Green Grows Grassroots
What no one disputes is that the movement's glory days of the 1960s and '70s seem long ago and far away. Back then, mass awareness and targeted activism propelled Washington politicians of both parties to enact a series of landmark laws--including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act--that transformed America's ecosystems and were copied by nations around the world. Ronald Reagan began the environmental rollback in the 1980s, and the Clinton Administration regained little ground in the '90s. But it is George W. Bush's Administration, with its overt hostility to environmentalism, that best highlights an embarrassing paradox for the movement. Opinion polls indicate that more than 70 percent of the American people think we as a society should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment. And no one can say the environmental movement lacks financial resources; the budgets of local and national groups amount to an estimated $1.7 billion a year. Nevertheless, Bush and his Congressional allies have pursued the most anti-environmental policies in the nation's history--and escaped without paying much of a political price. As popular and wealthy as the environmental movement appears, the Bush era has exposed it as something of a paper tiger.
Yet the Bush years may turn out to be the movement's salvation, for they have led even the national groups based in Washington to recognize that a new approach is needed. And political space has now opened around climate change in particular. Hurricane Katrina, combined with a relentless accumulation of scientific findings, has at last awakened both the public and elites in the United States to the gravity of the threat. How else to explain how Al Gore, a man the media mercilessly mocked as dull, pretentious and untrustworthy during his 2000 presidential campaign, is now being treated as one of the hottest politicians in America, thanks largely to his starring role in the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
There are successes to learn from. The federal government is a dead end at the moment, but state and local environmental organizations are scoring solid victories in red and blue states alike. Meanwhile, years of pressure have led a surprising number of big-name corporations, including such longstanding villains as General Electric and Wal-Mart, to make and sometimes honor promises to change their operating practices--thanks to a good cop, bad cop routine that offers them a choice between the in-your-face denunciations issued by groups like Global Exchange and Forest Ethics and the genteel green tutelage offered by the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund. Environmental justice groups like West Harlem Environmental Action are developing real political clout while proving that affluent white people aren't the only ones who care about clean air and water. And there has been an explosion of student activism, particularly around global warming, which Billy Parish, coordinator of the Climate Action Coalition, calls "far and away the biggest issue on campuses now, and not only for environmental groups. There are now 200 campuses purchasing substantial amounts of clean energy."
The successes have a number of themes in common, beginning with a focus on economically attractive solutions rather than downbeat warnings of disaster. "As scary as things look nowadays, we have decided to spend half of our time building the new--showing how to solve these problems and have a better life in the bargain--rather than always playing defense," says Betsy Taylor, founder of the Center for a New American Dream. Another key has been reaching out to new and sometimes ideologically or culturally distant constituencies, and doing so in plain language that ordinary people can grasp (rather than the policy-wonk gibberish that environmentalists often utter). A third element has been an emphasis on sustained local organizing that grows the movement's base of support and seeks to build real political power--a departure from many groups' reliance on activist insiders skilled in lobbying, litigation and other tactics aimed at the status quo.
One hesitates to dust off the cliché, but together the strategies recall the 1960s slogan "Think globally, act locally." The stress on organizing begins to correct a mistake that progressive movements made in the wake of the high-profile victories of the 1960s, argues Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. As grants from mainstream foundations began boosting budgets dramatically, says Jones, the civil rights movement became a civil rights bureaucracy, staffed with lobbyists and lawyers who increasingly tried to stand in for a demobilized black community. The same happened with other progressive movements, with the result, Jones adds, that over time "most of us spent more time writing grant applications and doing work that had nothing to do with building political power."
"The huge successes of the 1970s were built on decades of work, a lot of it done at the local level, around issues and concerns that then were taken national. We've been drawing down on these capital reserves ever since then without rebuilding them at the local level," says Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice and current chair of the Green Group, made up of leaders from thirty national environmental groups who convene regularly to discuss strategy and tactics.
It was self-deceptive for environmentalists to think they enjoyed support from 70 percent of the American public, argues Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. A keener analysis of polling data, says Pope, reveals that about 40 percent of the public are pro-environment but not pro-environmentalist. These 40 percent take green positions on policy questions (e.g., Do you support action on global warming?), but culturally "they see us as too extreme. They tend to be more rural and conservative but also include significant numbers of urban, nonwhite and less educated people. The right effectively split them off from us in the 1980s and '90s, and we did nothing to prevent this. We didn't build good relationships with churches, labor unions and African-American and Latino constituencies." Concludes Pope, "Our challenge is to reknit the environmental majority, because it's still there, it's just been artificially divided." The place to start is at the state level, where activists are passing "amazing legislation that we couldn't even talk about with the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. Idaho just enacted a two-year ban on coal-fired power plants. The Idaho governor, who is now Bush's new Interior Secretary, didn't want to do it, but the legislature rolled him. Maryland, with a Republican governor, has signed on to the Kyoto Protocol."