect to get for your annual $75 membership fee or your $1000 support grant? Have you even read their strategic plan, which came out of their strategic planning process and probably cost $100,000 of your money? Let us know.

Most of the current discussion on strategy is really a discussion about money. Many of the critics of the current state of the environmental movement have solutions that are based on dividing up the large amount of money in the movement today, and using half of it to try something different. I have a similar idea. Give me the money! But at least I’m realistic enough to know that it ain’t gonna’ happen.

David Brower always said if you consolidated every environmental organization in the world, the oil companies could still buy them out for lunch money. It seems like the respect for diversity does not extend to strategies anymore. People are calling for one big expensive campaign on global warming. We just had these same people run a big expensive campaign to put someone with brains in the White House. At least we know they have experience in running big expensive campaigns. But this seems like the NASA approach. Shoot for the moon and ignore all of the smaller, less expensive science projects that actually show you what the universe looks like.

The very reason the environmental movement has had any success is because we try many approaches and duplicate the things that work. In John Muir’s day, writing articles for monthly magazines and taking the rich and powerful into the wilderness was a new approach. David Brower and the conservationists of his time would just as likely strike a deal with a congressman over a bottle of bourbon at sunrise in a Sacremento River duck blind as in their D.C. offices. That good-old buddy system is gone today, and it is rare for conservationists to get real face time with important members of the legislature. The champions in Congress we once had, those with true courage (the Phil Burtons, the Jim Weavers and many others who were not afraid to stand up on important issues), have been replaced by a new generation of professional weasels. That’s a bad thing to say about weasels, but we haven’t seen the true courage in a while.

Jimmy Carter had a dynamic energy plan and put the muscle of his office behind it. Reagan dismantled Carter’s energy program, and no one has stepped up to the plate since. Even during eight years of a Democratic administration, including an environmental vice president, nothing was done to pick up where Carter left off. The Kerry campaign said all the right general things, but there was no amount of passion expressed for the environment, or the issue of climate change.

If this is a model of a liberal, progressive, environmental alliance, then this, of course, will mean that conservation issues are to be buried, or maybe just repackaged by a high paid consultant. Progressives and liberals are notorious for issue shopping, and can be more fickle then a funder on crack. When the earth sciences are clearly showing us what’s happening to the Earth, and this information is available to everyone in the world, why do we need consultants to tell us what’s important? Darwin tells us what’s important! Rachel Carson tells us what’s important! Many others are telling us. The conservation of nature is important to the survival of humanity. Extinction will be the crime for which future generations are going to be the least forgiving. We are reaching levels of growth and consumption that cannot be sustained, even if nature is to be completely exploited and exhausted. No one wants to hear this. We know that. But it is still true, and we will keep saying it until those the decision-makers understand, whether they are Dictators or Democrats.

For conservationists nature is not an Issue. It is a calling. Our strategy is to make the public understand the value of nature and the importance of protecting it, and to do whatever is necessary to prevent its destruction. This is not always a popular position. Liberals and progressives will only give their support if we are applying sufficient political pressure to merit their attention, and if they can use the issue to further their own political agenda. We can only hope that some new Teddy Roosevelt Republicans are ready to step in, for if we are to rely only on the left side of the aisle we have no future as a pressure group. Conservation is not a left or right issue. It’s about goals. We have goals, we have strategies, and we have tactics, but more importantly we have truth.

The Foundation Gold Rush of the last 15 years proved one thing at least; money will not buy us a movement. If anything, it sent more activists into the cubicles of badly run organizations, breaking their spirits with mundane tasks and bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, often making them feel invisible and ineffective. Meanwhile, upstairs, there is a glass ceiling where managers hire consultants who don’t know what they are doing. A cult of careerism has evolved and risk taking suffers when standing up to your boss must be weighed against making your house payments and keeping the kids in private school.

One thing I think we do share with right-wing Christians is the belief that we are called to this work. They have succeeded because they would not give up, were willing to take risks and had a core of supporters who stuck to the issues, no matter how badly they polled. They were not afraid to be vilified, but could, and did, bring pressure where it was need, when it was needed. Sure the Christians had money, but their real asset was in their ground troops, who were mostly unpaid volunteers.

We too have dedicated ground troops, and this is where our true power lies. We need campaigns that make us more visible, and project our strength. As long as the perception remains that we are in our bunkers licking our wounds, people will not support us. The U.S. public will not pick sides unless the stakes are high enough and there is a fight worth being in. It’s past the time for the conservation movement to get out of the office and into the streets and field. We need to talk to other people more and amongst ourselves a little less.

We have set the bar for success far too low. If we don’t have expectations, how can we ask the public to have any? If we roll over now, we won’t get a second chance. While I am open to new ideas, any plan that requires the big green groups to give up anything will go nowhere. They are where they believe they have to be, and I am sure things would be much worse if Big Green wasn’t on the job. But the green giants, too, are tiny compared to their adversaries. It is not enough for us to simply blame Big Green; we must lead the way with an alternative. Until there is a visible, and confrontational, grass roots movement that can bring pressure on the powers that be, more money will not help us.

MIKE ROSELLE enjoys not working in a cubicle or a basement, and hanging out with people who aren’t professional environmentalists. His dispatches from the road can be read on Lowbagger.org.