Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ho hum. Another day, another frightening sign of global warming.

I'm a little scared these really will become routine.

I recently got around to reading "The Death of Environmentalism," (PDF) two years late.

The problem it lays out is in some ways simple, in others totally maddening. The fact is that although on the whole the media have been pretty good on the subject of global warming for a decade or so, the mainstream environmental movement has utterly failed to impress upon the public the seriousness of the issue.

Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming.

We have strikingly little to show for it.

From the battles over higher fuel efficiency for cars and trucks to the attempts to reduce carbon emissions through international treaties, environmental groups repeatedly have tried and failed to win national legislation that would reduce the threat of global warming. As a result, people in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than we were one and a half decades ago.


As the authors point out, environmental ideas enjoy wide support, but that support is very, very shallow--most people rank "the environment" low on the list of factors motivating their votes. In large part that's because, as the authors also point out, environmentalism has been complicit in reifying "the environment" as a separate entity.

Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed “thing” – “the environment” – than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”


That means the average American can consider "the environment" someone else's problem, not something he or she is inherently part of and responsible for.

Kevin Phillips recently argued in Harper’s Magazine that the decline of liberalism began because “liberal intellectuals and policy makers had become too sure of themselves, so lazy and complacent that they failed to pay attention to people who didn’t share their opinions.”

Environmentalists find themselves in the same place today. We are so certain about what the problem is, and so committed to their legislative solutions, that we behave as though all we need is to tell the literal truth in order to pass our policies.

Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.


As an aside: the Endangered Species Act was originally promoted partly through reference to Noah's ark.


Above all else, we need to take a hard look at the institutions the movement has built over the last 30 years. Are existing environmental institutions up to the task of imagining the post-global warming world? Or do we now need a set of new institutions founded around a more expansive vision and set of values?

If for example, environmentalists don’t consider the high cost of health care, R&D tax credits, and the overall competitiveness of the American auto industry to be “environmental issues,” then who will think creatively about a proposal that works for industry, workers, communities and the environment? If framing proposals around narrow technical solutions is an ingrained habit of the environmental movement, then who will craft proposals framed around vision and values?


I recognize I've quoted a lot here. (I recommend you read the rest, it's very good.) But I wanted to quote that much in order to continue a question Solomon raised a few days ago: what are the core values around which we can build an environmental movement, an economic movement, any kind of multi-issue progressive politics?

Solomon argued then for a core value of justice, which I said would rub American racism the wrong way. That may be true, but ignoring a value because it bothers racists is dumb--I was wrong about that. One figures out how to make one's pitch on the basis of values, not the other way around.

In the case of environmentalism I would argue that the core value is "wisdom," the ability to defer short-term benefits for long-term gains, and especially to avoid long-term catastrophe. Also, to spend public money today in a way that returns the most for the most people in the future.

Unfortunately, I don't think that really appeals to many people. It especially doesn't work in a two-year election cycle. There are other arguments that could be made--having to do with Adam's responsibility as steward of the Earth, for example--but those don't appeal to me.

In Congress, one important step will be what Digby calls "learning to lose well," that is, losing in a way that at least makes it clear what your principles are, and hopefully makes it clear what the other guy's are (in your terms, in the best possible scenario). You put yourself on record on bills of perhaps only symbolic importance, and you do it over and over until it's clear you mean it. Losses of this kind have to be on things the Democrats can vote for and hardly any Republicans can. I would love to see a nonbinding Sense of Congress motion declaring global warming to be an issue of vital importance to national security, for example. Sadly, I don't think there are enough environmentalist Democrats (let alone wise ones) for that to work right now.

This is now officially rambling, so I'll cut it off and ask: any ideas? How do you sell Americans on wisdom when a big part of our national mythos is about bravado?


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2 Comments:

  • At 11:20 PM, Anonymous emma.g said…

    I realize I'm commenting long after you've posted, but I just read the article and found another excerpt that is highly relevant:

    "liberals...are, at their core, children of the enlightenment who believe that they arrived at their identity and politics through a rational and considered process. They expect others in politics should do the same and are constantly surprised and disappointed when they don’t."

    People don't consider the short or long-term effects of their actions, whether those actions are smoking, driving recklessly, recklessly driving fuel-guzzling SUVs, or voting for people like Tom DeLay. And the less immediate and personal the effects will be, the less we will consider them (using myself as a case study). So, while you can complain about people not being rational, I think a "come on people, let's be more rational" approach will have about the same effect as those abstinence campaigns our family values friends are pushing.

     
  • At 12:50 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    But that's why we use public policy, to force people to wear their seat belts, for example. I mean, we can't just decide people are going to be irrational and accept it. I know perfectly well we're not rational--in fact, that's what I've been arguing all along. It annoys me, yes, but I'm not really surprised by it. I mean, does it really come down to trying to get people to do the smart thing when as a whole, people are dumb? In part. But we haven't been this dumb always. Thirty years ago we approached problems more sensibly, I think. And I'm not talking about trying to argue rationally to people, I'm talking about coming up with a way of talking about global warming that moves them. Because so far nobody gives a shit. But a lot more people wear seatbelts now than they used to.

     

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