Which Way Now? Environmentalism in 2007 and Beyond

“…when a majority of people decide they agree with you it is probably time to stop hitting them over the head with a stick and sit down and talk to them about finding solutions to our environmental problems…. It is this effort to find consensus among competing interests that has occupied my time for the past 15 years. Not all my former colleagues saw things that way…. They ushered in an era of zero tolerance and left-wing politics.”

That quote, by Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, has been presented to me in discussions about the environment. Usually the person offering it is coming from a right wing perspective, and they are attacking the politics of the environmental issue at hand.

From their perspective, global warming accords like the Kyoto protocal are just tools to weaken the United States. CO2 emissions caps are weapons against hard working Americans and the free market. Environmentalism is just a vehicle for radical leftists to get their agenda into the debate.

But is it?

And is this what Moore is really getting at?

You can read the complete essay, “Environmentalism for the 21st Century” at his website, www.greenspirit.com.

I disagree with some of his criticisms of the environmental movement and some of his specific prescriptions, but I agree with his general conclusions. It is time to build consensus.

But we need to be careful who our friends are in this consensus.

The Death of Environmentalism

In fall of 2004, at the height of the Presidential campaign, two environmentalists released an essay titled “The Death of Environmentalism.” Their thesis: traditional environmentalism was an absolute failure in the 21st century. To survive, environmental organizations needed to develop common cause with other social movements and build a positive, progressive movement for worldwide change.

Left wing politics again.

Environmentalists have traditionally tried to stay out of politics. This attempted ‘transcendent environmentalism’ has created conflicts with the people who should be our allies. Ford and General Motors provide an excellent example.

Both major auto companies announced massive job cuts in 2006. This was due to a variety of factors:

  • They kept building massive, expensive gas guzzlers while gas prices continued rise.
  • They were burdened with massive healthcare costs for their millions of employees. Their competitors overseas had governments that picked up the insurance tab. Faced with this competition, a logical solution for the American companies was to fire the expensive American workers and hire cheap labor outside the US.
  • Labor unions found themselves at odds with the environmentalists: why should they support higher efficiency vehicles if that increased the costs of production, thus threatening their jobs?

Back in 2004, the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism” pointed out that environmentalists could gain the support of the United Auto Workers for increased fuel efficiency if they would in turn work for a national health care system. The national health care would relieve automakers of that incredible expense.

Increased fuel efficiency might have meant higher sales of American cars. Autoworkers could well have seen their jobs saved.

As it stands, that was one alliance that never happened – and the American economy has lost tens of thousands of jobs. What might have happened if that alliance had come to pass?

Does the environment only matter to lefties?

George Lakoff (author of Don’t Think of an Elephant) thinks that environmentalism is a form of progressivism. Progressive values coincide with environmental values.

This doesn’t mean that environmentalists can’t make common cause with people who might usually vote Republican. And it doesn’t mean that all liberals/leftists have the environment as a top priority – as the example of American automakers shows, labor and the environment often find themselves at odds.

The poor and people of color are two groups that face environmental threats (who lives in the most polluted parts of your town?) but who usually see economic issues as more important to their survival.

There are also some people environmentalists will never see eye to eye with. Let’s not worry about them.

The right wing dominates America at the turn of the 21st century. The recent election of a Democratic majority to Congress is not an embrace of progressive values. It is a reaction to the failures of the right wing. And it is only the beginning of a long battle to bring progressive and environmental values back to America. We still have conservative judges sitting on the Supreme Court, a radical right winger as President, and conservative pundits dominant on the radio and television.

The Right achieved this dominance by finding common cause with each other: financial conservatives, religious and social conservatives, gun owners, all sat down and figured out what they could agree on. They also learned how to frame the debate. Environmentalism is now seen as a choice between jobs or wildlife, and environmentalists are seen as liberal elites, out of touch with mainstream America.

Global Warming Enters the Debate

The recent media furor over global warming sparked by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” might lead environmentalists to think that we are gaining the support of the American people. But it is foolish to think that Americans will support anything that will threaten their jobs. Concern about global warming does not automatically translate into the desire or the ability to pay more for cleaner energy.

Meaningful action on global warming requires real solutions that will slow CO2 emissions, create jobs, and strengthen the economy. It also requires a powerful, positive vision that will energize the majority of Americans.

Where do we go from here?

The elections, along with global warming’s move into a central public concern, indicate the beginnings of a shift in American politics. All is not lost.

But we are only just beginning to find a way to win. We can’t repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past 20 years.

I’ll let Patrick Moore have the last word:

“I have always shied away from strong opinions on poverty and class. But it seems unacceptable to me that so many hundreds of millions of people live at a material standard that we in the industrialized countries would not consider acceptable for a dignified life. I believe there is a great deal to be learned by exploring the relationships between ecology and politics. In some ways politics is the ecology of the human species. The two subjects have developed such completely different disciplines and terminologies that it is hard to think of them together. But I believe we must if we are to gain a truly holistic understanding of the relationship between ourselves and our society, and the Earth on which we ultimately depend.”


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