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White, Wealthy, and Whiney: An Environmental Movement in Need of a Makeover

Earth Day 1990. Paul-W/flickr
 

On the 45th Earth Day this week, environmentalists deserve a pat on the back — and an image overhaul.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention with an over-the-top headline, understand that I don’t really buy it. Not completely, anyway.

But millions of Americans do, and because of that, pushback against environmental initiatives is both strong and often devoid of reason.

With an environmental movement whose lifespan can be measured by 45 annual Earth Days (this Wednesday is Earth Day 2015), it’s time to ask a question: How can a movement featuring so many smart, high-achieving people talking science-backed common sense for so long on issues that can literally be life-or-death still have such a hard time?

Center for American Progress/flickr
Michael Bloomberg and others recently donated tens of millions to the Sierra Club.

Default response number one, of course, is that on issues such as climate, health, energy and habitat, it’s little enviros versus big money. But that’s too easy.

There’s a statutory limit to the number of things you can blame on the Koch Brothers. And that underdog argument fades away quickly when the Sierra Club has a $60 million fundraising day, courtesy of Michael Bloomberg and others. The “wealthy” meme gets reinforced, and hard feelings toward enviros in the coalfields and hollers of Appalachia get a little harder.

I’ve been either an observer or a participant in things environmental for the last 35 of those 45 years. Here’s some unsolicited advice for a “movement” in middle age to burnish its image and broaden its public standing.

Don’t kid yourself

Progress happens, but it takes years. I’ve been hearing that renewable energy is “just around the corner” since the late 1970’s. It’s been at least two decades since I first heard that climate denial was dying out.

Today, of course, wind and solar are finally catching on, but climate denial rules one TV news network, nearly all of talk radio, key House and Senate committees, and it will be spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire for the next ten months.

Near where I live, the City of Atlanta still sends occasional raw sewage discharges down two rivers, the South and the Chattahoochee, despite the 43 year-old law intended in part to stop such things. But this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to.

A lot of the people I’ve seen get jaded or burned out became that way because the slow progress was hard to recognize. The only problem with counseling extreme patience, of course, is that melting ice caps and vanishing forests and species may not accommodate much patience.

Caucasian conundrum continues in conservation caucus

Can somebody please deal with the white thing? In January 1990, civil rights activists sent a letter to eight major U.S. conservation groups, calling them out on their “isolation” from poor and minority communities. The leaders of those groups responded by acknowledging the problem and vowing to do better.

A quarter century later, Big Green can show modest improvement in its ranks, but almost none at or near the top (exception: Rhea Suh, the new Korean-American leader of the Natural Resources Defense Council.).

National Rifle Association Ad, 1982

Learn from others, even if you may not like them

In the 1980’s, the National Rifle Association confronted an image issue similar to one that vexes environmentalists. Many Americans viewed NRA members as single-issue maniacs. Their solution was a successful imaging campaign featuring Main Street Americans like little Bryan Hardin (left). A barrage of NRA ads featured not only adorable towheads with BB guns, but construction workers, schoolteachers, nurses, African-Americans and Latinos and more.

Today, the NRA is a political juggernaut. If a group that advocates assault rifles and hollow-point ammo (not to mention NRA’s recent foray into anti-environment measures) can paint itself as benign, can it be that hard for enviros?

Advocating for clean and air water shouldn’t make you an unpatriotic job-killing pariah. Let’s work on this.

Don’t be afraid to brag

I’m astonished that, aside from organizations’ fundraising apparatus, there’s little sense of accomplishment for the environmental movement. Environmentalists’ efforts haven’t been flawless, but they’ve been effective and accurate in ways that don’t get enough credit.

Cleaner air, cleaner water, scads of preserved open space, a recovering ozone hole, and countless species either recovering or at least hanging on are gifts to America from enviros, as well as from some widely-despised laws, regulations and government agencies. Take the credit as often as you can.

Use history as a (nonviolent) weapon

Name a genuine American environmental hero. Okay, now name one that hasn’t been dead for fifty years or more.

The modern environmental movement is old enough to have a history. Not only is it one to brag about but the history of environmental opponents is pretty shameful. One example: It’s useful to be well-versed in the list of public figures who used to embrace action on climate change, until it no longer fit into their business model: John McCain, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were all avid about climate action until the presidency became a goal for each of them.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and his boss, Rupert Murdoch, spoke out strongly on climate change until about ten years ago. And best of all, Alaska governor Sarah Palin signed a forward-thinking executive order on climate change in 2007 but, less than a year later, she was on the vice presidential campaign trail, insisting it was all a hoax.

The media: Oy Vey.

Talk about white, wealthy and whiney. Talk back to your TV. Raise hell with your editor. The science on climate change is so thoroughly validated that while honest debate is always welcome, climate denial is no longer honest debate.

Any news organization that still thinks it’s appropriate to “balance” climate science with a crackpot political operative should hear from you. If the topic were medicine rather than climate change, they wouldn’t pair Sanjay Gupta, M.D. to “debate” a witch doctor or faith healer, would they?

And speaking of debates, the nation’s political reporters and pundits are still largely in a climate coma. We endured an entire presidential campaign in 2012 with not a single debate question about climate or energy.

The inevitable asterisk

Every bit of this is easier said than done, and to a lot of veteran advocates and activists, much of this is stating the obvious. But much of it remains undone. If years from now, far too many Americans still perceive of the environmental movement as white, wealthy, and whiney, we will have wasted a lot of Earth Days.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 20, 2015

Peter, perhaps the modern environmental movement is perceived as “whiney” because it doesn’t have very much to show for its efforts.

The movement of ecomodernism agrees that change is necessary, but it’s going to take more than putting lipstick on wind and solar – it’s going to require some introspection, and examination of what it means to be an environmentalist in the 21st century.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Apr 20, 2015

The modern environmental movement is increasingly perceived as a scam. There have been many blunders.

– The breathless embracing of the tragic biomass debacle, even while experts had already warned of the limits and severe risks of careless biomass expansion, like deforestation and social injustice. And then the backtracking and attempts to cover up the early embrace, and always the blaming of others.

– The tiresome and conspicuous conflating of Left-leaning politics with Green politics, rarely even attempting to be non-partisan, causing Right-leaning part of the population to be repulsed and doubtful of all environmental issues.

– The insane and stubborn exclusion of nuclear power, even in some cases while their own experts conclude nuclear is an important tool, not to be ignored, let alone assaulted.

– The asinine cheerleading of massive RE subsidy programs which clearly do little but funnel resources from the poor to the rich, and from R&D to premature implemention.

– The shameful indoctrination of children using issues which they themselves have caused in some cases. Calling for children to ‘help save the Orangutan in Malaysia from deforestation’ even while it was environmental groups who stimulated the biofuel boondoggle causing deforestation in the first place.

– The constant fear of losing donations permeating through everything, including in the fabrication and exaggeration of ever more contrived ‘issues’ which are either already under sufficient control, or not a real problem at all, like GMOs, bioscience, intensive farming, etc.

Nevertheless, I must conclude that the environmental organizations have been and remain important to our societies. But they must become smarter, if they want to prevent becoming a part of the problem rather than the solution. To become smarter, they have to embrace science uncompromisingly. I don’t see any other option.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Apr 20, 2015

10 Marks! I couldn’t agree more. It sickens me to read about the Death Spiral of utilities being uttered by Rich (usually white) folks, while they live off the grid while pushing off their share of resposibility for its maintenance on the poor.

Then there there is the socialist agenda, masquerading as environmentalism, Every time I hear about how distributed PV will stop the monopoly of the evil Utilities (regulated), I wonder what it is we are talking about, is it energy policy or is it social justice?

I recently got into a protracted argument with a guy who posted a video by David LeBlanc on  molten salt cooled reactors  up in Canada, the guy was commenting “dumbass”every other word, while NOT listening to a word from david in his own video post. Try as I might he was resistant to anything nuclear, even if the reactor is Melt-Down proof, and uses no cooling water that could leed to a hydrogen explosion.  He was impervious to the Thought that Nuclear Power <> Nuclear Bombs.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Apr 21, 2015

Renewables have made remarkable progress.  As it has moved down an exponential growth curve, only in recent years have we seen the fruits of the labors of dedicated, serious professionals.  In the last decade wind and solar have moved from the realm of demonstration projects to significant capacity contributions in electrical generation.  Over the next decade wind and solar will take their place among the top contributors to the overall portfolio of generation resources.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 21, 2015

Clayton, the Global Wind Energy Council is not nearly as optimistic about wind’s potential:

For the first time in more than 20 years, the annual global market for wind energy shrank in 2013. We knew that this was likely to be the case when we did our forecast for 2013 one year ago, but we didn’t expect the drop in the United States to be as dramatic as it was – going from 13 GW in 2012 to just 1 GW in 2013…By our calculations, by 2035, renewables will be generating more than 25% of world’s electricity, with a quarter of this coming from wind, being the second largest renewable energy source after hydro power according to the International Energy Agency.

http://www.gwec.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/GWEC-Global-Wind-Report_9...

Obviously, a source providing 6.25% of anything won’t qualify as a top contributor, and GWEC is looking twice as far into the future. What do you know that they don’t?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Apr 22, 2015

Bob,

I love how you cherry-pick your statistics.  You pick a report from 2013 which was a down year – when if you went to GWEC website – you could have easily found the latest report from 2014 – a record year for wind. Did you not notice this report – or did you selectively ignore it?

Here is 2014 report:

http://www.gwec.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/GWEC_Global_Wind_2014_Rep...

Here is the opening comment:

“2014 was a great year for the wind industry, setting a new record of more than 51 GW installed in a single year, bringing the global total close to 370 GW” 

Seems pretty optimistic to me!

Here is a forecast for rest of decade.

http://www.gwec.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Market-Forecast-for-2014-–-2019.jpg

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 23, 2015

Joe, I chose 2013 because that was the end year in Clayton’s graph. Thanks for the update. Do you have an update on what percent of global generation GWEC predicts for wind by 2035? Because you’ve selectively ignored the essence of my point, which was Clayton’s absurd projection that “over the next decade wind and solar will take their place among the top contributors to the overall portfolio of generation resources”.

Wind and solar advocates love their capacity and installation graphs, because they tend to obfuscate the insignificant contribution both actually make to global generation (wind: 2.5%; solar: .44%). If you think that’s cause for optimism, there’s really nothing to argue about. Either:

1) You don’t understand the imperative of climate change, or
2) The problem isn’t as important to you as it is to me.

Party on.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Apr 23, 2015

The concept of exponential (compounded) growth is a challenging one for many.  Here is another way to think about it that may be helpful.  Wind power capacity grew by a factor of about 80 over the last 20 years.  If it grows by one 10th of that ( a factor of 8 ) over the next 20 years it will exceed 2008 generation capacity.  Taking into account capacity factor it would be about 1/3 rd of total world generation on an energy basis.  This graphic offers an interesting way to visualize the wind industry growth.

Given that the cost of wind power continues to drop and higher CF machines are opening up areas formally considered uneconomical for wind development I think it is important, and reasonable, to be considering scenarios that include wind as a significant contributor to the overall energy portfolio.  Similarly, mainstream thought is moving towards similar expectations for solar growth.  This Deutsche Bank report is an example.

 

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 23, 2015

Thanks Clayton, but Joe’s chart shows that GWEC does not predict wind to grow exponentially – the cumulative installed growth rate is already declining, and the annual installed growth rate will begin to decline after 2018.

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