THE BLOG
04/19/2007 02:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Converts and heretics

grist.org

Arnold Schwarzenegger is being offered up as an eco-hero, so naturally some folks in the green movement rush to point out that it's all a big fraud.

Why they do that -- why progressives eat their allies -- I'll never understand.

Let's approach this through a semi-related phenomenon. Several now-notorious climate change skeptics started off lightly flirting with craziness, before descending over time into full-on Inhofian fruitloopitude.

How does that happen? I speculate it goes something like this: When they first flirt with skeptical notions, they receive instant acclaim from a large horde of skeptics and flattering attention from the "balance"-seeking media. They also receive caustic, dismissive criticism from reality partisans. The praise pleases the ego. The criticism sparks resentment.

The human ego will naturally lean into what praises it and away from what hurts it. It's self-reinforcing. Next thing you know, you've been pulled into the warm, wackadoo bosom of the skeptic community, and you feel, like them, part of a besieged band of outlaws.

Schwarzenegger's case shows that the opposite can happen as well. He knew he was not historically and authentically an environmentalist. He worried aloud that he wouldn't be accepted as one: "I'm environmentally conscious, rather than anenvironmentalist. It's just too strong." But he pushed the green angle, passed some historic bills, and in return was easily re-elected in a shower of media praise. He became a green celebrity.

Did he start down the road with pure intentions? Who cares? He can't help being affected by the experience. You can see him lately beginning to take ownership of it, really puzzle out how it fits with his temperament, history, and politics. He's working it into his self-definition, showing other Republicans the path.

He'll never be the visionary leader greens want him to be, but he's an extremely powerful force -- an enormous influence on state, national, even international politics. Isn't it better he feel himself our ally, and that we encourage and embrace that alliance?

It's often said that conservatives seek out converts, while progressives seek out heretics. That's too often true of the green community.

Everyone's supposed to pass all these tests of consistency and commitment before they're allowed to speak out. Gore's got a big house. Arnold's got Hummers. Lester Brown probably pees in the shower. We constantly worry about whether people deserve to speak out about the environment, whether impure spokespeople will tarnish the movement, whether offering people too-easy personal solutions will anesthetize or stupefy them, whether passing imperfect legislation will forever exhaust our political capital.

As I've said before, these are the worries and preoccupations of people accustomed to being losers -- people who don't believe their cause is broadly compelling. I quote myself:

It's time to make the mental adjustment and start behaving like gracious winners rather than resentful losers. That means welcoming and encouraging people's efforts, working with them respectfully, without condescension or suspicion, to find more effective ways to continue down the path of sustainability. We've got to stop assuming, at the outset, that everyone's faking it for the cameras. Nobody's trying to give us a wedgie.

There is one thing -- and I doubt there's more than one -- we can learn from Karl Rove: people love a winner. It's reptile-brain psychology. You want people to be attracted to your cause out of desire and not guilt-ridden obligation? Then like Bill McKibben said:

Don't forget to smile! You are involved in an age-old war, waged against the powerful on behalf of the powerless. You're intellectually engaged, socially connected, and civically involved. You are creating a new future. It's a head-trip. It's meaningful. It's exciting. It's fun.

You are so righteous and so joyous that even the powerful, the wealthy, and the famous are pulled into your orbit. They want to join with you in the calling of a generation. Of course Arnold wants to be one of your tribe! Who wouldn't?

Instead of hectoring or tearing down newcomers, you trust that the cause itself will change them. Everyone has their own path, but sooner or later we're all going to be moving in the same direction: healing our breach with the living world we inhabit, becoming more ingenious, more prosperous, and happier in the process. Be confident.