Enviros made unprecedented efforts to sway the 2004 election with legitimate tools: advertising, fundraising, rallying, knocking on doors. It didn’t work.

Apparently that fact is not sitting well. The top response in a poll asking Grist readers where green-minded folks should direct their energy in the next four years was “armed resistance” — by a 10-point margin. You might say armed resistance received a mandate.

Enough is enough, you proclaimed. Time to shake off milquetoast pretensions of mainstream acceptance, pick up some tree spikes and Molotov cocktails, and fuck shit up. A Monkey Wrench Gang for the 21st century!

But you were just kidding, right? Heh heh.

Right?

Look, I know it’s depressing. Environmentalists, Democrats, repentant Naderites, foreigners, even some old-school (read: principled) conservatives said for months that a Bush election would mean disaster. The most important election of our lifetimes, we were told. An historic turning point. The very fate of the planet at stake. Small, defenseless kittens would be slaughtered if W. returned to the White House. Think of the kittens!

And then he went and won.

The worst-case scenario for the next four years is not pretty. The rest of the world continues to mobilize against global warming while we hang out by the bleachers with Australia, smoking cigarettes and mocking science-club geeks. The Bush administration subsidizes the creation of new oil and gas companies because the current ones finally say, no, really, that’s enough public land, we’re full. The EPA announces an improvement in its proposed mercury regulations, bravely doubling the number of years power plants are given to make substantial emission cuts. Bush follows his “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” initiatives with the “Immaculate Superfund Act” (which cuts funding for the Superfund program) and the “Pinch My Cheeks I’m So Healthy! Act” (which loosens controls on pollution from chemical plants). George Orwell spins in his grave so fast that he drills to the center of the earth, knocks the planet off its axis, and causes a new ice age. Damage is done that cannot be undone.

Direct and sometimes violent (at least to property) activism is part of the cultural mythology of environmentalism and has a storied past, from Ed Abbey down through today’s mysterious Earth Liberation Front.

But still, in the here and now, going all Monkey Wrench on their asses is exactly the wrong thing to do, for two reasons. First, things won’t get that bad. And second, it won’t work.

Environmentalism is ultimately a cultural change, a change in the attitude, perspective, and expectations of ordinary citizens — and like most broad, gradual cultural changes, it is not as subject to the whims of the governing class as people like to make out. If the Republican leadership thought it were permissible to openly demonize gays, they probably would. But it’s not. Why? Not because of anything the government did, but because Will and Grace just isn’t very scary. Acceptance of gays has been spreading and will continue to do so, and the political class will follow behind, even if some members thereof kick and scream on the way.

Admittedly, there is no homophobe industry with millions of dollars on the line, so enviros have a different row to hoe. But change is a’comin’, like the hippies used to sing. Right now it is politically permissible to dismiss environmental concerns as the province of radicals and elites, luxuries we can attend to when the economy is safely tucked in bed. Sometime — soon — it won’t be.

It may look at the federal level like progress is stalled, but it isn’t. States are setting carbon-dioxide limits. Fuel-efficient cars are becoming so popular that fuel efficiency will soon be taken for granted. Working mothers are finding out that their Wal-Mart fishstix are full of mercury, and you really don’t want to piss off a working mother. Crusty, conservative outdoorsy types in the West are bucking their party and asking why every square mile of the land on which they hunt and fish needs to be leased to energy companies. The forces of anti-environmentalism are shrinking and retrenching inside a few industries and political claques, and soon — not soon enough, but we’re not talking centuries either — they will simply sink under the tide.

It’s a slow process, and frustrating, particularly given the sense of urgency enviros rightly feel. But the point is, it’s happening. Bush is nothing if not a political weathervane. He obviously feels the need to pay lip service to environmental protection. Why else the deceptive names and obfuscation? The game is moving down field, and grudgingly or not, he’ll have to move with it in a second term.

Regardless, bomb-throwing radicalism is a political non-starter these days. It can be effective in specific times and places, for ruthlessly pragmatic reasons, but in a postmodern world, it eats itself. In our media-saturated environment, what matters is not old-fashioned institutional ties or personal allegiances, but perception — and the meme jockeys on the right are experts at tagging the left with the actions of its most extreme members (a skill that continually eludes their counterparts on the left). An outbreak of lawlessness among enviros would be like Christmas for the wingers, their first opportunity in years to roll back public perception of environmental issues.

People want to be on the side of a winner, so if you want people on your side, act like you’re winning. Karl Rove gets this; it’s why he had Bush doing victory laps through obviously blue states toward the end of 2000’s squeaky-close election. Spiking trees and blocking roads can be incredibly effective as emergency measures to stop specific timber harvests, but as a primary strategy they are a mark, like all violence, of marginalization and helplessness — of losing.

The proper reaction to Bush’s mind-bendingly disheartening victory is not to fight with more violence but to fight with more savvy. Enviros don’t typically do irony well, but in this media climate the winning attitude is not earnest outrage but amused, mocking superiority. To be disagreed with carries its own sort of legitimacy. To be laughed at is deadly. Retrograde environmental opinions and policies must be made to appear small and silly. Republicans get this kind of strategy — witness the time and money they spent making Kerry an object of ridicule, of a piece with their years of effort painting enviros as people-hating, varmit-loving fruitloops.

I do not mean to minimize the damage to the environment that is sure to take place in the next four years, or to discount the real harm it will do to the most vulnerable among us. But the answer is not to cede the playing field.

Environmentalism does not need another Edward Abbey. It needs a Jon Stewart.