Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting environmentalists out of their silos

I wrote this to help an environmentalist friend of mine persuade others to join him in Accountability Now, the group founded by Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald to keep elected officials responsive to citizens, not lobbyists. Evidently there are still a handful of single-issue activists out there wary of sharing causes and diluting their power.

Here's my advice.
  • First, go back and read The Death of Environmentalism by Shellenberger and Nordhaus from 2005. Essential!
  • The world has changed, and so should an environmental advocacy approach devised in the early 1970s. What we’re doing now isn't working. Shellenberger:

That approach is failing for two reasons: First, the values, mindsets, frames of reference, and belief systems Americans use to make sense of the world have changed dramatically over the last 12 years, but the strategies of the environmental movement have not. Second, we're faced with a set of massive ecological challenges -- global warming, global habitat destruction, global species destruction, deterioration of the world's oceans, the ozone hole -- that are fundamentally different from the kind of problems the environmental movement was constructed 30 years ago to address. On every one of these emerging issues, our national environmental movement has been strikingly ineffectual.

  • Environmentalists, of all people, should see that the world is interconnected – as a “system in which global economic trends, corruption, ideology and values, political participation, etc. are all related to the fundamental goal of a just and sustainable society.” Complex problems resist small-bore strategies. American Prospect:

“The Death of Environmentalism” was less a condemnation of the environmental movement than a call to all progressives to think more like environmentalists -- and for professional environmentalists to think less like Washington lobbyists. The essay's greatest gift was its critique of “policy literalism,” the process by which activists identify a distinct problem, define it as an “environmental” one, seek the proximate cause, propose a solution, and then mobilize their experts, their lobbyists, and their public-relations machines around that solution.

In the most provocative section of their essay, [Shellenberger and Nordhaus] proposed that rather than defining the problem of global warming as “too much carbon in the atmosphere,” the problem should be redefined as:

  • the radical right's control of all three branches of the U.S. government;
  • trade policies that undermine environmental protections;
  • our failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision;
  • overpopulation;
  • the influence of money in American politics;
  • our inability to craft legislative proposals that shape the debate around core American values;
  • poverty; and
  • old assumptions about what the problem is and what it isn't

When each single-issue silo zealously guards their small piece of power and tries to call to action only for that specific piece, several things happen. First of all, the counterpoint is easily cast as "special interests clinging to power." Second, there is absolutely no continuity of message across the groups, and in fact their messages can conflict with one another.

  • Single-issue groups don’t persuade the unconvinced. They tend to focus on issues and policies (a bad Democratic habit) over discussions of broader values, and they are better at lobbying than messaging. Matt Stoller:

Markos and Jerome continue with an overview of the party itself, which to them is a series of atomized constituencies epitomized by the single-issue groups. The critique of the progressive single-issue group infrastructure is specific, and conceptually it's not difficult to grasp. Progressive organizations were built during a time of a natural Democratic majority; therefore their main task was lobbying Congress. These groups are almost completely unequipped to do mass persuasion and organizing in a divided America that is not entirely convinced of basic assumptions, like that government can competently build infrastructure or that civil rights are important. My favorite piece of this section is when Markos and Jerome describe a gathering of progressive leaders doing lame trust-building exercises and demanding fealty to their pet issue. Sure it's a liberal stereotype, but it's also a nice metaphor for the culture of liberal middle management.

  • Single-issue groups can be short-sighted, as when NARAL endorsed Lincoln Chafee over Sheldon Whitehouse in the Rhode Island senate race, citing his excellent pro-choice record. Chafee went on to vote for Bill Frist as Senate Majority Leader and to confirm “reactionary anti-privacy, anti-choice judges” like Janice Brown and the Supreme Court nominees Roberts and Alito. Says Markos:

Until NARAL (and the rest of the single-issue groups) understand that building a movement is more beneficial to their causes than singular devotion to their pet causes, I can't take them seriously. Divided those groups are being picked off, one by one. Trial lawyers, you're next up. United, the Republicans stand. The groups I take seriously? MoveOn, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, the bloggers -- groups that are working to build an effective progressive movement, not a single issue. Because when Democrats regain power, choice, the environment, worker's rights -- the whole gamut -- will be protected.

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