The Soul of Environmentalism


The world is coming together in San Francisco this week for the first-ever U.S.-based celebration of World Environment Day. But what exactly do American environmentalists have to celebrate?

After all, environmentalism in the U.S. faces unprecedented challenges. More than two decades of advocacy about global climate change have left the movement here sidelined as the Kyoto Protocol went into effect -- our country has yet to enact a single policy that reduces the U.S.'s total emissions of heat-trapping gases. And who'd have thought that environmental leaders would be uncorking the nuclear genie as a solution at just the time when worldwide nuclear proliferation was at its highest level ever?

Here at home concerns about security and the economy have driven the environment off the Top 10 list of issues that Americans, unprompted, would name as a top concern. The backlog on cleaning up our country's most toxic sites is growing, and the federal government seeks to exempt its own lands and facilities from any cleanup in the name of national security. Congress is close to approving plans to drill for oil in the sacred wildernesses of Alaska, and the president proposes commandeering old military bases for new oil refineries.

Environmentalists face the paradox of diminishing power and swelling ranks, and they are not unique in this regard. Membership in human rights, pro-choice and environmental organizations has swelled in the last four years -- not because of bold new strategies but because of bold new threats. If the growth in membership is akin to the mobilization of white blood cells in a body facing disease, then progressive movements in the United States may well be facing a sickness unto death. Without new life, new vision and new victories, their members may tire of fighting threats and capitulate to an increasingly powerful conservative agenda.

It's time to look into our souls -- so that is just what nine social and economic policy leaders did last week in an essay entitled, "The Soul of Environmentalism." The essay identifies the challenges we've shared across progressive movements over the last two generations. Most importantly, it show that the ideas and actions we need to win must emerge from the values Americans hold most deeply.

Winning means redefining the issue-specific terrain of environmental and progressive causes to fight the really big fights. Climate change, for example, is about far more than environmental impacts. Policies to radically reduce our use of fossil fuels (the primary driver of global warming) have far-reaching, positive implications for national security, jobs, health care, the economy and trade. Activists around the country have recognized this and are increasingly designing policies that grow our economy and fund schools and health care, all while weaning us from our counter-productive addiction to fossil fuels.

Many of the victories being hatched at the state and local level represent a new form of transformative politics -- politics informed by our values and energized by new alliances. New strength is coming from alliances that enable all the participants to become bigger than their specific causes. But we must commit to such alliances and nurture them in very specific ways.

We already know that environmentalism is in a deep hole with respect to its most cherished causes, and we must develop leadership ready for the long haul. Climate change is just one example of a social, political, economic and technical transformation that will take a half-century to achieve, if we are lucky. Today's leaders, and tomorrow's, must be encouraged to take the long view and to diversify their skills and base of operations to handle whatever curveballs history may throw them.

Although progressive causes are always short on funding, the good news is that they don't need to revamp all of their spending to win. Rather, foundations, donors and large organizations need to act like venture capitalists, investing about 15 percent of present resources in deep-change solutions -- solutions beyond the day-to-day that actually shift the playing field toward the values we embrace.

Overall, the soul of environmentalism shares with the civil rights movement and many others one central characteristic: empathy. Progressives know this and don't need to find new values. Environmental, pro-choice, labor and gay marriage advocates are defined first by their desire to eliminate suffering. This is as great a value as humans hold. Winning means having the courage to elaborate this core belief, build incremental victories, form new, transformative alliances, foster leadership and wrest politics back from the marketplace.

Bob Dylan said in 1965, "He not busy being born is busy dying." Life and death trade places every day. Winning social movements must recognize this and get busy being born again.

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