Sunday, June 19, 2005

Important Challenges

After continuing to speak to many colleagues about these issues, and after experiencing a total communications breakdown among some of my conservation role models, I have realized that I should make a crucial qualification on our recommendations, which we perhaps didn't stress enough in our paper. In recognizing and appreciating the successful strategies of the Right, we must remember those things that make the Right different from progressives and accept these barriers to the application of their lessons to our own movement. The Right is undeniably authoritarian and hierarchal. We are not. Even more than that, we refuse to become so, and we should continue in this refusal. The authoritarian hierarchal meta-structure we attribute to the Right is not a good model for us as progressives. We need to find a way to harness the power of horizontal organization and synchronized communications without creating a single Big Daddy.

Of course this is a tremendous challenge, and one that we cannot even be sure we can even accomplish. Nonetheless, I believe it is crucial to the success of environmentalists and progressives. The need for unity is still present, as are our common values. I do believe our next steps must include learning how to communicate with each other in all of our diversity, coordinating ourselves to speak a common language, and developing an intense awareness of the values that motivate us, so that these become inseperably apparent in everything we do and say. It is up to the next generation of progressives and environmentalists to create and strengthen this process, and to develop a new style of political coalition for this country.

If anyone has any suggestions, or interest in working on this, I would be grateful to hear from you.


Anonymous Josh in Arlington said...

In your paper you are hard pressed to find a media outlet comparable to Fox News.

If you haven't learned about, please take a few minutes to check it out.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Lessons from the Right said...

Thank you! I will check that out right now!

8:44 AM  
Blogger VOR said...

Jeni and Dahvi,

I was forwarded your paper by a former graduate student of mine and I read it with much interest. While I think you make some good points (just as the authors of Death of Environmentalism) I tend to disagree with your basic conclusions. Below is a list of comments/critiques in no particular order.

1. On the whole I think what people are taking as failure of the environmental movement is actually a product of its amazing success. 30 years ago most people had never heard the word environmentalist and now 85% of people consider themselves one. The movement has won major victories in almost every sphere and in every election cycle billions in bond initiatives for conservation pass in BOTH red and blue states. The movement has become such a solid part of American life with so many real victories that people take it for granted now.

2. The environment is much better now than it was 30-50 years ago and the reason people don't have such strong feelings about many environmental issues is because of this. In most areas the water and air are much cleaner and there is more protected open space. Here in CA where I live, which is one of the most environmentally-minded states in the union, the public's perception of the importance of environmentalism has decreased by 15+ points in the past 20 years. Why? Because the quality of life has improved and it's not such a major thing to worry about anymore. Think about it: is the relative low visibility of civil rights issues in America a product of their failure? Of course not, the victories were so huge that (despite there being more work to be done) that civil rights is not such a pressing issue for most Americans anymore.

3. But you say, what about global warming- the greatest challenge we face? The answer to why we haven't dealt with this is as simple as it gets and I find it amusing that people are foolish enough (not you all) to suggest that the lack of a major plan on global warming demonstrates a massive failure of environmentalism. Global warming's costs are highly speculative, uncertain, dispersed, concentrated in poorer countries, and off in the future, and dealing with them entails massive changes in society. Any simple political economy model would predict that it would be one of the hardest issues to address even with a strong environmental movement. That being said, major steps are underway (even in the U.S.) and the world community is coming around. Don't be surprised if the next U.S. president enacts some serious legislation.

4. What I think is the major problem with environmentalism is its "crisis mentality"- everything is couched within terms of the "roof falling in"- but the boy has cried wolf many times already and people aren't buying it anymore. A more constructive dialog is in order. Second, environmentalists have greatly weakened the movement, by remaining largely antagonistic and ignorant of basic economics and economic policy, and continually relying on perspectives that seem to want to ban activities or greatly regulate them. Couching solutions within the context of free market principles and efficiency and fairness using economic reasoning would do way more to get the right on board than any other reframing out there.

5. To provide an example, this article just came out in the Sierra Club's magazine:

It is one of the most misguided and poorly reasoned articles I have ever read, but this is still what passes for "economic critiques" in many environmental circles. I have submitted a semi-reply to this article and we'll see what happens.

6. In summary, I think you and others a) overestimate environmentalists current malaise, and b) your prescriptions are not entirely on the mark. A last example: I wish we could see what the world would be like if for the last 10 years, instead of campaigning against globalization and the WTO, activists had been campaigning against agricultural and other resource subsidies in the U.S. and Europe saying that they violate the rules of the free market- that would've produced some amazing changes. You see what I'm getting at?

Anyway, the best to you and please let me know what you think.


11:04 AM  
Blogger Lessons from the Right said...

First of all, on behalf of Jeni and myself, I would like to thank you for your careful read of our paper and your thoughtful comments. Our primary goal with this piece was to add a few new constructive ideas to the dialogue now underway, and your thoughts certainly contribute to that perfectly. So thanks.

Now to respond to your comments....

1. The environmental movement has been a success. As you point out, the air and water are cleaner, awareness of issues is up, and many individuals now say they care about the environment. However, the American lifestyle (as it is now lived out) is still highly consumptive, wasteful, and inefficient. We use of a tremendous supply of resources, generate an astronomical amount of trash, and we seem to have no real sense of how all of this affects our international relations or our future survival. In other words, while we recycle more than we ever did before, we continue to live in a totally unsustainable way. From our point of view, it is this larger problem that we now need to address. While it is true that people are more aware of environmental issues, they have also demonstrated that they will ignore these issues in both presidential elections and their daily consumer behavior. This is insufficient. We believe that when we consider the long term well-being of our nation and our global community, it becomes clear that we must make some large scale changes, the likes of which we seem incapable of enacting in the current climate. In this sense we have failed; we have not instilled a deeply motivating environmental ethic in the citizens of this country.

2. Things like air and water are better now than they were 30-50 years ago, and I believe it is true that this is part of the reason that people don't have strong feelings about these issues now. However, we are now becoming aware of significant environmental threats that are more insidious. They require anticipation and some careful reasoning to recognize. They do not smell like sewage or look like smog. They are not catching on fire and flowing through our backyards. Nonetheless, they are real. We believe we must begin to address these kinds of problems now, before their symptoms do become apparent in our daily lives, and before it is too late to prevent or slow them. In my opinion, this IS a quality of life issue. As environmentalists, I believe we are asking Americans to make some choices about what kind of future they want, and we are trying to offer them an accurate picture of the effects their choices may have. I believe that Earth and life upon it will continue regardless of whether there are humans here or not. I believe we have been misguided in our attempts to persuade people that they are ruining the planet. I think, rather, that the threat to our environment represents a deeply HUMAN concern. Right now, our actions manifest an unconscious choice to destroy our own habitat, eliminate the spiritual, mental, and physical values of wild natural places, and incapacitate ourselves and our society from functioning into the distant future. In my mind, this is irresponsible and short-sighted, and I am afraid we are creating a world in which I (and many others with me, I believe) do not want to live. I believe this is still a very major thing to be worrying about, even though it may be somewhat invisible now, and it is for this reason that I believe we MUST change our strategies.

(As for the civil rights analogy, much of the civil rights work undertaken in the 60s was very successful. Our country definitely looks different now than it did in the times of slavery and segregation. However, our society is still FAR from racial utopia; there are MANY problems that have not yet been addressed. In fact, in many ways the civil rights movement HAS failed, because it has allowed people of privilege to believe that there are no civil rights problems anymore, that the playing field is now level, and that they have no more responsibility to improve it further. This is not the case. Injustice certainly still abounds. Racial violence reenacts itself over and over and over again all across this country. Minority representation in leadership, among the wealthy, and in academia is still below that of whites. The civil rights movement lost steam before it was able to solve these larger, deeper problems, much as the environmental movement seems incapable of solving ours. It is those final steps which seem to be the hardest, but which are no less important than those taken before...)

3. Global warming is no longer so speculative, though predictions about the results certainly are. It is nearly unanimously agreed among scientists that climate change is taking place and that anthropogenic sources are largely to blame. It will be an expensive and difficult problem to address, absolutely, and it likely would be even with a strong movement (as you mention). However, our current strategy of turning our back to it and pretending that it isn't there is an unacceptable solution. If we are going to require significant societal change to prevent this, we need to get the dialogue underway about how we are going to do so. Again, I believe this is ultimately a choice. If Americans want to agree that climate change is not a problem for us because we don't care about the effects it will have on poorer countries, we don't care about the ecological havoc it may wreck on environmental normalcy as we know it, and we believe that our current lifestyle is worth sacrificing so much for, then, I suppose, believing in democracy, I must accept that. However, I believe that most Americans consider themselves generous and would not consciously degrade the lives of those living in poorer countries. I believe many people do not understand or fully appreciate the assumptions they hold about ecological stability. And I believe that most people have never taken the time, or recognized the need, to consider whether the consumptive American lifestyle IS worth sacrificing so much for. In other words, I do not believe we are equipped to intelligently MAKE the choice we are now making, and the decision of this administration to deny the problem has not helped inform the public about any of it. I hope the next president takes some major steps, as you predict, but his (or her?) work will be much harder given the denial now instilled in Americans who trust their current president.

4. I agree with you that the crisis model, while successful for a while, has proven ineffective. We have overused the scare tactic (even if it often is true), and people do not believe us anymore. Furthermore, we have never sufficiently made the connection between the improvements we now see in air and water and the battles that have been waged by environmentalists over the last several decades. We have been a highly negative, darkly prophetic, judgmental, and alienating group of individuals. It has not benefitted us at all. Now we find that many people who claim to care about the natural world refuse to call themselves environmentalists because of all of the negative associations they have with this word. This, in my mind, is hugely representative of our failure to capture the American heart. I agree that we must begin to build more alliances than we destroy, seek out innovative and creative solutions that consider economics as well as technological advancement and regulation. However, I do not have as much faith in free market capitalism as it seems you might. While removing irrational subsidies on water and timber, for example, will absolutely help, I believe that efficiency is not the same as fairness and that some regulation will prove necessary in the name of justice and equitable distribution of resources. We cannot afford to completely alienate economists. They have proposed many creative solutions that can, without a doubt, help us in our mission. However, I believe we must attempt to influence people's hearts, their values and ethics, as well, because this, I believe, will be crucial to helping them make considerate and responsible choices in the long term.

5. I have not yet read the Sierra Club article and your response, but I will....

6. I think it is time for the environmental movement to rethink itself and recognize that it has a long way to go. We ARE asking for a significant societal change; we believe such change will be necessary to move closer to the peaceful and sustainable world we hope to leave to our children. We believe we have a deeply moral, values based message, and we are frustrated that this has been sidelined by the religiously moralistic message of the right. Jeni and I believe we no longer need to focus on telling people what they cannot or should not do, but we need to offer them a fulfilling and satisfying WAY TO LIVE. We believe many of the values that lead us to do the work we do are actually shared by the majority of Americans and that we must find a better way to reach them. We hope this type of solution does not fail to consider important economic realities and address existing inefficiencies. We hope that this solution does not continue to alienate people as our previous strategies have. We will need a diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and skills represented among us in order to affect the kind of large-scale change we hope to, economists included....We will need to focus on finding common ground in the human condition, and working from there.

I hope these thoughts address some of your critiques, and I thank you again for your thoughts.
I would also be glad to continue this conversation, as interest inspires.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

Gee, "The environment is much better now than it was 30-50 years ago"....

Well that depends on how one defines "environment", eh ?

If you're talking about ambient lead levels in American air, or smog, or the pollution of rivers and streams - local environmental quality - well sure.

But to apply such a claim to the environment at a Global level would be no less than preposterous. I would have to suppose, then, that "the environment" Jason referred to meant, specifically, "local environmental conditions in America" .

Because, "the environment" - at the global level - is steadily "progressing" towards climate destabilization, increased storm frequency and intensity, coral reef bleaching, localized ocean eutrophication, widespread rainforest destruction.....

Ah, the sweet scorched-earth smell of progress.

Let me venture to say that this very discussion is a fine illustration of the problem at hand for the environmental movement :


Didn't the post which gave rise to this thread discussion concern the need for environmentalists to confront the challenge posed by the organizing prowess of the US right ?

Let me suggest a sharpening of focus : the US environmental movement has been stalemated, more than any single factor, by the rise of the US religious right to power. That political movement is tightly symbiotic with the welter of right wing think tanks and PR firms dedicated to - among other causes - denying the existence of Global Warming and most environmental problems altogether. The GOP has largely been taken over from within by a religious coalition that views the environental movement as some sort of satanic cult. Thus, a disciplined bloc of little more than twenty percent of American voters has rendered the environmental movement, for the moment, politically irrelevant.

It is a great irony that American environmentalism - predicated on an awareness of ecology - has failed to notice or comprehend changes in the American political ecology until it is almost too late.

Holism cuts both ways : all of human existence is dependent on the natural world, yes. But the wellbeing of nature is now dependent on human politics.

9:57 AM  
Blogger VOR said...


Yes, I was initially referring to the environment in America because that is what the environmental movement started in the 70s tried to tackle and therefore, that is the appropriate yardstick to begin with. Just about every dimension of the environment in America is significantly better than it was 35 years ago. Moving on, to say that the environment everywhere in the world is in decline is not correct. While certainly there are many very troubling international trends (particularly in fisheries) there are many countries that have witnessed environmental improvements so a blanket statement that the environment outside of the U.S. is getting worse is not accurate. As for your insinuation that it is "progress" that is destroying the environment, I think this is a very imprecise and misleading way to look at the issues. Progress can mean cell phones used in poor rural China or solar panels in the Sahara or turtle-safe fishing nets. In can also mean Hummers and and a huge appetite for animal products. We need to be very specific when we try to look at the root causes of environmental degradation and "progress" is way too vague. While I do agree that many forces on the Right have been detrimental to the environmental movement I do not share your generalization that the religious right is completely to blame. First off, the rightwing lobbyists who are working to convince people that global warming is a hoax are motivated by $$ from the oil and gas companies, not any religious conviction. Second, many evangelical leaders are actually calling for "creation care"- a stronger environmental ethic. Third, leftists groups actually do deserve a lot of criticism- for example, the opposition to CAFTA was extremeley short-sighted and aligned the Left with the Florida sugar producers, who are completely trashing the Florida Everglades- I'm glad it passed and the GOP was on the right side of this one. Finally, the left sometimes does come off as anti-capitalist pseudo-communists as is evidenced by a recent piece in the Sierra Club (The Common Good) that is riddled with inaccuracies and poor reasoning. This kind of stuff is so detrimental to the environmental movement that I have written a lengthy response that will soon be on my webstie ( as well the environmental economist website ( Stay tuned....


9:29 AM  
Blogger joeygonzo7646 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:24 AM  
Blogger Seth said...

The major environmental legislation of the 1970s was passed by a Congress elected by the Roosevelt-era progressive coalition. That coalition was systematically destroyed over the next three decades by a cabal of right-wing anti-tax, anti-regulation billionaires. They built their own coalition among fundamentalist churches and the working class men who, following the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, found themselves chronically underemployed. This had the effect of splitting the old New Deal Democratic coalition.

They also managed to take control of most large media corporations; one result is that TV, the single politically effective medium left in the US, no longer covers environmental issues per se (Katrina for instance was framed as a civil disturbance).

Another lesson from the Right is that it's not necessary to build a logical case; it's more effective to win voters thru an emotional appeal. As part of this process, the Right hired professional marketers to reframe issues in their own language. The linguistic campaign was brilliant, and left us with terms like right to work, pro-life, Clear Skies, Wise Use, eco-terrorist and eventually war on terror.

They also characterized liberals as irresponsible and immoral.

Here are some lessons for us:

1. Build coalitions with other progressive groups, and be willing to horse-trade to build inter-group solidarity. This will require dropping some of the classist bullshit by which environmentalists distance themselves from habitat-preserving hunting/fishing groups, workplace-safety-oriented unions, retired RVers who camp in national forests, etc.

2. Create our own language to define our own issues. Why do we still call it global warming instead of the heat trap crisis or overheat disaster? Why is it water or air pollution instead of corporate poisoning? Why do we refer to neoconservatives or The Right instead of anti-tax anarchists or corporate authoritarians?

3. Strategize wedge issues to peel the right-wing coalition apart. It shouldn't be that hard considering that Wall Street fiscal conservatives and evangelicals already hate each other.

4. Work hard for Democrats. It doesn't matter if they're not environmental. If they have any progressive constituents, they soon enough fall into the coalition.

Don't mourn -- organize!


10:53 PM  

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