A little something to take home with you
It is within the capacity of U.S. environmentalists to refocus our energies on a tougher, more realistic climate agenda. We have the necessary resources, skills (in alumni as well as current staff and leadership), political power, and principles of action. The things we lack — a national structure, institutional support services, strategic planning, a dedicated environmentalist core — could be put in place if it were a priority. Cost, it must be emphasized, is not the problem. U.S. environmentalists are spending between $100 and $150 million on climate, according to an unpublished foundation report, more than enough to launch the sort of effort presented here.
The problem is nicely illustrated by comparing this challenge to the effort to shift from petroleum to renewables. Just as it is extremely difficult to replace fossil fuels by developing renewables when energy demand is rising, so it is tough for environmentalists to drop a program that is financially rewarding, familiar, and effective (at least by comparison to the last decade). U.S. environmentalists are proceeding on a self-reinforcing, linear trajectory, just as fossil-fuel extraction companies are.
The environmentalist “market” is dominated by a few major players, employing familiar fundraising and advocacy technologies, competing in three narrow areas (political access, membership support, foundation funding), all of which cut against alternative approaches. Economies of scale have been achieved for our present agenda; indeed, the market is experiencing explosive growth and each additional increment of investment reaps tremendous benefits. To the extent that a pan-environmentalist culture exists, our worldview does not accept the precautionary climate science view. That being said, environmentalists are not oil company executives and our organizations cannot continue much further on our present track — the already significant contradiction between climate science findings and environmentalist solutions will shortly become to large to bridge.
“Demand” for relatively undemanding climate solutions, from Congressional Democrats, the private sector, opinion leaders, and a large percentage of the general public, is high. U.S. environmentalists are heavily invested in our present agenda. Capital and political costs to advance an alternative would be significant and present revenue streams might be reduced.
The problem/solution statements, strategy, and program models developed in the Bright Lines exercise have been informally circulated for more than a year within the ranks of senior environmentalists. Reactions and responses are nearly unanimous on two points:
- there is no dispute with Hansen’s definition;
- the current U.S. climate agenda is inadequate to meet Hansen’s standard.
Most readers also agreed that a Bright Lines type-agenda is unlikely to work, with split opinions on why. Some consider the proposal naive and simplistic, and believe that it would reduce our power and resources without accomplishing anything; we are better off maintaining our present position, pressing the boundaries, and acting on opportunities as they develop. Most readers who agreed with the proposal do not think it is possible for U.S. environmentalists to radically reshape our climate agenda.
The chain of logic followed in this exercise argues that U.S. environmentalists should immediately divest all extraneous program, liquidate our assets, and invest our collective time, energy, and funds in a single, short, coordinated, massive effort that might reshape the American political landscape, rebuild bases of environmentalist power, reclaim climate action leadership, target the true bad guys, exchange limiting sources of income for unencumbered funding, free environmentalists from crippling constraints on expression, demonstrate urgency by dramatic action, and put a functional, global climate solution on the table.
The first view is a matter worth debating. The second view is ironic, given that we are calling on the world to make changes far more radical that any proposed here. It’s also self-fulfilling.
A tightly focused, integrated climate campaign, drawing on a talent pool of experienced environmentalists and other experts, developed by a specialized Bright Lines Center working with a group of environmental organizations and private foundations — dubbed “BASE” for convenience (“basis for abrupt strategic environmentalism”) — is needed. The approach falls well short of the speedy, wholesale reorganization that circumstance demand, but would advance the concept of an institutional-level strategic plan, permit small-scale tests, and create an in-house platform for critical perspectives.
A Bright Lines Center, calling on part-time and occasional consultants, would manage “open source” planning, develop, test, and launch model campaigns, build organizational support, and refine a new climate narrative/packaging. It would function as an in-house “skunk works,” an unconventional R&D model originated at Lockheed-Martin in WW II to quickly come up with an advanced fighter that could deal with the German’s advanced Messerschmitt fighter (similar approaches have been used by Apple Computer and the Pentagon, among others).
The informal network of experienced environmentalists who have been engaged in the Bright Lines planning exercise are prepared to launch and staff a Bright Lines Center, organize working committees of experts, and convene regional gatherings of experienced environmentalists to discuss, amend, and endorse an “open source” strategy. Weekend sessions could be put together (in Boston, New York, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and London, for example) as soon as May. Broader, community-level discussions are invited by these posts on Grist. A talent pool of consultants and potential staff is available and advanced staff and leadership training, built on a Narrative/Diffusion/Amplification curriculum, is being developed. Resources are available, in other words, if there are enough people to take action and funds to launch.
In conclusion, U.S. environmentalists must undertake concerted, national strategic planning by “walking backwards” from the global standard of action or our legitimacy will erode and the world’s last, best opportunity to avert cataclysm will be lost. The Bright Lines open-source proposal offers a means of engaging critical views, framing a broad strategic alternative, and testing new approaches as an adjunct to current efforts and a potential mechanism for managing a transition.
The approach can only be successfully tested if properly resourced and supported, and it will be fairly quickly clear whether the approaches taken can be successful, on three grounds:
- campaigns ought to be self-supporting and cost-effective compared to current program;
- vigorous climate action networks should self-organize, if blunter approaches and appeals to existential thinkers are effective in engaging primed leaders and/or overcoming cognitive barriers, and;
- dramatic shifts should be apparent in bright lines political targets, if theories on bases of power are accurate.