These are not easy times for the green movement. In fact, according to the NY Times: "If there was a tougher moment over the last 40 years to be a leader in the American environmental movement, it would be hard to put your finger on it."
Yes, 2011 was rough. Gallup reported that Americans are more willing to let the environment suffer to boost the economy than at any other time since polling on this question began in 1984. According to Yale and George Mason Universities, the number of Americans who are "very worried" about our climate has fallen sharply, to a mere nine percent, despite two decades of warnings that man-made climate change could rob us of everything we hold dear.
We greens aren't exactly racking up Occupy Wall Street numbers, are we?
Anti-environmentalists in Congress know this and are having a field day, gleefully making irrational moves like blocking new standards for incandescent light bulbs that would have cut pollution, saved money and created jobs. Environmental groups and our allies in Congress dutifully protest such boneheaded acts -- but where is the public outrage?
Perhaps the recession alone is to blame for the big green chill and we'll come roaring back when economic conditions improve. But I wouldn't bet on it and neither should you. This could be an "adapt or die" moment, for the environmental movement.
Here are three ideas to consider, as we greens search for our missing mojo:
Fight harder for social and economic sustainability. It's easier to stop an environmentally-harmful project when there are safer, cleaner alternatives that achieve the same social and economic goals. The more we help promote such alternatives, the more likely we'll be to win our own battles.
Take Hydrofracking, for example. Fracking has done enormous damage to people's health, to air and water quality, and to rural landscapes. But the fact that fracking isn't safe may not be enough to stop it. After all, President Obama himself delivered a veritable infomercial for fracking during his State of the Union address, pushing it as a source of cheap, reliable energy.
We can shoot back that fracking only looks cheap because the retail price doesn't take into account the damage fracking does. We can argue that its reliability is also doubtful, now that the Energy Department has cut its estimate of recoverable reserves. But, what if we coupled these arguments with an all-out enviro push for greater investment in scalable alternatives like retrofitting power plants and increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses? Not only can such measures create over a million jobs and generate huge sales of American-made materials, they would also reduce the need for natural gas and increase our chances of winning the fracking wars.
This doesn't mean that we wouldn't go to court to stop fracking from trashing air, water and public health. Riverkeeper and others sued when the Delaware River Basin Commission proposed new fracking rules without first doing any environmental review [the rules were subsequently withdrawn] and we'll sue New York State on fracking if we have to. But it will take more than a successful fight against fracking to put us on the path to long-term energy sustainability, which is where we really need to be, isn't it?
Turbocharge the grass roots. Whether or not you agree with Margaret Mead that local volunteer activists are the only ones who can change the world, you probably would accept the notion that we aren't exactly beating climate change from the top-down. In fact, the only time this Congress even considers environmental issues is when they vote on the latest proposal to gut the Clean Water Act or one of the other resource protection laws that have served this country well for decades. In a hostile climate like this, we'd all do well to remember that professional environmental groups -- no matter how much staff they have or how big their budgets -- don't vote or pay taxes. Volunteer citizen activists do. That gives them leverage the big groups don't have, especially at the local level.
In some very fundamental ways, volunteer activists and professional environmental groups need one another to get anything meaningful accomplished. Riverkeeper complained for years about failing sewage infrastructure and increasing bacteria levels in the Hudson, but investment in water treatment systems just kept falling. Now that there are nearly a dozen volunteer groups out taking water quality samples on the Hudson and lobbying their local officials, investment in water treatment facilities is finally back on the public agenda in a growing number of river communities.
Share leadership with the next generation. Fifty may be the new 40, but how gray can the movement get before it blows any real chance to renew organizational leadership? And, more immediately: At 50 and up, do we really understand what it will take to rebuild membership in the Occupy era?
So, fellow non-profit leaders: What are you doing to bridge the gap? Have you begged, borrowed or stolen the resources you need to hire young environmentalists? When you do, are you finding leadership roles for them as soon as they're ready for it? We're not going to reverse those plummeting poll numbers any other way.
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Environmentalists were the original "99%." We can get back to that kind of popular support, by promoting social and economic recovery, empowering local activists and passing the torch to the generation whose future is most at stake. Of course, given the enormity of the environmental challenges ahead, we'd better start soon.