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Yes it’s great to be alive, and we are happy about the elections, not because we like the winners, but because we do not like many of the losers. Let’s face it, it was still a razor thin victory and the elected Democrats are hardly better than the Republicans they are replacing. Democrats will be taking money from the same corporations and, of course, keeping some of it for themselves. There is no reason to believe this batch is any better than the others, and if I were Karl Rove, I’d feel pretty good about my prospects in two years.
Despite all of this, there are some positive trends for conservationists. If being too green remains a political liability, then being anti-green now has it’s own set of problems. I watched the returns in the San Francisco Bay Area at the home of famous author and ecological economist Paul Hawkin, and the mood in hills above Mill Valley was generally very upbeat. Later in the evening, hours after all the polls had closed, it seemed like the eyes of the world were focused on this one race in Montana. Josh was covering the event live in Great Falls, and said you could really visualize the Cinderella story as the organic farmer morphed into a Senator before the very eyes of Montana Democrats. Jon Tester was hanging on by a thread, and his victory would guarantee that Democrats would control the Senate. Tester ran against corruption and for the environment. His victory was due in part from the strong support that he received from local environmental activists.
According to the polls, the environment was also one of the most important issues to California voters. Although practically every environmental group in the State endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, he was soundly beaten in his effort to unseat the popular Republican Governator. Yet these days even Arnold is leaning green. He wants to get serious about global warming, and has committed billions of dollars to funding alternative energy. Arnold may be the greenest governor in the U.S., and he offers some hope that Republicans will see the advantage in taking leadership on climate change instead of burying their heads in the Tarsands.
Two years ago Josh and I were in the Union Club watching the election returns. The country was polarized into a map of Red and Blue states, and Montana was in the Red. Yet Montana had just sent a new Democratic Governor and several state Legislators to Helena in a hard fought election. George W. Bush had won the popular vote in Montana, but the winds of change were already being felt in the Mountain West. It was then that a movement began that would eventually cost Conrad Burns the election and Republicans both the House and the Senate. The swing vote in Montana belonged to the environmentalists; many like Jim Dayton of Missoula, who immediately after the 2004 elections began to plan the overthrow of the rest of the crooks and hypocrites that were masquerading as conservative, god-fearing friends of the working families.
Two other factors are at work here, and one is demographic, that being the influx of new people from other, more liberal regions on the country. They are predominately white and well to do, and as a group they are well educated. This demographic rule does have one exception. If they are rich they can still turn out Republican. The second is the incompetence of the Conservatives, and by that I don’t mean their incompetence in the election that they just lost. They have failed to deliver on any of their promises; and they were seen as too close to the corrupt corporate power structure in Washington DC that they ran against. This was best demonstrated by bungled the privatizations of the Montana Power, which drove up the costs of electricity to customers across the state, and other corporate giveaways to big out-of-state businesses. It was the Montana Power scandal that Tester cited as his reason to run for public office.
The other reason why the Republicans lost Montana’s independent vote was their failure to realize that many conservatives in the state were uneasy with the Republican stand on the environment. New economic realities, like tourism and the amenities lifestyle, which are driving the current real estate boom, are now the mainstays of the state’s economy. Less of Montana’s economy is dependent on logging, mining and grazing dollars. This made it possible for Tester, an organic lentil farmer from the high plains, to thread the needle of Rocky Montana politics, appealing to voters in both eastern and western regions of this notoriously divided state.
In the end, the Conservatives falling popularity had more to do with public perceptions of the character of the Republicans themselves. Not just the money and the sex, or even the war, but these career politicians didn’t seem to believe in anything except their own wealth and power. They seem addicted to golf and fancy hotels. The voters could see that not only do these guys enjoy great privilege, they didn’t even have to play by the same rules that everyone else does. They lost their outsider status. Yet even with all of this going against them, had not the national grassroots effort combined with the weight of the Democrats massive TV and get out the vote machine, this election could have gone much differently. In the end, Tester received a nano-majority. That has so far been the reality of 21st century electoral politics.
This last election proved what we have been saying here at Lowbagger.org over these last two years. Environmentalists wield tremendous power, and our only limitation is how we use it. The defeat of Richard Pombo in California is perhaps the best example of this power. A week before the election, just as in Montana, hundreds volunteers from the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States and many other groups were pounding the pavement in an effort to get out the vote. It was a group effort, from the large national organizations to individual volunteers in Pombo’s district who had struck a blow deep in the enemy camp.
This is not the first time an election has been decided on a candidate’s environmental record, but it is certainly the most significant victory in memory, and demonstrates that the environmental movement is growing stronger every day. The secret to our success is no doubt due to the fact that environmental problems are getting more and more serious, but it’s also a testament to our tenacity. No one will hunt you down and pummel you with a big stick quicker than an environmentalist. We need to use this big stick more often.
This is why I have stressed optimism over cynicism and bold visions over weak compromises. What draws people to the environmental movement is most of all the strength of our vision, not our political skills. Nevertheless we will need to continue to hone these skills, knowing that we can succeed in getting the politicians of the world to abandon short term political goals for real long planning, and to take strong measures to addresses the state of the Earth. We need to demand politics that seek to transform the political landscape rather than to simply adjust to the status quo.
Make no mistake; we will need to hold this new batch of professional liars and crooks accountable just as we have the ones who are now packing their bags. Many of these new members are going to need an education, and if they can’t learn, then they need to realize that they can face the same fate as Pompo and Burns. A swarm of volunteer eco-terrorists will be knocking on every door in their districts and letting them know what a scumbag they really are when it comes to the environment.
Now is the time for boldness. Real action is needed immediately on climate, biodiversity and population growth. These issues cannot wait, and are all connected by the process of globalization that drives them all. The next two years are critical. Environmentalists need to send a loud and clear message that not only will they work hard during the election cycles, but every day in-between in pressure campaigns to hold both the government and the large corporations’ feet to the fire. We need to hear politicians talk about what they are going to do about these problems. If they can find the backbone to stand against this criminal war, why can’t they stand up to the energy companies who are threatening our very future?
I am one that still believes that it was direct action that has made the difference. Since Earth Day 1970, environmental policy has been created on the front lines; by Lois Gibbs in Love Canal, by the Abalone Alliance at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station, by Greenpeace at Ground Zero and Earth First! in the Old Growth Forests It was direct action campaigns in the field that took the fight straight to the enemy and that has moved public opinion the furthest and the fastest.
Since the events of 9/11, non-violence direct action has taken a beating. Already reeling from the globally televised violence and anarchy of Seattle, environmentalists increasingly felt themselves under the micro scope, afraid to be branded as terrorists if they broke any law, and even those who supported the idea of civil disobedience were fearful of extreme punishment as a result of new laws like the so-called Patriot Act. It became a self fulfilling prophesy.
Hopefully now the radical environmental will go back on the offensive. I have argued here and elsewhere, we have been to blame for much of our own fear. We became so afraid of the government that we were not as vigorous in challenging the injustices that we saw daily. We were sidetracked by other issues simply because we thought that they would get more traction. By abandoning direct action in the defense of the Earth, we almost lost our voice.
Compared to the size of our opposition, the conservation movement remains small. Despite our small numbers, the public has always been supportive of our goals. That we don’t have a voting majority among the electorate is not surprising and does not mean we are not able to influence policy. This election proves that we can be an important part of the political opposition without compromising our values, as some have suggested. I believe we will attract more support in the future if we stay true to our mission and not try to soft-pedal the truth. There are now plenty of wishy-washy environmentalists out there on both sides of the isle. We will still need a loud, confrontational and even more radical conservation movement than ever before. We need to be able to exert pressure on whichever party is in power, even the Green Party.
A lot has happened during the last two years. Much of what did happen did so outside of Washington D.C. or San Francisco. Premature reports of the death of environmentalism notwithstanding, the grass roots environmental movement is very much alive and well in America. Like blue jeans and rock ‘n roll, some things never go out of style. Four years ago, Al Gore ran away from the environment. Two years ago it barely surfaced as a political issue. After this year, anyone running for office will have to have environmental credentials unless they are in Utah, and who can tell, even Utah may no longer be safe?