We Know What We're Against. Now: What Are We For?
One often hears it said — indeed, I’ve said it myself many times — that the environmental movement has become lamentably oppositional. It’s against this power plant, that factory, this energy project, that chemical, this mine or oil well, that trade deal. It’s against driving cars and buying plastic stuff and watering yards and using clothes dryers and all sorts of other stuff ordinary people do all the time. It protests.
This has caused many people to conclude that “environmentalist” is synonymous with “tedious scold.” And I’m not just talking about environmentalism’s enemies (or concern trolls), who want to cast it as anti-progress and anti-human. I’m talking about ordinary people, the vaguely politically aware. It’s what environmentalism has come to mean in popular culture. Watch NBC’s execrable “green week” next time it’s on. Forced to integrate something green into their storylines, TV writers go straight for the idealistic-but-annoying nag. This public image serves environmentalism poorly.
And as a substantive matter, oppositionalism is a woefully insufficient approach to climate change mitigation and/or adaptation. Most of what’s needed to respond to climate change involves building sh*t — new power systems, new transportation systems, new sustainable communities, new models of finance and ownership. If it ever happens, it will be a “third industrial revolution.” You don’t get one of those by stopping things.
Now, as it happens, the stereotype of dour, dark-green oppositionalism is not accurate today, if it ever was. The greens I know, especially the young ones, are more bright green than dark, committed to a high-tech, sustainable economy that produces broadly shared prosperity. “Green jobs!” All that.
For the climate change activist movement, however, it has been difficult to figure out exactly how to act as an affirmative force. Its biggest success has been the grassroots anti-coal insurgency — blocking coal plants. Its next biggest is EPA regulations — more restraints. Its most high-profile fight in the last year has been over blocking the Keystone XL pipeline. Its most treasured policy idea, carbon pricing (either tax or cap-and-trade), is essentially punitive, meant to raise the cost of dirty energy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Despite its bright-green rhetoric, in its actual presence as a political force, the climate movement is still primarily against things.
All of which is just to say that the climate movement could do more to define a positive vision and a positive agenda — and put activist muscle behind them. It needs to figure out how to midwife the new communities, systems, and technologies that can put us on a trajectory toward a future that makes sense. How can a movement that grew out of the “counterculture” become the culture? How can it get stuff created and built?
I liked what 350.org did a few years ago with the 10-10-10 work parties— getting communities together to work on local climate solutions, building social capital. I like the fact that the Sierra Club has launched a Wind Works campaign devoted to protecting the Production Tax Credit and the wind power jobs it supports. These are pro-progress, pro-sustainability campaigns. (I’m sure there are other examples — send them in!)
Being positive is easier said than done, though, for activists and NGOs. Campaigners will tell you that it’s a struggle to break through in the media with positivity; media likes conflict. It’s a struggle to get people impassioned without a villain or an imperiled animal or a scar on the landscape; let’s face it, a lot of activist energy comes from anger. There’s also a psychosocial element: Where blocking something malign can feel like a purely righteous act, achieving progress is often a matter of compromise, tedium, and endless setbacks. It’s all about the “boring of hard boards,” getting and wielding power, forging opportunistic coalitions, and settling for incremental steps that seem woefully inadequate. (Nobody thinks the PTC, for instance, is even close to the ideal support system for wind power.) It can feel draining and disheartening. It’s just more fun to rage against The Man.
But the un-fun stuff is what’s got to get done. The wonk fantasy of tax-it-and-forget-it is not going to happen. Getting support for new energy, transportation, food, water, and urban systems will mean one compromised and suboptimal step after another. It will mean jumping into an increasingly dysfunctional and oligarchic political system and throwing elbows, fighting for subsidies and tax breaks and special deals that fail any possible purity test. And if the cap-and-trade fight demonstrated anything, it’s that lefty activists don’t like to rally behind policies that fail their purity test. (I wonder how they’re enjoying the alternative so far.)
I don’t know what the secret is to rallying a grassroots movement around small, positive steps forward. The right seems to be having great success in rallying a grassroots movement to block every-f’ing-thing, even imaginary things. It’s easier fighting for the status quo — or regression to an imagined status quo past — than it is fighting for change, especially in a political system riddled with veto points and flooded with money. But “less bad” just can’t cut it any more. It’s time to start imagining and building good things.