It’s 2018 and what the environmental movement needs now more than ever is resilience.
As we have seen from across the political spectrum, it’s time to learn a lesson from our opponents and stop playing the moral upper hand. It may make us feel like what we are doing is right, but it doesn’t win the battle.
Too often people who are inclined to care about the environment back down because they encounter opposition and resistance. Quite likely, it is something they didn’t see coming. For a person who has discovered a reason to be concerned about the environment, whether it be from a news story, an experience in nature, their education, or the horrific images that expose the reality of the human impact on the environment, it may come as a shock that not only do people not share their concern, but people may actually scorn them for showing that concern. Attacking people who care about the world is dirty business, but it is very effective at eliminating those voices from the conversation. It’s effective and it is a strategy that is advocated by the opposition to the environmental movement. Those who are newly initiated to environmental concern are likely surprised when they collide with that brick wall of opposition. It often manifests itself as an attack. It is designed to beat you down.
It’s nothing new. Just the other day, Trump played the tired old, ‘hey it’s cold somewhere so climate change is false card,’ but he did it in a way that makes a mockery of people who know that climate change is a very real threat to our way of life. It’s a line that was popularized when Senator Inhofe attempted the same derision by bringing a snowball into the Senate chamber. And it is a useful approach because it galvanizes their base. Although, people who understand science may scoff at the ineptitude, a large portion of our population, the climate deniers, just had a grand laugh at the expense of people who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place. They get to walk away thinking that the President really stuck it to us.
Attempting to make a mockery of people who have something to say about the environment is not new. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the books. First, you dehumanize proponents of the environment by calling them treehuggers or something similar, and then you pit them against the sacred cow of the west, capitalism, by suggesting that enviros all want to take away your hard-earned luxuries. Early in the democratization of climate change knowledge, we saw this happen with Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. The opposition focused on the fact that he lived in a big house and flew in airplanes a lot. So, clearly, they insinuated, the science is false. He’s a false prophet.
More recently we’ve seen it with attacks on the more noteworthy of environmental activists, such as Leonardo DiCaprio.
In my first year as an environmental science professor, I concluded my course as I always do, with an open q-and-a forum. A student in the back, one clearly opposed ideologically to most of what the course had covered, asked me in front of the group what kind of car I drove. These were pre-Tesla times, so presumably if I didn’t say Prius, he would be free to discount a semester’s worth of science. His triumph when I answered his question was that he felt he had gained the upper hand, compromised my authority and won over those students who were also predisposed to an anti-environment attitude. The problem, though, is that it did not discount any of the science.
And I’ve never really liked Priuses for a variety of reasons. Also I am a vehicle enthusiast who chooses my cars wisely, based on their suitability for backroads exploration, long-haul roadtrips, and all around utilitarian functionality. Not everyone is a commuter.
Recently an acquaintance confided that he had been chastised at a party for being an environmentalist when he also has a job that requires him to occasionally fly to meetings across the country. Presumably, booking a flight on an airplane precludes ascribing to environmental concern because the environmental impact of air travel is so high. In essence, because the environmental movement is associated with compromising economic development, should you choose to participate in or benefit from the economy, you should also forfeit your right to criticize that economic system or suggest ways that it might be improved. It’s an open invitation for shaming. This is commonly invoked by those who oppose sustainability and environmental responsibility. In these contentious times, we must think twice before pledging to fight for the environment, because it will invite every aspect of our lives to scrutiny. This has worked so well that I have seen discussions about whether or not environmentally oriented scientific societies should discontinue the long-standing tradition of holding national or international annual meetings, in order to save face, and avoid the kind of rabid criticism it draws.
The corollary to this is that if you never profess to have any concern for the environment, you can do whatever you want without repercussions. This is an attitude that the environmental movement needs to reject vehemently and relentlessly, not the least because it disuades people from actually giving a damn.
For one thing, it misses the point. Your air miles or your automobile really say nothing about your overall environmental impact. For example, I could buy carbon offsets to defray the impact of my travels. I may be an auto enthusiast who is also a minimalist and lives in a very small house with negligible energy draw. We cannot succumb to the all-or-nothing rut they want to drive us into and we certainly don’t need to make compromises to our own lives in order to prove that our advocacy for the environment is justified. We have more than enough data to shows that it is. Perhaps the overall benefit to society of a scientist flying to his field sites in the arctic outweighs the overall carbon footprint of his travels, especially in light of the fact that we regularly burn carbon to do things like heat rooms that aren’t occupied in the McMansions of suburbia and ride motorcycles back and forth over sand dunes.
This shaming is deeply-rooted in environment issues overall. In the absence of any sort of progressive or cohesive policy to better our environmental impact, the burden of environmental stewardship has been placed not on the powerful social structure, but on the consumer. At first the environmental movement embraces this, saying that every little bit counts. Change your lightbulbs, ride the bus, turn off the lights, carpool, buy organic. Instead of making fundamental policy changes, we offer environmentally friendly alternatives to consumers, generally at a premium. This helps to perpetuate the notion that to address environmental issues will cost us a lot and hurt our economy, and that it is the right of the wealthy to choose to be environmentally responsible. By creating a situation in which the poor have no choice but to wish they had enough money to be green, it’s easy to sell the entire movement as ‘elitist.’ Little things add up, but policy changes are our only real hope. To get there, we need to change minds and win arguments, even if we despise the notion of arguing.
We need to fight against this relentlessly. We need to reject the attempt to place the burden on us for either understanding science or being concerned about the future. And to do that, we need to be familiar with the arguments and talking points of the opposition, and be able to stand our ground against their attacks. They have no trouble ridiculing climate scientists, but people who understand climate change do not tend to publicly ridicule those who don’t. While I don’t think we should stoop to the level of treating people badly, I do think that we need to embrace a resilience strategy as part of environmental literacy. That strategy needs to include emotional resilience to withstand demeaning attacks without shamefully backing down. It needs to include a well-rounded knowledge base that will enable those who care to stare down the misinformation. And we need an approach that incorporates reconciliatory debate in order to ideologically disarm opponents.
In my years of experience working with environmental issues, I think it is safe to say that those who are drawn to environmental advocacy are not the most argumentative and pushy people. We need to learn those tactics if we are going to get anywhere.
The state of the environment tells us that it is time to relentlessly pursue our future, a future that is the best for us and the best for our children. That includes environmental stewardship and, as it turns out, we are going to have to fight for it.
So, start today. Start by becoming an expert on an issue that matters, like climate or biodiversity. Don’t fall into the malaise of only seeing the bad news. Do your research, then ask yourself the hard questions. And find the answers. Then talk to people, and when they ask a question you can’t answer, get back to the books. Talk to people who are also concerned and be a part of their tribe. Talk to people who couldn’t give a damn. Find out why. Keep digging, keep working, and be sure to just keep talking. You can change the lightbulbs all you want. Changing peoples’ minds is the biggest challenge of all, and potentially the most rewarding.