Hey Mainstream Environmentalists: If You’re Not Embarrassed, You’re Not Paying Attention


Hey mainstream environmentalists, aka old rich liberal people:

Take a moment to think about all the social movements you’ve seen in the last few decades – the movement for LGBTQ rights, the movement for Black and Latino and Immigrant rights, the global Occupy movement, the movements for recognition of patriarchy and against sexual abuse.

Take a moment to think about the scrappy beginnings of these movements, and take a moment to think about all that they have achieved in a remarkably short time, both in terms of practical wins and in terms of changing the public conversation.

And now take a moment to think about the mainstream environmental movement.

You know, the one you consider yourself a part of.

The mainstream environmental movement is perhaps the most well-funded, with possibly the widest swath of public support, of any of those social movements…

And what has mainstream environmentalism actually achieved?

What happened? Where did you all go wrong?

The mainstream American environmental movement will likely be remembered as a group of well-mannered, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people, who asked politely for things and occasionally held signs or organized cute little marches. Afterwards, they all went back to their tasteful homes and drank a glass of wine, congratulating themselves on their courage and complaining about the other side (with whom, in reality, they had quite a bit in common). Then they all headed to bed and woke up early for their professional jobs the next morning… as the world’s ecosystems collapsed around them.

Occasionally, mainstream environmentalism has achieved some token victory, usually through a lawsuit and a sympathetic judge.

And sometimes they get something simply because the movement looks so pitiful and non threatening begging at the feet of the powers-that-be, that the powerful occasionally throw them a little bone from their plates, just to keep them quiet a little longer.

Too much? Perhaps.

But I doubt the 20th and 21st century’s mainstream environmentalists will be remembered fondly by our descendants… you know, as they forage the polluted ruins of our civilization.

And don’t get me wrong: Good manners are a good thing.

I mean, I guess. But it’s pretty sad to take pride in how well you are behaving yourself as the world burns around you.

The non-profiteers who run the Big Environmental organizations long ago decided their role was to compromise with the monied and political classes.
It’s the same stale compromise the older generation has resigned itself to as a whole. The same sad tradeoff: ideals for amenities. The same tired rationale: Growing up = selling out.

On both an individual level and an organizational level, mainstream environmentalists have become increasingly professional… comfortable…. and, in a word, complacent. They are too close to power, and enjoy their proximity way too much.

There is a place for lobbying of course (though how effective  have  these groups actually been at lobbying?). But if you care about the earth, don’t pretend like donating to a large environmental non-profit is somehow going to result in anything more than tepid attempts to protect the gains we have already made. Don’t pat yourself  on the back for patting yourself  on the back.

Luckily there is another environmentalism. It’s the environmentalism of young people and poor people. The environmentalism of the barricades and road blocks, the environmentalism of those who have a personal connection to the ground on which they stand.

It’s the environmentalism of  people who will put their bodies on the line, not for some abstract, pristine “nature” but for their homes, for the communities of life that support them, for the places they love.

It’s a largely non-hierarchical environmentalism, often led by indigenous groups, often energized by a younger generation who don’t see any future in the status quo.

And maybe we shouldn’t even call  ourselves environmentalists. Environmentalist is a troubled term –burdened with the weight of so many rich white men.  Environmentalists are the problem. Or rather, their way of thinking is the problem. Environmentalism gives us all an easy way out. It provides a salve for our consciences as we live through a mass extinction event.  Environmentalism is a comfortable lie. There is no such thing as an “environment” separate from ourselves. There is no “environmental” movement. If there is any movement at all it is movement backwards.

Perhaps we should take a page from Standing Rock, and simply call ourselves Protectors.

So here’s my message for the next generation of Protectors. Choose your allies wisely. Don’t be fooled by the slick promotional materials of Big Environmental. Don’t give your money (whatever money you’ve managed to scrape from the dregs of this economy) towards organizations propping up the status quo. If you want to protect the earth, you are not alone. But Big Environmental is not fighting the same fight we are. They are hardly interested in fighting at all.

And here’s my message to mainstream environmentalists: If  you want to win, if you want to save wild lands, save the lives of wild animals, save a future for your descendants, you need to fight harder. Or rather, you need to actually fight, not just ask politely and complain how the people in power aren’t listening. You need to put your bodies on the line. You need stop caving before you even make your demands and start entering negotiations with the attitude that you will not compromise when it comes to the future of  our earth.

Because it’s our future. That’s what you don’t seem to get.

And here is a free strategic tip: take a page out of the right’s playbook and use their own rhetoric against them.

National Parks are the perfect issue. According to a PEW research poll taken in 2008 (at the height of the Tea Party Movement) 74% of Americans have a favorable or highly favorable view of the national parks system. Can you think of another issue that 74% of Americans agree on? Can you think of another branch of government that 74% of Americans have a favorable view of? We all love our national parks, though that love doesn’t translate into financial support.

We need a paradigm shift in how we think about our public lands. This starts with taking ownership of them. America’s National Parks and National Monuments belong to the American people. They don’t belong to the government. The government is merely the caretaker.

As President Trump signed the act reducing the size of Utah’s national monuments, he spoke of correcting “federal government overreach”. Could there be a better example of “federal government overreach” than a president literally stealing 2 million acres of land from the American people?

What Trump and the Republican Congress are doing is stealing our land. Framed this way, the issue has the potential to unite large swaths of the country. Why not use anti-government sentiment to protect the land? Why not… when the government won’t protect it?

Sure there’s some outrage from the Big Environmental groups in the wake of Trump’s decision. Sure there are petitions and marches and a few op-eds in the old school media outlets.

But do our environmental elders really think that is enough?

We’re moving full speed ahead towards ecological collapse. And the road we’re driving is paved with decades of good intentions.

You can keep asking the drivers to slow down, if you must.

You can keep advocating for hybrid fuels, if you feel that is important.

But please stop nagging your kids to wear their seatbelts….

… And start helping us build a road block.

More articles by:

Devin Currens is a writer, photographer and activist. Until recently, he managed bookstores in a national park. His first book “Fault Lines: Point Reyes National Seashore and the Decline of American Discourse” is about the Commons, and the relationship between public lands and public discourse. He swears it is almost done. Instagram @ currensd

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