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Green Grows Grassroots | The Nation

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Green Grows Grassroots

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The most interesting environmental leader in the United States right now is a former petrochemical worker from Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" named Jerome Ringo. As chairman of the board of the National Wildlife Federation, Ringo heads what is by far the nation's largest environmental organization, with 4 million members, not to mention one of its richest, with an $80 million budget. It's unusual enough that a former union and community organizer would rise to the top of the NWF; traditionally, the group has belonged to the polite, apolitical wing of the movement--more inclined to publish nature magazines for kids than to challenge corporate power à la Greenpeace or Rainforest Action Network. But what really sets Ringo apart, both at NWF and throughout the mainstream movement's leadership, is that he is black.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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"I am the first African-American in history to head a major conservation group," he says. Environmentalism in the United States has been dominated by well-to-do white men since the late nineteenth century, when John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt first put the notion of preserving natural resources on the national agenda with their campaigns to establish publicly owned parks and wilderness areas. Alluding to this history, Ringo says the whiteness of today's movement isn't because of racism. It's simply that most environmental groups "were founded by people who fished to put fish on the wall, not by people who fished to put fish on the table. And for poor people, issues like ozone depletion have not been a priority, compared with next month's rent. But I tell people in Cancer Alley, What good is next month's rent if you're dying from cancer?"

Now Ringo wants to bring these varying constituencies together across class and racial lines to build a broader and more powerful green movement. His chosen vehicle, besides the NWF, is the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, business leaders and elected officials that advocates a massive green jobs and development program for the United States. Apollo proposes investing $300 billion of public funds in green energy technologies over the next ten years. This investment would create 3 million new jobs and countless business opportunities, Apollo claims, while also fighting climate change and cutting US dependence on foreign oil. The benefits to poor and working-class Americans of such an economic stimulus program are clear, but the idea is also business-friendly enough to have attracted support from prominent Democratic moderates and other centrists, including the group Republicans for Environmental Protection. "I had a phone call with the chief of staff of [New Mexico] Governor Bill Richardson just this morning," says Ringo, who assumed Apollo's presidency last September. "Several months ago I joined Hillary Clinton and [Pennsylvania] Governor Ed Rendell when the Democrats released their Energy Independence 2020 Plan, and one of the first items was an Apollo project. Apollo began five years ago as a vision. My goal is to turn it into action."

It's still too early to say, but if Jerome Ringo and the Apollo Alliance are representative of larger trends, green politics may at last be finding its voice again in the United States. In the past, most environmentalists did not bother to articulate much of an economic message. Perhaps because they tended to be economically comfortable themselves, they overlooked the fact that many Americans live paycheck to paycheck and thus need to hear that green policies can mean not only cleaner air but also more and better jobs. Indeed, environmentalists often failed to reach out to other constituencies at all; they stayed inside their own issue silo and assumed that having facts on their side was enough.

"Our movement has been apolitical," says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "The idea was that politics is dirty and you don't want to get your hands dirty." Except for the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, environmentalists shunned electoral politics in particular. Green groups did not even turn out their own members to vote, much less boost turnout among ordinary citizens. When the outrages of the Bush Administration finally led some groups to consider taking a more active role in the 2004 elections, internal polling found that the 10 million members of national environmental groups voted at the same low turnout rates as the general population. "Some groups' members didn't even know there was much difference between Bush and Kerry on the environment," adds Blackwelder.

"No one feels the pain when they vote against the environment. They should," says Wendy Wendlandt, political director of the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups. Noting that no politician, including Bush, wants to be seen as anti-environment, Wendlandt adds that the movement must "regain control over what it means to be environmentalist. We need to pick bright-line issues that define who is for you and who is against you and then hold elected officials accountable."

Bush's November 2004 victory jolted environmentalists, as did the nearly simultaneous release of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus's essay "The Death of Environmentalism." First reported in The Nation [see Hertsgaard, "A Challenge to Enviros," January 3, 2005], the essay argued that the movement was failing because it remained wedded to timid, technical-fix solutions that ignored potential allies and left ordinary people uninspired and confused. In the ensuing storm of argument, many greens responded that they had been saying as much for years. Others pointed out that Shellenberger and Nordhaus defined the movement very narrowly, ignoring thousands of state and local, environmental justice, anti-corporate and other grassroots organizations. The essay "reads more accurately and less offensively" if one realizes that when "the authors use the words 'environmental movement' they are actually talking about large budget" national organizations based in Washington, DC, wrote John Sellers of the Ruckus Society and Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change. Those groups were indeed "locked into a costly and near futile legislatively dominated strategy," they added, but small and medium-sized groups were still driving change through local organizing and protest. To support their case that change in Washington tends to come "only after a lot of noise has been made, and attitudes have changed in the field," Sellers and Kretzmann cited a study by Jon Agnone of the University of Washington, who analyzed Congressional passage of environmental laws in the United States from 1960 to 1998. Agnone concluded that shifts in public opinion did help get legislation passed, but only when accompanied by visible acts of grassroots protest.

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