The Bush victory dealt a devastating wallop to the environmental community, but some members say it also delivered a much-needed reality check to a movement struggling to find its soul.
Understandably, many environmental leaders who jumped into the election fray insist their crusade to mobilize the green vote could not have been harder fought: Beltway groups raised record funds — in total more than $12 million — to help oust Bush, and deployed bigger volunteer armies than ever before to pound the pavement in swing states.
Some go so far as to say their efforts were a success: “Of course our strategies will evolve in the next four years … but it was the most sophisticated, well-funded, and determined effort by this community to sway a presidential election to date,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope told Muckraker. “Not only that, it worked.”
Pope cited statistics that showed considerably higher numbers for voter turnout in many of the neighborhoods in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, and other swing states where the Sierra Club focused its door-to-door campaign. “In the precincts of all the states we worked in except for Florida, John Kerry did better than Gore did four years ago, and we helped grow that support.”
Admirable data to be sure, but the Bush campaign, too, was able to improve on its 2000 performance in those states — essentially canceling out whatever progress Kerry supporters managed to make.
Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, also sounded cheery about the outcome in a chat with Muckraker, saying, “I feel heartened. If you peel back the presidential election, which was clearly a blow, there were a lot of real successes that happened out there … We created an incredible force for the future — 18,000 door-to-door volunteers, and more than a quarter of a million supporters stand ready to carry on the cause. We’re going to grow the momentum and keep organizing the grassroots — going door to door, phone banking, letter writing, going to rallies and hearings … building off of our successes.”
But to many struggling with dashed hopes after the Kerry defeat, this kind of optimism seems beside the point, if not somewhat deluded: The harsh reality, they say, is that by using these tactics, enviros and other progressive groups failed to turn out the critical mass of votes needed to depose the man widely viewed as the worst environmental president in history.
Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club and now executive director of Common Assets, says the defeat calls for a new approach entirely, not more of the same: “Here we are patting ourselves on the back, but we’re missing the fact that the environmental movement had virtually no effect on the outcome of the election. It is uniquely irrelevant and ineffective right now.”
Enviros certainly shouldn’t take all the blame for the fact that their message was drowned out by the national-security drumbeat pounded so noisily by the Bush campaign.
But there was more to it than that, believes Werbach, particularly in an election that was highly influenced by moral and religious issues. “We live in a society where people have higher needs for fulfillment — something in their souls that they feel is missing. The environmental movement doesn’t speak to that at all,” he said. “Our leaders, generally speaking, are driving us off a cliff. They’ve positioned [environmentalism] as just another special interest pushing a legal agenda, rather than a movement focused on building a majority and representing a broader worldview, a moral framework.”
In other words, contends Werbach, “our issues are the only things that define our values right now.” Environmental organizations are set up to argue the legal minutiae of policy particulars rather than build political power. The environmental message is too often focused on technical and scientific details — parts-per-million particulate levels, maximum achievable control technologies, renewable portfolio standards, market-based cap-and-trade systems. It’s wonky enough to make the average American go narcoleptic.
Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which declined to endorse Bush in the election, expresses similar sentiments. “To my mind, a big part of the problem is that environmentalists have lost touch with the spiritual dimension, the moral dimension that is very much a part of the environmental message,” he said. “It was inherent in the work of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and other godfathers of the movement.”
Carl Pope agrees that the environmental community is displaced from its spiritual components: “More than half of our members regularly attend church. It’s true that environmental groups have been reluctant to embrace the spiritual half of their community. We’ve tended to perceive secularism as a faith, but it’s not. We definitely need to address this.”
Beth Viola, a senior environmental analyst for the Kerry campaign, applauded the election outreach conducted by environmental organizations, but has also come to the realization that “we need to make a better case that the environment is a values issue, and a broader framework for political concerns.”
Viola, who served as a senior adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Clinton, offered a compelling metaphor for the environment as an all-encompassing framework: During a White House meeting with Al Gore, a senior adviser drew a pie chart of the issues of the day. There was a slice for education, health care, foreign policy, and so on, and then a little slice for the environment. “Gore jumped off his seat and said, ‘No! The environment is the entire pie, it’s the crust; everything else is the filling. You can slice it all up, but the environment is part of every piece,’” recalled Viola. “That’s the kind of message we need to be able to communicate.”
How to Win Friends and Influence People
One strategy that most everyone is talking about is building new alliances between the environmental community and other movements or segments of the population. But Werbach insists that before reaching out, enviros need to define their values. “We can’t begin building alliances without knowing what we stand for. It’s not authentic. It’s a marriage based on a lie. If you don’t know what you believe in, then you can’t have a good relationship.”
To this end, the Sierra Club is working on a long-term, grassroots program called Building Environmental Communities that engages local citizens in discussions about environmental values with the aim of weaving a more personal fabric to connect people to and within the movement
There are plenty of groups that should share common values with environmentalists: “security moms,” college kids, minority and low-income communities, as well as hunters, anglers, farmers, and ranchers who already hold conservation-oriented values.
Even, says DiPeso, pro-lifers, who would be natural advocates in the fight for stricter controls on mercury emissions and other pollutants. “We need to engage them and say, ‘Look, we’re not going to argue pro-life with you, but let’s talk about harm to unborn children from neurotoxins, from hormone-mimicking chemicals. If fetal health is important to you, then this is something you need to be aware of.’”
Security moms should also logically be aligned with enviros. In 2000, many more women voted for Gore than did men, but this time around Bush expanded his share of the female vote, in part by playing on concerns about national security. “The same moms worrying about terrorists attacks should be jumping out of their seats about exposing their kids to higher levels of poison in the air and water, higher rates of asthma, greater levels of toxic-waste dumping,” said DiPeso.
Young voters are another group ripe for outreach. While over 4 million more people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2004 election than in 2000, the youth vote remained at roughly the same percentage of the total electorate — about 18 — despite widespread forecasts that it would be higher. “Why weren’t we able to mobilize more of the youth vote, when they are the ones who will inherit these problems?” asked DiPeso.
He added that while environmentalists have made headway with the hunting and ranching communities, “still there’s a lot of bad blood there and there really isn’t a need for that. The message needs to be, we all have the same final goal: to protect land and the wilderness so that it continues to produce what they need for their recreation and their livelihood.”
Whether it’s soul searching, battling over policy, or forging connections with new communities, one thing is for sure: Enviros won’t be bored over the next four years. They sure as hell have their work cut out for them.