White, Wealthy, and Whiney: An Environmental Movement in Need of a Makeover
- Apr 20, 2015 10:00 pm GMTJul 7, 2018 9:19 pm GMT
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|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 email@example.com.