It’s that time of year again on college campuses: final exams have given way to Frisbee on the quad, boxes are packed, and every telephone pole bears a bright yellow poster that says, “Summer Jobs with the Campaign to Save the Environment!”
Many a student has torn off that little yellow phone number, with its tantalizing promise of virtuous and exciting employment. Should students pursue the job, they’ll find themselves quickly swept into a year-round operation — an industry, almost — of canvassers fanning out across well-to-do liberal neighborhoods and upscale pedestrian malls across America. This army, manned by divisions from Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Public Interest Research Group, and others*, is burning shoe leather looking, searching, hoping for that next elusive eco-minded citizen to enlist in the movement.
When student canvassers find such a person, they pull out glossy materials detailing one environmental problem or another (focus-grouped to find the issues most worrisome to the targeted, wealthy audience), express the urgency of the situation, and — drumroll, please — drop the big “ask”: a check, monthly if possible.
But what if a listener got so riled up by the canvasser’s description of climate change, deforestation, or urban sprawl that he or she wanted to get active — lobby! demonstrate! organize! — rather than give money? This person might be a great public speaker, a natural organizer, or a talented artist who could contribute more value to the movement with a week of volunteering than with annual membership dues. The hastily trained canvassers would probably suggest checking out a group’s website and signing up for emails, but they’re not really sure — all they’ve been taught to do is ask for money.
For decades, environmentalism has been suffering the ill effects of atrophying from a social movement into a line-up of mailing-list-driven interest groups. It certainly isn’t for lack of knocking on doors — but it’s what comes after the knock that counts. When civil-rights organizers went through the Deep South to register black voters in the early 1960s, they didn’t ask for donations to send to national headquarters. They talked, listened, pulled together meetings, and formulated plans for community action. When the national environmental groups put a real person face to face with a fellow citizen — giving the issue the kind of exposure some advertisers pay millions for — they just ask for money. Because they’re trying to meet shortsighted fundraising goals, they waste the opportunity to truly engage people.
In a society that needs active citizens, every person that national environmental groups ask for money is one more person who hasn’t been asked to become active in a more meaningful way. Instead, they receive the contradictory messages that the environment is in great danger, that we must act, and that the best way to avert this catastrophe is to write a $15 check — and maybe change some light bulbs.
The same line appears in fundraising appeals in the mail. It’s not hard to see how people might become disillusioned with the movement. They might stop contributing. They might lose hope that we can in fact make progress. They might not be surprised when the media reports the “death of environmentalism.”
It doesn’t make any sense — strategically or tactically for the movement, and psychologically for those being asked — to respond to a threat like climate change by writing a check. Everyone knows at some level that our society’s institutions need to respond to climate change, and it only makes intuitive sense to be asked to help make that happen. It’s practically an insult to ask people to do anything less.
When you factor in the expense of running canvassing operations, mailing out fundraising appeals, and sending out email alerts, the cost to the movement of asking for an annual check rather than time and energy — and commitment and passion and love and rage — turns out to be even greater. To top it off, each summer these operations churn out thousands of young people who pour their hearts into canvassing and walk away with the feeling that the movement is nothing but a soulless fundraising machine.
In recent years, environmental groups have tried to follow the organizing and fundraising successes of MoveOn.org with email “action alert” lists. But they’ve missed the key lesson from that group’s success. What MoveOn.org has figured out — in contrast to D.C.-based interest groups — is that even in 21st century America, when people are asked to do more, to take action and express outrage commensurate with the problems we all see in our world, even the busiest respond enthusiastically. This is what the national environmental movement needs to relearn.
Every environmental organization sending canvassers to knock on doors this summer and sending emails asking for support should be talking to people about how we can really protect the environment — not by writing a check or changing a light bulb. They should be asking people to get active in their own communities, and showing them how. They should create opportunities for citizens to contribute their time and talents to efforts that will in fact make change. That would truly be a Campaign to Save the Environment.
* [Correction, 02 Jun 2006: This article originally listed Clean Water Action among groups involved with the Campaign to Save the Environment. In fact, Clean Water Action is not affiliated with that campaign.]