Can the Gulf oil spill be environmentalists’ Arizona moment?
Photo courtesy th.omas via FlickrWithin a week of Arizona’s new racial-profiling bill becoming law, the “1 MILLION Strong AGAINST the Arizona Immigration Law SB1070” group on Facebook climbed to nearly 1.3 million people. Via Facebook and emails and phone calls, I’ve been asked to attend vigils and marches, sign on to a boycott of Arizona, and show my support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Meanwhile, even with an ongoing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, I have yet to see similar organizing and energy from the environmental movement on Facebook (or anywhere else). This is particularly striking since the majority of my friends are connected with the environmental movement, if not formally as organization staff then informally as self-identified environmentalists, while only a handful are directly connected to immigration reform.
Why aren’t my Facebook newsfeed, inbox, and voicemail overwhelmed with calls to boycott BP or stand with anglers and fishermen in the Gulf region — or with calls to use this disaster to build broad support and momentum to pass comprehensive climate-change legislation?
If Facebook reflects the zeitgeist, immigration reform has definitely one-upped the environmental movement in the past month. The environmental movement used to be known for its outrage, big demonstrations, and calls to action — but right now, immigration reform is out-organizing us.
Before the Arizona law passed, immigration activists were already pushing for letters and calls to Arizona lawmakers. When the bill was signed, activists escalated their organizing, calling for boycotts of Arizona and organizing marches and vigils, pushing this law as an example of exactly why we need comprehensive immigration reform.
Meanwhile the response to the oil spill has been surprisingly narrow — some petitions calling for ending offshore drilling and a few asks to call senators about climate change. There have been no massive marches or vigils. Calls for a boycott of BP have been small and muted, and not even endorsed by big green groups. With the media reporting ceaselessly on the disastrous consequences of dirty fuels, this should be our moment to organize, strike hard, and turn this disaster into an irrefutable call to pass climate and clean-energy legislation.
The environmental movement in recent years has become increasingly mainstream and especially focused on D.C. and the inside game. Many who walk the halls of Washington as environmental lobbyists rely more on their own personal access and influence rather than powerful movements from outside the Beltway backing them up.
Immigration-reform activists, on the other hand, have always been outside the system, using massive rallies and demonstrations to build power. Because immigration reform addresses a traditionally excluded base, activists focus constantly on movement building and action. The movement has also been consciously inclusive and has explicitly made the connection between the effects of bad immigration policy on families and communities and the need for reform. The breadth of the movement makes it more politically powerful. That has not been the case for the environmental movement, where much work remains to be done to diversify, encourage inclusiveness, and make strong connections between environmental causes and communities.
Although young, the immigration-reform movement has already demonstrated its power, and it seizes every possible opportunity to remind elected officials of that power. As momentum has been building, immigration reform has recently leapfrogged up the legislative calendar. Representatives, senators, and even President Obama are speaking out about the need for immigration legislation, because the constant pressure means they must. While the environmental movement is focused on moving legislation that is politically possible, the immigration-reform movement is focused on making the legislation it wants politically necessary.
Strong political donor organizing and grasstops lobbying work is a hard-worked-for strength of the environmental movement — a strength other movements should seek to emulate. However, these activities concentrate power in the hands of a few, rather than moving power out broadly. The desire of big environmental groups to control the messaging and focus on policy details makes it prohibitive for the average person to engage in the push for climate legislation. But a science-based movement doesn’t have to incomprehensible to non-scientists, and policy-based solutions don’t have to be impenetrable to non–policy wonks. The environmental movement needs to look beyond D.C. and make plainspoken calls to action.
And now we have the perfect opportunity. We environmentalists should look at this oil spill as our Arizona moment. We must rally people to the cause, name fossil fuels as our enemy, engage our base, and help people channel their outrage toward a positive outcome. With the power of a real and broad movement behind us, we can make the argument that a comprehensive energy bill would impact elections in every state. And, once we make that argument with real authority, then Congress has to listen.