Environmentalism is dead? Long live environmentalism.
Thanks to David Roberts for highlighting an article in the current Washington Monthly, “The Emerging Environmental Majority” (by yours truly).
Here’s the quick version: Each time in American history that environmental concerns rose to the top of the national agenda, support for ambitious government action came from a broad array of groups responding to an impending sense of crisis.
Having spoken to activists, historians, and politicians of the 1960s and 1970s, I believe there are parallels between today’s mounting public concern over global warming and the prelude to our nation’s last great era of environmental reform. In the decade before “Earth Day,” city-based citizen groups across America worked to control pollution, union chapters focused on mining safety, sportsmen’s groups worried about watersheds, and women’s organizations highlighted the connection between pollutants and fetal health. These groups had diverse focuses, but the broad chorus for reform made green concerns impossible to ignore. In the early 1970s, Washington produced the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, among other landmark laws.
Today public concern about global warming is approaching another tipping point. Climate-change campaigns are taking root among a widening spectrum of groups, from environmentalists to evangelicals, hunters to insurance companies, farmers to politicians. For ambitious measures to pass muster in Washington, global warming has to be seen, not as an issue for partisans, but as an issue affecting everyone.
Now, my original point was that David is one smart cookie (don’t you agree?), and he raises some pertinent questions that I take a whirl at answering below.
In the article, I hewed to chronology. Thus I mentioned the birth of the animal-right movements (Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was published in 1975) before I discussed the rise of an industry-funded environmental “backlash” (which developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s). I hadn’t intended order to imply importance. I spent more time on the shenanigans of the Wise Use movement because I did believe that deserved greater attention.
Also, though environmentalists and animal-rights activists were never one and the same, the minority of activists who threw fruit at fur-clad supermodels and campaigned against state hunting seasons did, alas, make easy targets for industry opponents to vilify (“They’re wacky! They’re dangerous!”). That unfortunately hurt the perception of the broader movement.
On another point, David poses a good question: “It’s true that enviros and the hook-and-bullet crowd are making common cause on this issue [public lands], but it’s not clear to me whether they’re working together, forming coalitions, or just working on the same issues (side by side, as it were).”
First, though I couldn’t list them all in the article, there are numerous examples of ongoing partnerships, from Minnesota’s Rally for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water (started by a duck hunter, supported by the Nature Conservancy and others) to Trout Unlimited’s ongoing work with Earthworks to clean up containments from abandoned mines.
Thinking back to what got the gears turning in the 1960s and 1970s, I would argue that what’s needed today to break the political logjam on global warming is for groups to work side by side, highlighting issues in ways that are most relevant to their membership (and to the politicians with whom they hold clout). I don’t expect evangelicals and insurance companies to lose their distinct perspectives on global warming (caring about the poor and the bottom line, respectively). But that doesn’t need to happen, as long as they’re pushing toward common goals — they don’t need to agree on everything, just a few things. Not all hunters and all enviros will want recognize common interests, but a growing number of leaders from both sides are reaching out. Carl Pope has well-deserved megaphone. So does Tony Dean. And Pat Wray.
As always, history is still a work in progress.