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"Priorities for a Healthy Future" -- How Not to Convince the Public
Alex Steffen, 11 Jan 05

The major coalition of Washington State environmental groups has announced its 2005 legislative agenda, and it's worth taking a look at, for reasons both heartening and discouraging.

Two bright green priorities made the cut -- adopting California's auto emissions standards, and mandating that all state buildings meet the LEED silver standard. These are good, solid initiatives. Nor can one really complain about the other two priorities, cleaning up local waterways and banning toxic flame retardants. Nothing radical here, but solid legislative wins, if the votes line up.

But -- and here my on-going frustration with the timidity of the region's imagination will make itself clear -- this is a moderately well-packaged piece of wonkery, not a new vision for a state with some of the strongest environmental values in the U.S.

I could deconstruct the coalition's messaging here, and describe how it's a great example of environmentalists once again describing the steak rather than selling the sizzle, but there's a larger problem here.

Enviros just got their asses handed to them, to be blunt. Environmental groups put it all on the line in the 2004 election, and lost. The environmental movement is in collapse. Anti-environmental groups are winning ground in the public debate, the popular imagination and the halls of government. The gap between our practices and our potential continues to widen, while environmental problems worsen. If there were ever a time for a bold counter-attack, this is it.

That will take discarding business-as-usual approaches.

Start building a new type of movement.. Start innovating, embracing new organizational and funding models (here, for example, is a perfect opportunity to create a statewide advocacy network). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you need to go read Movement as Network.

Use the tools available Recognize that all campaigns today are first and foremost media campaigns, but that the nature of the media has changed. This site doesn't even have a blog attached. W'up with that?

Reframe the debate on environmental issues. The coalition's website pictures trees, mountains and kayakers. The language includes such inspiring goals as "Enhancing authority to control on-site septic systems." Nowhere on the site can we find anything like a vision for how life will change for Jane Q. Public if the coalition actually wins. The framing here is, to be frank, terrible.

Be bold. Ask for you want. Part of the problem is the timidity of the goals. I care deeply about the environment in this region, but it'd be pretty tough to get me out of bed to fight for enhanced on-site septic system authority. Offer a real alternative, here, folks, a better vision, and a set of solutions commensurate with the scope of the problems. Describe to me a Washington which is an engine of prosperity, full of good jobs, healthy living, livable communities and technological optimism -- all because it has embraced bright green standards and made itself an international leader in creating tomorrow's solutions today. Raise a flag worth fighting for: set some real goals, goals of international note, and then use those goals to reframe the debate around Washington's future. Emphasize how those who disagree with those goals are sacrificing our economic vitality, making us less safe, endangering our kids health, killing jobs and wrecking communities.

Of course, what's true in Washington is true for the environmental movement pretty much everywhere. There's a cultural moment unfolding, with more and more people seeing green lifestyles as hip, with green technologies outcompeting their dirty rivals, with sustainable cities and green buildings all the rage and with more and more tools offering environmental advocates the ability to actually take better visions directly to the people... and yet, out on the forefront, environmentalists are nowhere to be seen.

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As I understand it, this is a collaboration aimed at increasing political leverage. The primary audience is legislators and decision-makers. Is it a public outreach and advocacy effort or a political partnership? Are these two necessarily exclusive?

Your comments remind me of a favorite Goethe quote, which was also a favorite of David Brower: "whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it"

Lastly, on framing... One refreshing aspect of the legislative priorities is that they seem to concentrate on people, on-site septic systems aside. These issues are focused on human health and quality of life. I don't believe that the photos of trees, mountains and kayaks on the homepage are emblematic of the priorities.

Posted by: Dave on 11 Jan 05

I've gone to one of the meetings by the coalition of Washington State environmental groups which there was a meeting about transportation issues. Officials from the political sphere (city, county and state). Mostly officials were complaining about lack of money but they did point out how things were improving: light rail and the monorail have passed on initiatives.

But I do agree there isn't enough leadership to take it to the public. There needs to be more advocacy and empowerment of the public. Showing how the individual can make a difference. Environmentalist need to show them there is a better way.

Posted by: JohnF on 11 Jan 05

Without a doubt.....Enviro's are cowered and assume the right response is to be reasonable and low key. When the times require attack and fearlessness, we instead have funding crisis and unemployment. Here in Washington....the Governor Elect seems to be following the centrist Dmocratic model of "advanced middling". Whoeee!!

Alex's point of boldness requires a regional/international agenda of a bright green future. Japan has a "world sustainability fair" commencing in March?? with Koizumi leading the way in their media appeals..."traditional life with new bio-mimicing village forms". Thats kinda a different agenda....than the one Alex points out.

Posted by: davidya kasperzyk on 11 Jan 05

Alex, you are right on the money. Words and word images have a power the environmental movement has not used to capacity. I, too, see the enviros as having lost big-time in the last election, not only because Bush won, but because the environment figured no where in any of the debates.
Reframing is part of the strategy. I think another part is using marketing ideas that mainstream corporate America uses to sell consumerism. Environmental ideas need to be sold to those who continue to think it has no relevance to their lives -- and frankly those are the people that need to be reached. The enviro movement spends too much time preaching to the choir.
I loved your idea about emphasizing how those who disagreed with the environmental goals of the Washington group are "sacrificing our economic vitality, making us less safe, endangering our kids health, killing jobs and wrecking communities."
What is the next step for enviro groups in reframing the debate? What can I do as one person to help move that idea along?

Posted by: Patricia on 11 Jan 05

Also: Be Pragmatic. Opportunism is the language of free enterprise. In order to convince, you have to point out the advantages of a change in policy. What will be gained if we go environmental? And what are the consequences if we won't?

Posted by: Maurits on 12 Jan 05

Having just finished reading Ben Bova's latest novel, "Powersat", and thinking about the contrast with Crichton's "State of Fear", I think I see where our problem lies (though I also see a lot of truth in wintermane's #12!). Environmentalism has been too closely associated with negativity - we need positive messages so that people see opportunities opening up, not closing off. Telling everybody they have to "contract" and limit what they do, drive smaller cars, etc. may have some truth, but it's not what anybody wants to hear.

But the message in Bova's "Powersat" is both pro-environment and pro-growth: energy independence for the US and any other nation doesn't have to mean "contracting", it can mean finding new sources of energy, and they do exist if we put our minds and efforts to it. Government help with guaranteed loans, guaranteed markets, etc. would be great. Government-sponsored R&D directed at real solutions could make a huge difference. But harnessing private enterprise and ingenuity is the only way such an energy transition will really succeed.

And solving the energy problem is key to essentially all the environmental issues of today. Let's focus on "energy independence" through new energy sources. Don't think solving the world's problems is too ambitious!

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 12 Jan 05

All these points are well made and there really is not much to disagree with in what you say. In fact, I agree with where you are going here, Alex, as you know. I also know that all of this is written from an honest desire to inspire improvement.

I do think that it is important to acknowledge, however, how extremely important this coming together of Washington environmental groups really is. For what it signifies is a growing realization that unified messages are the keys to political wins. Until these groups came together, elected officials in Olympia were often confused about exactly what it was that the environmental community was asking them to do. They were confused about how their votes in the legislature would be evaluated by the broader environmental community. That is changing now due to the courage and hard work of a dedicated group of individuals who were willing to set aside immediate organizational considerations for the sake of building political consensus and political capital.

This coming together of priorities is important and it may well be the first steps towards some of the things that you are talking about in this post. Every great mission has its first few steps, and while I think that you are right on in some of your critiques here, I also think it is important to also acknowledge that the direction is a good one and that it is to be encouraged.

Posted by: Gideon Rosenblatt on 12 Jan 05

Ruling class America is just not much into personal sacrifice. No amount of appealing to that will help. And today's problems seem so abstract: "what peak oil are you talking about. My tank is so full".

The imagery of the river in Ohio burning was so powerful a means of inspiring a generation of students and leaders to take action. Even Nixon found himself compeled to sign the major environmental acts (the ones BushCo is now working so hard to gut), lest he lose popularity before the election. Can anyone name a well known image that captures the need for change? A smoking SUV does not do it. The alternative is to appeal to greed and to the basic instinct to protect this generation of children. Those are the only hope for inspiring local as well as national action.

Posted by: John Laumer on 12 Jan 05

Patricia and several others have referred to the framing problem that enviros (like myself) have. Sierra Club Magazine had an interesting interview with George Lakoff ( about that very topic. One point made in that article holds the crux of our problem - a simple issue of how most people view their place in the world. Specifically, God above Man, Man above Nature. As long as we believe, even subliminally, that order of authority is as it should be, our basic attitude and actions on nature will NOT CHANGE. We must find frames which replace the order of authority, which clearly convey that destroying nature is the same as defiling God. There could be many frames that accomplish this, but personally I believe the fewer, the better, and the words must be selected carefully. For example, use the word 'sacred' as an adjective in front of everything that we want to protect, such as 'sacred ocean'. Sacred is a notion that crosses race, religion, and country. It has legal appeal; many times Native Americans have invoked it to protect their lands from all kinds of intrusion. Would you knowningly abuse something sacred, even if it wasn't sacred to you? No! You would treat it with respect. An example of a poor choice for framing words would be 'gift from God'. If it's a gift, then it's ours to do with what we want, right?

To answer Patricia's question, the next step is to get the enviro's and in particular their respective national enviro-organizations to start figuring out the right frame now. It will take many years to alter the order of authority mindset, even with perfect execution of the plan.

Posted by: Erik Ehlert on 12 Jan 05

When trying to avoid a disaster one goes to those that warn about them. When IN a disaster one goes to the guy with the gun.

In this case alot of people frankly thought we always had zilch chance of avoiding this outcome. We always knew we were destined for interesting times. There were many many ways interesting times could come about. We are in fact happy that now we know when and roughly how. We can now get to work on building for this future.

Posted by: wintermane on 13 Jan 05

The comment about using the right language and then suggesting putting "sacred" in front of everything we want to save reminded me of an article by David James Duncan in the Winter 1998 issue of Orion titled "Natives". He wrote, "It's a prickly topic, spirituality. Sloppy or pendantical talk about God is obnoxious and dangerous, and those who parade such talk have knocked the religion clean out of a lot of us. but reverence for life is not religion. Reverence for life is the basis of compassion, and of biological health. This is why, much as it may embarass those of us trained in the agnostic sciences, I believe that every life-loving human on earth has an obligation to remain both primitive enough, and reverent enough, to stand up and say to any kind of public: Trees and mountains are holy. Rain and rivers are holy. Salmon are holy. For this reason alone I will fight to keep them alive."

Posted by: Susan Meeker-Lowry on 15 Jan 05



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