Once again this year, the spring season brought a flood of green-themed magazines to super-market checkout stands and airport news racks all across the country.
And once again, the faces of non-white and non-affluent Americans were almost entirely missing.
Our new environmental movement is rapidly gaining visibility and momentum. That is very good news. Life-or-death ecological issues finally are starting to get the attention they so urgently deserve. And we can all celebrate that.
But now we would be wise to start paying closer attention to the kind of coverage that we as environmentalists are getting. Because I see a disturbing pattern of exclusivity that is starting to set in. And that kind of elitism can sow the seeds for a very dangerous, populist backlash, down the line.
To see what I mean, just flip through the pages of Vanity Fair’s recent green issue (the one with Leo DiCaprio and that cute polar bear cub on the cover).
Vanity Not Fair: Where are Americans of Color?
Now, count the non-white Americans in the whole magazine. Okay. Now try to find the working-class environmentalists, the ones trying to protect their kids from pollution at the fence-line?
Go ahead. Keep looking. See what I mean?
I am sure that Vanity Fair and the others mean well. But nobody is doing our new green movement any favors by continually portraying it solely as the playground of a white, affluent “eco-elite.”
To turn this country around environmentally, we are going to need super-majorities in every demographic group.
It would be easy for green proponents to get cocky and be over-confident now. It would be easy to say, “Why bother working for race and class diversity, when the environmental movement is growing faster now than at any time in its history?”
Such misguided thinking would be trading short-term gain for long-term pain. This year – right now – is precisely the smart time to start worrying about a future anti-green backlash. If we let our movement be portrayed as solely a “white thing,” it will be easier for demagogues to forge an alliance between polluters and the poor — to derail our success.
Do you think I am being paranoid?
Well, then please heed a cautionary lesson from California, the supposed leader in all things green.
California Provides Cautionary Tale to Eco-Elite
Everyone loves to brag on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for signing our global warming legislation. But nobody talks about the fact that a few months earlier, the majority of California voters here rejected a clean energy ballot measure.
That’s right. Elected officialdom might be willing to take major green steps. But six months ago, when Californians got to speak up in the ballot booth, ordinary people said no.
It is important that we study this defeat — and pull out the lessons going forward. The idea for Prop 87 was brilliant in its simplicity: California would start taxing the oil and gas that we extract from our soil and shores. And those dollars would go into a huge, “clean-energy” research and technology fund.
Many states and nations have similar excise taxes. But California would have been alone in dedicating the revenues to inventing alternatives to carbon-based energy sources. Had it passed, money from oil would have been used to find a replacement for oil.
It was a brilliant idea. And at first, the measure was polling off the charts. Silicon Valley and Hollywood put $40 million on the table to ensure the measure passed. Al Gore and Bill Clinton campaigned for it. Victory was certain.
The Polluters Will Organize Everyone We Exclude
But in the end, Californians voted the measure down. Why? Because big oil convinced ordinary Californians that the price tag for them would be too high for them to bear.
The oil and gas industry warned that the tax would be passed along to consumers -pushing gas and home fuel costs through the roof and hurting the poorest Californians.
It was a predictable line of attack. It was also a false argument. Our local oil and gas prices are fundamentally set by the huge, global energy market. A teeny local excise tax in one state, in one country, would have had a miniscule or negligible impact on California consumers.
And to the contrary, the benefits of a shift to cleaner energy would have helped the poorest in the state — significantly improving both their health and their wealth.
For one thing, disproportionate numbers of low-income people live near oil refineries and other sources of dirty-energy pollution. As a result, they suffer from higher rates of cancer, asthma and other illnesses. Largely uninsured, they then pay through the nose for inferior medical care.
In other words, the dirty energy economy is literally killing poor people. A switch to cleaner energy could save untold lives.
Beyond that, a clean-energy economy actually is more labor intensive — meaning, it creates more jobs. After all, somebody has to install and maintain all those solar panels, build all the wind farms, construct the wave farms, weatherize those millions of homes and office buildings.
Not Making Eco-Populist Arguments Hurt Us
So there was a strong, eco-populist argument to be made for Prop 87. Switching to clean energy would have cost individual Californians little — but given working people improved health and better jobs.
But the campaign, led by the eco-elite, did not make these arguments with any force. Instead, Prop 87 commercials yammered on about “energy independence” — which polling firms said was the best message.
Maybe so. But in some demographics, people needed that message to be bolstered by some reassurance on the kitchen table issues. And it never was.
Seeing the obvious opening, the polluters pounced. Big oil ran full-page ads in practically every African-American newspaper in the state. The ads showed a Black mom looking aghast at fuel prices while she tried to fill up her car. An NAACP official vocally opposed the measure, fearing economic damage to her constituency.
And the scare tactics didn’t alarm only black Californians. Across the state, the initially sky-high poll numbers for the initiative proved surprisingly fragile. The support for the measure was completely hollow.
And in the end, the biggest clean-energy ballot measure in the country went down to defeat – in California!
The Eco-Elite Cannot Win By Itself
The defeat of Prop 87 should sound a clear warning for all of us in the effort to birth a green, post-carbon economy. The eco-elite cannot win major change alone, not even in the golden state.
To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent people.
We must make it plain to the country that we envision a clean-energy future in which everyone has a place — and a stake.
One way to do that is to speak to the economic and health opportunities that “ecological” solutions will also provide. Another way is to always show the many, many people of color and working-class Americans who are actively engaged in environmental struggles. Fortunately, the country has an abundance of such heroes or she-roes.
But if nearly every special “green” issue excludes them, we are essentially handing millions and millions of people over to the polluters.
We are essentially saying to big oil: “Please organize all of these people against everything green. Thanks!”
The nation has already passed a certain tipping point in eco-consciousness. But we should never underestimate the danger of a major backlash.
We can easily head one off, just by making sure that “green” includes all colors.