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The Soul of Environmentalism
Alex Steffen, 26 May 05

Joel Makower is a frequent contributor to WorldChanging's Sustainability Sunday feature:

Forget environmentalism’s “death.” Turns out, the environmental movement is alive and well -- and has got soul.

That’s the message from a provocative paper, published today, in which nine prominent activists, academics, and policy analysts have made bold assertions and given voice to those left out of the “Death of Environmentalism” discussions: people working in the influential sustainability and environmental justice fields, as well as Latinos and African-Americans in general. The paper, titled “The Soul of Environmentalism” (downloadable here [PDF]), was written by Michel Gelobter, the Executive Director of Redefining Progress; Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network; Richard Moore of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice; Peggy Shepard of West Harlem Environmental Action, and others.

Using prose that is variously scholarly and glibly hip, the paper makes the case that the environmental movement is standing squarely on the shoulders of the civil rights movement, using many of the tactics used by activists in the 1960s: boycotts, consumer campaigns, mass mobilizations, litigation, policy advocacy, and moral appeals. And while those techniques had started to run dry by the late 1970s, the civil rights movement was by no means “dead.”

History is repeating itself, contend the authors. Many of those same techniques, adopted by environmentalists, are running out of steam. Indeed, write the authors:

The problems facing environmentalism today are eerily similar to those faced by the Civil Rights Movement two decades ago. Any debate over the death of environmentalism should acknowledge that. Both movements started out as social uprisings that were visionary, and community- and systems-oriented. Both lost popular support as time went by. Both narrowed their advocacy increasingly to legal interventions. Both shifted from winning broad mandates to fighting specific political, regulatory, and legal battles.

As such, “Environmentalism has much to learn from understanding why the civil rights movement made the choices it did and what the consequences were.”

One example: The civil rights and environmental movements both allowed legal action and technical advocacy to dominate their activism and funding. “Whenever a movement spends more energy and money on winning in court than it does on winning in the streets, it speeds its own demise,” they write. Philanthropists -- whose foundations arose from great individual fortunes -- tend to unwittingly co-conspire by emphasizing individual-rights approaches to environmental issues far more than communitarian rights and systemic models of change.

The authors offer a vision of “what winning looks like” by offering “ideas and actions for transformational politics.”

Winning means having ideas that “fight the big fights, raise the value of community, and build from small victories to dominant frames.” Winning also means new actions, like investing in “deep change strategies,” fostering new leadership that transcends boundaries, and building transformative alliances.

Writ large, the soul of environmentalism shares with the Civil Rights Movement and many others one central characteristic: empathy. Empathy is what makes us reach out when we see a wounded bird. It is what calls to us when a child suffers from poverty or asthma. It is how we know our children will miss the snow when the latitudes of climate change have passed us by.

Empathy is also the central component of every point in the short list of big solutions. It is a central component in moving our country away from destructive individualism and toward a regenerative idea of community. It is a big part of what winning means to progressives.

Finally, political empathy is an action, not an emotion. It is expressed in building coalitions, not in writing essays. It means seeking and speaking the truth, not denying one’s troubled ancestry. Empathy is about whom you spend your days talking and walking with. It is how, in Martin Luther King’s words, we reach the Mountaintop.

In the end, many of the beliefs of the “Soul” authors aren’t that far off from their “Death” counterparts. Both papers point up the systemic and fundamental problems facing today's greens. Both describe the environmental movement’s need for new types of alliances and leaders. And both talk about the need to take a broader view than simply the birds and the trees, viewing “the environment” as being as much about people’s needs and rights as it is about “saving the earth.”

But “Soul” goes deeper, probing the movement’s structural racism -- a subject that’s taboo in most of Big Green’s board rooms -- including “the many ways in which the U.S. has reserved open space for the exclusive use of whites.” It makes painfully clear that if environmentalism is to be reborn and flourish, it must connect with a much broader social movement. It’s those raw nerves touched by “The Soul of Environmentalism” that will make this paper a bit uncomfortable for many of us to read.

Which makes it required reading for us all.

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Truly, the future of environmentalism can only be in the embracing of that value by the masses. You can't legislate morality, only resentment. If you want people to recycle and not pollute then environmental respect will have to become a pillar of community.

The moviestars and rockstars were the first celebrities to wave the green banner. Now executives from Ford Motor and General Electric have spoken out. We need to keep doing what we preach and stop preaching and start cheering if we want public compliance to eco-stewardship.

Posted by: Michael Mosher on 26 May 05

Re: capturing soul in the movement, have you seen this 2003 video of Elisabet Sahtouris? Moving, inspiring and encompassing - also a terrific explanation of sustainability, with powerful metaphors to boot.

approx 20 mins viewing time on windows media player, be sure to watch both parts

Posted by: Janelle on 26 May 05

For anyone who's interested in guiding environmentalism towards a broader, more inclusive social movement, the work of Spirit in Action is a shining example. The web site is a bit ooh-wah, but I heard founder Linda Stout speak recently. She's a long-time peace and env justice activist, and is really applying their principles where the rubber meets the road -- bringing people together and doing movement building in a new way.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 26 May 05

Just to provide a bit of a counterpoint:

1. I would not so easily dismiss legal actions. The 1950s case of Brown v. Bd. of Education (separate but equal is inherently unequal) changed significantly the American landscape. See all the wonderful work of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who fought for civil rights not on the streets but in the courts.

2. A disturbing quote from the political blog
“It reminds me of the quandry that Republicans were in over environmental issues in the early 90's. As the pro-business party, Republicans are against regulation of business as a rule. Standing against the enviromental laws being put forward by the Democrats, Republicans were losing the debate because caring about the environment, being a steward of the earth, is a winner. So, Frank Luntz told the Republicans to say that they too were for the environment, that they too were environmentalists. The Democrats snickered, but it worked, and has served to nuetralized that issue ever since. The Democrats said, no you are not. And the Republicans replied, yes I am, I just don't want the government to stifle economic growth through regulation.
Boom. The debate was immediately re-framed over the issue of government intrusion, and Democrats were left holding the bag-- arguing that governmental regulation of the environment doesn't deter capitalism. “

Posted by: JC on 26 May 05



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