If the U.S. environmental movement was unwise enough to ask me my advice, I could summarize it in two words: Go local.

At the moment, several things stand in the way of environmentalism coalescing as a coherent, effective national movement.First off, Republicans are in control of all three branches of the federal government and much of the national media, so national work isn’t going to get anywhere for a while — local work is as much a necessity as anything.  

Second, any reasonable national environmental policy will involve a move away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and renewable energy.  Such a move will threaten the livelihood of many working class folks in swing states who work in manufacturing, the automobile industry, mining, etc.  Much can be done to reduce or meliorate their dislocation and put them to work, but for the foreseeable future they are likely to view national candidates or organizations making big environmental promises with suspicion.

Third, the environmental problems that people connect to are largely regional.  When people say they care about “the economy,” they connect that to their own pocketbooks. When they talk about “the environment,” they don’t connect it to their own quality of life.  Some areas suffer from mining runoff, some from agricultural runoff, some from power plant emissions, some from automobile emissions, some from loss of wetlands, some from loss of open space, some from water shortages, etc. etc.  When the e-word comes up, we need people to think about the issues facing their own families and communities, rather than conjuring up a mental image of latte-sipping coastal elites who worry more about spotted owls than human beings.  It’s difficult for a national candidate or organization to push this mental shift.

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There’s all this talk among the chattering classes about how to relate to red staters — religious people or social conservatives or hunters and anglers or whatever — to get them on our side.  Let’s face it:  This kind of talk is condescending.  It sounds like we’re discussing a group of mentally challenged children.  “Maybe if we use small words and bright, shiny objects and they’ll vote our way!”  It doesn’t take much to see through this.  

It will never be enough to simply mention religion more (“I hear they like God!”), or talk about how mercury harms fetuses (“I hear they like fetuses!”), or just ape the key words from their concerns.  We’ll feel stupid and they’ll feel condescended to.  As Shalini argues in this comment, the reason social groups work well together has to do with shared values, a shared cultural perspective, shared slang, shared entertainment choices, shared history, and such. The people involved have to understand and like one another.  That can’t be faked.

People are marshaled to action by members of their own community — their own kind, to put it bluntly.  There’s no point in bludgeoning a rural Kansan over the head with statistics trying to drum up panic over global warming or the demise of the tufted mullet.  A rural Kansan might, however, be persuaded that massive agri-business is fouling the county’s air and water, by other rural Kansans who share his or her economic concerns, values, and cultural perspective. Humans are parochial, territorial creatures.

(Some will no doubt find this offensive, but let’s face it, do us liberal elites care about the environment because of our intrinsic humanity and virtue, or because we were exposed to these concerns by people we knew and connected with?)

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People who care about the environment live, contrary to stereotype, all over, not just in California.  They live in red states.  They go to church, and hunt.  They read this website.  It’s time for all of them to run for local boards and city councils, start local land trusts or recycling organizations, get some friends together and just start doing something.

The national environmental movement has been tagged with a lefty cultural profile and has pushed for lefty policies.  This unnecessarily boxes it in.  People need to be able to fight for the environment without signing on to that stuff.  They need to know that they can fight for the environment and still hold traditional values, still work with businesses instead of suing or trying to regulate them, still drive a pick-up and hunt. Let a thousand strategies bloom.

The question for big national environmental organizations (or, ahem, national environmental media), is how to nurture and accelerate this process.  I don’t have an easy answer, but it seems to me it involves more outreach and funneling of resources to small local organizations.  More knowledge sharing, so every little local club isn’t reinventing the wheel.  Less of a top down, hierarchical structure — with its attendant ego problems and turf battles — and more decentralized, loosely-linked cells composed of locals working with locals.

This will mean lowering the profile of the national movement and raising the profile of indigenous local movements.  It may mean fewer attention-grabbing national campaigns, and abandoning for the time being international agreements like Kyoto.  I understand that for a big enviro organization, getting exposure is nice, and helps funding.  And I understand that using the national media effectively is an important part of drawing attention to issues.  And I know that some problems really do demand federal solutions.

But we’re trying to lower barriers to entry and build an army.  We’ve got to stop being reactive.  We can’t always be suing and protesting and condemning and trying to stop things.  We need to start some things, get people involved in positive projects that pay off in the short term, in their own communities, with their own neighbors.   I believe “grass roots” is the term people use.  Now’s the time to water them.

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