On framing environmentalism
In this section, Alex and I discuss the way environmentalism has been framed and what greens can do to change those frames.
DR: I’ve just been reading Michael Crichton’s new book. It’s an attack on global warming science and what he calls global warming hysteria, but also, particularly in the latter parts of the book, an attack on what he calls environmentalists’ general bad science, alarmism, reliance on tendentious, partial results which they sell as certainties, etc. etc. While I think he’s off about global warming and a lot of other things, I do think that the environmental movement has a history of alarmist talk based on sketchy scientific results. What’s going to bolster the movement’s credentials when it comes to science?
AS: The problem with the movement has been that in general we have oversold particular hazards and undersold the larger hazard. I’m not sure that any amount of science is going to win this for us. I’m a huge fan of science, I think we ought to have hundreds of times more science funding in this country, but I don’t think that science is the problem here. It’s a public debate problem. You’ve got a couple of problems. One is, you’ve got a media that, especially on global warming, has routinely been complicit with people who are lying to us, where they’ve equated a lone quack with the existing scientific panels on climate science.
DR: Chris Mooney has a great piece on this.
AS: So there’s that problem, the media. But there’s another problem too, which is that the structure of the environmental movement has tended to produce groups who in order to survive — and this is one of the dirty secrets that we need to get out in public and deal with and move on from — need to hype the hell out of a problem to get media attention and thus, later, more funding, be it from membership or from foundations. And that’s a situation that incentivizes, if not lying, then bending the truth. And there’s no situation where bending the truth is a good idea when you’re fighting a battle for the public imagination. We really need to think carefully about supporting groups that use those strategies.
In general, we need to take a cold, hard look at how the environmental movement operates as a movement, which is a whole other conversation. We need to look at whether it’s actually serving our goals. I would argue it isn’t. One of the things that’s happening repeatedly is you get a group saying, "we have a study proving x," they go out, they get media attention saying, "if you eat this apple that’s been sprayed with this pesticide you’re all going to die," it proves not to be true, and the entire environmental movement is discredited.
We need to move away from that approach — a piecemeal, issue-by-issue approach — and toward a much more holistic, broad-based discussion of the costs and benefits of our whole model of industrial production.
DR: Inputs and outputs, energy and waste …
AS: Exactly. What Braungart and McDonough talk about on this issue is absolutely critical. We need neobiological industry. We’ve got industry that is objectively poisonous. We don’t have to. That should be the issue, not whether eating this particular apple is going to make you sick, because we’re never going to win that fight. There’s always going to be an Achilles heel there somewhere.
If we are smart enough we can juxtapose a bright green future against the larger picture current reality, which people don’t know about. They may hear that power lines, or apples, or fish are going to mutate your kids or whatever, but they don’t have a good sense of the potential effects of climate or the proven science around endocrine disruptors or the dangers of particulate matter. There are big scientific questions out there, but we know exactly where this stuff is coming from, we know exactly how we could change the dynamic industrially, and we know exactly the harm they cause, well not exactly, but we have a pretty good idea of the harm they cause. If we could juxtapose a better picture …
DR: Making money off doing it differently.
AS: If we could say, "hey, here’s how you manufacture a rug that doesn’t poison your kids," then we can talk about household chemicals in a way that makes sense to people. But without that better set of alternatives to point to I think it’s kind of a cruel joke to keep emphasizing the dangers that people face.
DR: Also, once you have better ways of doing things — better both in that they’re cleaner and safer but also in that they make money for shareholders — then you’re able to cast the old-school chemical companies, the fossil fuel companies, as what they are: old, bloated, heavily subsidized industries with a lock on politicians who benefit from a quid pro quo arrangement. You can finally cast them as the enemy in such a way that you’re not against industry, you’re against old, dirty, last-century industry, which is standing in the way. Why won’t they get out of our way? Why won’t they let us do things in a healthier way? Why are they making money off poisoning us when we could make more money doing it cleaner?
AS: Absolutely. Which goes directly to the question of progress.
Progress is perhaps the key American virtue. It’s right up there with individualism. One of the worst things that happened to us in the last 10 or 15 years is the other side has managed to equate us — due in part to irresponsible statements by some of our allies — with the idea of regression, stalled progress, moving backwards, killing jobs, a future that is bleak, where everyone shivers in the dark. In fact, the future they’re proposing, which is basically to drown in our own filth, is not progressive in either sense of the word, and we have a much, much better solution.
There are a bunch of Americans who will agree with us, not because they particularly care about the environment, but because they are pro-progress. If we say, "here’s how we build the competitive, clean, dynamic, job-creating industries of tomorrow, right here in America …"
DR: Build a greater America, right? It’s a way of taking back patriotism too. Why hobble America in the name of these industries instead of unleashing America’s ability to compete in the new economy? Bill Clinton, whatever his faults, was brilliant with that sort of rhetoric and framing.
AS: Exactly. I want an optimistic environmentalism. Emerson said at every moment in American history there are two parties, the party of the past and the party of the future. I want us to be the party of the future, spilling over with confidence in humanity, in what Americans can accomplish together, and brimming with ideas for how to make tomorrow better than today.
Because, let’s face it, if tomorrow isn’t better than today, environmentalism is some sort of pathetic rear-guard action, hoping to preserve the last little dwindling scraps of ecological health on a dying planet. That’s not activism, that’s a death watch.
In contrast, what we want when we look forward is a future most Americans can identify with. And I’d be happy to stack up our best visions against the other side’s any day of the way.
Put the question to the American people. Ultimately, it boils down to this: what America do you want to live in 20 years from now? Do you want to live in an America at the forefront of technological innovation? With a dynamic economy, maybe even an energy exporter? Making life better for the people in the poorest parts of the inner cities, the worst-affected farming communities in the country? Do you want great cities and healthy kids and a safer world?
Or do you want a nation of rust belts and bankrupt farms, where we’re outcompeted by the Europeans and Chinese and Brazilians and all the jobs have been offshored, where our government is crushed with massive deficits, and our kids are sick at even more massive rates, and our cities are hollowed-out brownfields, and the salmon are all gone, and the weather’s gone all wacky, and our major national industry is despair? Cause that’s where we’re headed.
We’re in the middle of the biggest fight about the future of this country in 100 years, and we need to make real, real clear what the choices are. Do we want religious crazies running jet planes into our office towers, or do we want to lead the world in creating a wind-hydrogen economy? Do we want kids stewing in the petrochemical poisons our society pumps out every day, or do we want kids to be able to drink the water without risk, or for heaven’s sake, nurse at their mother’s breast in safety? Do you want a nation moving forward, with a vision of 21st century life, or one connected to smokestacks and oil derricks?
If we stack up the choices, the vast majority of Americans will agree with us. But we can’t make those choices clear unless we can actually point at the alternative we’re offering.
We need to demonstrate that there is, in fact, another world possible. In order to do that it’s absolutely imperative that we environmentalists start living that dream in our own hearts, start imagining ourselves living in that world, in a bright green future, and talking to other people about our hopes for our own lives and for our own communities, because if we don’t do it nobody else will.
If we do it, though, we will find unexpected allies everywhere. If we do it, we will ourselves newly full of energy and conviction and hope. And, ultimately, if we do it we may save the planet.
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