Green Grows Grassroots

Green Grows Grassroots

In the Bush era, the green movement has become a paper tiger. It must regroup, reframe and reach out across the lines of race and class that have kept environmental issues at the political fringe.


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.

“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.

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.”

“In 2004 Kerry lost Colorado, but we won everything else here,” says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Jones’s group was a key member of a broader progressive coalition that, in a state with a majority of Republican voters, passed three progressive ballot initiatives, took back the state legislature and won the US Senate seat. “Seeing how the conservatives who orchestrated the Gingrich revolution [in 1994] went back to the grassroots made me realize that we needed to do the same thing,” says Jones.

The key in Colorado was to “appeal to people across the political spectrum” by addressing their concerns as much as environmentalists’ own. To pass the renewable energy initiative, progressives won over economically strapped farmers in the east of Colorado, who have traditionally voted Republican, by stressing how wind farms could help them pay their bills. Even the Farm Bureau, usually environmentalists’ enemy, ended up backing the initiative, as did the Republican Speaker of the House.

A similar green upsurge has taken place in Michigan. “For fifteen years we counted it as a success if we could just protect the status quo,” says Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. “Now we actually move the ball down the field. And we have a Republican House and Senate and a Democratic governor, so we have to move things through both parties.” Much of the change comes from implementing what Pollack concedes are Politics 101 tactics. “You have to work at the ground level. We turn out thousands of letters to get constituents informed and revved up. We don’t put out dense reports but shorter, more newsworthy releases. We stopped looking at everyone outside the environmental world as the hostile, unwashed masses and saw them as distinct interests that on occasion might align with ours, including nurses groups, business groups and the Michigan Association of Realtors.”

Leaders of national groups say they too are returning to the grassroots, mainly by collaborating more with state and local organizations. “It was critical to be in Washington the last few years to resist the [Bush] rollback, which we’ve done,” says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But when the Administration proposed allowing inadequately treated sewage to drain into coastal runoff systems, Beinecke adds, NRDC “took the issue out of Washington to a state that would be severely affected by that proposal, Florida, and worked it there. We put local groups like the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs out front to raise awareness of the issue, and we got eighteen out of twenty-five members of the Florida Congressional delegation to come out against it, including very conservative members like Katherine Harris.”

The successes in Michigan and Colorado might not have happened without deep-pocket local donors who supported such grassroots organizing, local activists say. But national activists complain that national funders, especially foundations, have resisted this approach in favor of quick-fix solutions. “Funders have very short time spans and want to see measurable results, and you can’t build the kind of [movement we envision] in a short period of time,” says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. Carl Pope says the Sierra Club is now “in partnership with the United Steelworkers, the biggest industrial union in America, to go into a number of states and try to create a class-blind environmental movement.” But foundations have declined to fund the initiative because it cannot promise specific policy outcomes within the next two years, says Pope, who adds, “I assure you, not a single important right-wing funder in this country thinks that way.”

Some $2.8 billion is donated every year to progressive service and advocacy groups in the United States, according to Democracy Alliance, a group of nonfoundation donors and activists who are working to fortify the progressive infrastructure. Only $500 million of that money, about 18 percent, goes to groups that work locally. Within the environmental field, activist groups receive a total of $1.7 billion a year, of which only $187 million–barely 10 percent–goes to groups that work at the local level. (By far the largest portion of environmental funding goes to land trusts, which buy and protect land that is environmentally or aesthetically valuable.) “Those numbers show what is readily apparent when you look around Washington, DC,” says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. “This is a top-heavy movement. You need lobbyists and experts, sure, but not as many as we have. Look at the National Rifle Association. They know that power is built in the field, so they focus on individual Congressional districts…. The difficulty is, organizing is not sexy. It doesn’t get you headlines in the New York Times. It is scruffy, dirt-under-the-fingernails power building.”

“In-depth organizing is a hard sell to national foundations,” says Bill Roberts, president of the Beldon Fund, which underwrote the organizing in Michigan. Roberts does not bring up the following example but does confirm it when asked: After some environmental groups finally began to collaborate with other progressive organizations during the 2004 election campaign, Roberts tried to convince other funders to help him keep the best parts of the infrastructure in place for future work. His appeal was rejected. “Some funders were persuaded,” he recalls. “But many others wanted to know what specific activities would be developed and implemented in 2005 before committing funds.”

Joshua Reichert, managing director of the policy initiatives and environment program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, counters that it is unreasonable to ask foundations to underwrite long-term organizing. Arguing that the current state of the movement is “reasonably strong,” Reichert charges that green groups are themselves responsible for any lack of grassroots organizing: “Most of these groups get more of their money from memberships [in dues] than they do from foundations. Groups can pour that money back into organizing, if they choose to. Foundations put money in when they’re interested in a specific program a group is doing.”

If working outside the Beltway is crucial to making environmental progress, environmental groups have to learn to talk in a way people outside the Beltway can understand. “What ordinary person knows what carbon sequestration means?” asks Peggy Shepherd, the founder of West Harlem Environmental Action. Sitting in her modestly furnished office above the fast-food and discount stores of 125th Street, Shepherd points out the window and continues, “We spend a lot of our time translating this stuff into language that makes sense to people living in that housing project over there. We’ve got to let people know that the environment is their home, it’s their kids’ school, so they can understand their connection to these global problems that seem so big.”

Reaching out more will also require environmentalists to face issues of race and class–issues they have long skirted, despite the well-known fact that poor and nonwhite communities are disproportionately victimized by environmental degradation. Fifteen years after the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit put environmental justice on the green agenda, the top ranks of mainstream organizations remain dominated by white men. Of the thirty leaders in the Green Group, all but two are white; all but three are men. “Whenever I go to middle- or high-level environmental meetings, I’m always the only person of color in the room and, what’s even more shocking, one of only two or three women,” says Shepherd. “It’s very surprising, because I know those women and people of color are out there.”

“It is a bit tragic that people who are presumably progressive are so far behind on this,” says Carl Anthony, deputy director of the Ford Foundation’s community and resource development unit. “Take your average corporation, say Pepsi Cola; they’re way ahead of the environmental movement in terms of doing at least lip service on this. Even George Bush’s Administration has an African-American Secretary of State.” Diversifying the movement is not a matter of political correctness, Anthony emphasizes, but of effectiveness. “Look at what the environmental justice movement has taught everybody about toxics. In the 1970s environmentalists were saying if we don’t cut back on toxics, such and such bad things would happen. But environmental justice folks were saying, ‘It’s already happening in our communities.’ Unless we build this edge to our movements, we can’t win.”

More and more mainstream environmentalists agree, if only because they realize that middle-class white people are increasingly unrepresentative of twenty-first-century America. “The changing demographics of the United States mean that environmental groups, to succeed, have got to speak to Latinos, African-Americans and other new constituencies,” says Bill Davis, director of the State Environmental Leadership Program.

Jerome Ringo knows from his years of organizing in Louisiana that bridging the divide won’t be easy. “You can’t just tell people in Cancer Alley that they should join conservation groups because they’ll ask, What have you done for me lately?” he says. “And conservation groups don’t have much of an answer for that. They have to step up to the plate and address the issues that impact minority communities.”

Mainstream environmental leaders concede the problem and are working on it, says Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society and coordinator of the Green Group’s efforts on diversity. “I remember sitting at a table at one of the conferences we’ve begun holding to support this kind of work,” he says. “Seated to my right was a woman from Florida who was very involved in environmental justice issues; she was opposing a coal-fired power plant. To my left was a CEO of an organization that worked on climate change. He was bemoaning that he didn’t have the constituency at a local level that could push the McCain-Lieberman climate bill in Congress. She was complaining she didn’t have the national visibility needed to stop that plant. Investing in building that kind of infrastructure, to make sure those linkages occur, is the most important work we can do in the next five years.”

Robert Gottlieb, the author of Forcing the Spring, a history of the US environmental movement, says outreach by mainstream green groups to environmental justice activists is “sufficiently widespread that you can’t say it’s just window dressing.” But, he warns, “without a rootedness in local organizing, the full potential of this movement will not be realized.”

Part of what makes Jerome Ringo interesting is that he personifies this potential to create an environmental movement that is broader and deeper than before–to “reknit the environmental majority,” in Carl Pope’s phrase. As a former union organizer and community activist, Ringo is clearly sympathetic to the disadvantaged. But his years as a successful business owner enable him to reach out to the private sector, and as chair of the National Wildlife Federation he can also relate to the 20 percent of voters who describe themselves as hunters and anglers. Those people are usually assumed to be conservative. But a recent poll commissioned by the NWF found that 78 percent of them support renewable energy, perhaps because they recognize that fossil fuels are ruining their recreation areas.

“The glue that connects the dots” is the fight against climate change, says Ringo. In the past, green groups diffused their impact by working on too many different issues, he continues, but now every major green group “has recognized that global warming is the issue.” Donning his Apollo Alliance hat, Ringo argues that environmentalists can best pursue this battle, and gain new allies in the process, by championing green energy and jobs.

It’s a good time to be making this argument. Not only has global warming finally been widely acknowledged as an urgent problem, it is now undeniable that fighting it can be extraordinarily profitable. The more that conventional energy prices go up, the more profitable it will be to invest in green energy–above all, in energy efficiency. It’s not exciting, but energy efficiency–doing more work with less fuel–is and will remain for years to come the most potent and lucrative source of green energy. To paraphrase Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the greenest energy is the energy that is never produced in the first place.

Many corporations are already capitalizing on this opportunity. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, energy giant BP invested $20 million to increase energy efficiency throughout its production facilities and offices. It ended up saving $650 million in fuel costs–a stunning thirty-two-fold return on its original investment. But why let the private sector have all the fun? There is no reason state and local governments, schools and other public entities, community groups and individuals cannot cash in as well. At the moment, most of civil society is leaving this energy efficiency windfall on the table. But clever activists could change that. Bring together the key players–public officials, energy planners, efficiency companies, unions, financiers and community leaders–outline the opportunities at hand, and the economics are so compelling that the rest of the job should almost take care of itself.

Illustrating that Republicans need not be blind to this logic, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed some of the greenest energy policies in the nation. “The Governor’s Green Building Initiative is designed to reduce the state’s energy use in state buildings 20 percent by 2015,” says Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger’s top environmental aide. “We’re doing audits right now on all the state government buildings and finding that if you put in energy-efficient lighting, you can earn your investment back in eighteen months.” At Schwarzenegger’s direction, the Public Utilities Commission has also approved a Million Solar Roofs program, which will spend $3.2 billion in the next eleven years to subsidize installing solar energy for new buildings. “That $3.2 billion will generate four times that value in jobs, according to the California Energy Commission,” adds Tamminen. “And those jobs will be here in California, where much of the research and development for the next generation of solar energy is happening.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is an unapologetic Democrat in what may be the reddest state in the nation. But he has implemented serious green policies during his five years as mayor–and won not only re-election but plaudits from the local business community. “When I can get up in front of the Salt Lake City Rotary Club, which is by and large conservative businesspeople, and get a standing ovation after talking about the kinds of changes we’re making here, that says a lot,” Anderson says. His city government committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels (i.e., more than Kyoto requires). By the end of 2005 it had already exceeded that target while boosting city revenues, thanks to dramatic increases in energy efficiency and methane recovery from its wastewater and landfill facilities. The city then shared its lessons with local businesses and citizens via so-called E2 programs–energy and environment. “We show them how they can do the same and generally save money as well,” says Anderson, who adds, “It’s important to have a positive message. People respond so well to the sense that, yes, we have these [environmental] challenges, but we have a can-do spirit and we can do the right thing and come out ahead.”

At Anderson’s invitation, Ringo spoke about the Apollo program at the National Conference of Mayors in June and got a standing ovation, too. The Apollo message is ready-made for municipal governments; 235 mayors have committed their cities to meeting or exceeding the greenhouse-gas emissions reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol. And many cities are already sold on green development plans, says Keith Schneider, a former New York Times reporter who is deputy director of an environmental group, the Michigan Land Use Institute. “Cities have become the great incubators of sustainable ideas and policy in the United States, and are generally much farther ahead than any state government and certainly farther ahead than the federal government,” Schneider notes, adding that local leaders think such efforts are “as vital to their community’s well-being as fighting crime and improving public schools.”

Environmentalism teaches that everything is connected. Yet when it came to politics, environmentalists ignored this truth for many years–until now. By going local, talking plainly, promoting solutions and working with a broad range of stakeholders, environmentalists could drive the next great wave of economic growth in this country while also addressing the single gravest threat to our collective future. Making such an end run around the federal government will not make George W. Bush irrelevant. But it will leave him behind, as the rest of the world has already done on climate change, and return environmentalism to the American mainstream, where it belongs.

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