Making environmentalism palatable to social conservatives
There is much food for thought in the discussion here.
Reader Keith F. Saylor, an avowed conservative and Bush voter (no, Keith, that doesn’t disqualify your comments — you are welcome here, please hang around) left this comment, which got me thinking. He says environmentalism “is crippled by its marriage with the Democratic Party and its policies.” (Da silva, who I assume is not a Bush voter, agrees here.) Further downthread, Tina Rhea, an avowed atheist (yup, you’re welcome here too, Tina — Grist is all about the big tent!) says environmentalists “could do more to reach out and make common cause” with Christians. These two suggestions are related, and I think they both have merit.
Now, here are two premises I assume are not controversial:First, enviros need all the help they can get, and that includes help from the cultural conservatives who put Bush over the top this year on issues of “moral values.” Second, enviros should not attempt to procure that help at the expense of, well, the environment. So what to do?
The U.S. environmental movement has largely been the province of upper-middle-class, secular, liberal white people. It has always been so, and it remains so today, despite the many exceptions one could cite. This is a very narrow, specific cultural profile, and it doesn’t seem to follow in any direct way from the nature of the issues — in other words, it’s not necessary. It’s also off-putting to many folks. It would be nice if the issues themselves were assessed independently of that profile, but that’s not how things work. The cultural profile of an issue’s adherents is a heuristic people use, a kind of shorthand, in assessing it, because most folks just don’t have time to process all the information. (Think about the issue of marijuana legalization — it shouldn’t matter that it’s primarily stoners in favor of it, but it does.)
So we need to broaden that cultural profile. That means, among other things, talking about religion and about God, and about protecting the environment as a way of honoring God’s creation, and about environmental justice as a way of protecting “the least among us.” It means reaching out to hunters, fishers, and other traditionally conservative outdoorsy types in the West, and respecting the connection to nature they have forged. It means talking about ranching and agriculture in a respectful way, discussing sustainable farming and grazing techniques as a way of saving farms and communities in the Midwest, saving the little guy who’s being swamped by Big Ag. It means talking about environmentalism as a traditional value, a connection to family and heritage, a connection to national security, an expression of hard work, honesty, and integrity.
It means offering cultural inroads into the movement that don’t require buying into the idea that we’re all connected and opening our hearts to peace and love and Gaia and moving on to the next stage of evolution and aligning our chi are required to preserve the environment. I have no beef with new agey types, but fruity doesn’t sell in red states.
It needs to be possible to be a meat-eating, gun-toting, church-going, Wal-Mart shopping, cheap-beer drinking, elite-academic disdaining red stater and also be an environmentalist — not just be one, but participate actively in the environmental movement. Right now, environmentalism is lined up with blue state attitudes and sensibilities in a way that is unnecessarily limiting to its efficacy. Frankly, nothing I see in the comments of current environmental leaders makes me think they acknowledge this.
There’s also the issue of environmentalism’s alignment with old-school Democratic party policies, particularly its reliance on government regulation. But this post is already too long, so I’ll save that for later.
The question for now is: Is it true that environmentalists need to reach out to cultural conservatives? And if so, how do they do it? I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear what you think first. Y’all are smart.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum’s got some interesting thoughts on the same topic here. Be sure to read the comments.
UPDATE II: Digby has another take altogether, here.
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