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White, Wealthy and Whiny: An Environmental Movement in Need of a Makeover

Some words of advice for a movement that's moving into middle age

An Earth Day display at San Diego City College in 2007.
Image Credit: Johntex/Wikimedia Commons

Now that I’ve gotten your attention with an over-the-top headline, understand that I don’t really buy it. Not completely, anyway.

But millions of Americans do, and because of that, pushback against environmental initiatives is both strong and often devoid of reason.

With an environmental movement whose lifespan can be measured by 45 annual Earth Days (this Wednesday, April 22, is Earth Day 2015), it’s time to ask a question: How can a movement featuring so many smart, high-achieving people talking science-backed common sense for so long on issues that can literally be life-or-death still have such a hard time?

Default response number one, of course, is that on issues such as climate, health, energy and habitat, it’s little enviros versus big money. But that’s too easy.

There’s a statutory limit to the number of things you can blame on the Koch Brothers. And that underdog argument fades away quickly when the Sierra Club has a $60 million fundraising day, courtesy of Michael Bloomberg and others. The “wealthy” meme gets reinforced, and hard feelings toward enviros in the coalfields and hollers of Appalachia get a little harder.

I’ve been either an observer or a participant in things environmental for the last 35 of those 45 years. Here’s some unsolicited advice for a “movement” in middle age to burnish its image and broaden its public standing.

Don’t kid yourself

Progress happens, but it takes years. I’ve been hearing that renewable energy is “just around the corner” since the late 1970s. It’s been at least two decades since I first heard that climate denial was dying out.

Today, of course, wind and solar are finally catching on, but climate denial rules one TV news network, nearly all of talk radio, and key House and Senate committees — and it will be spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire for the next ten months.

Near where I live, the City of Atlanta still sends occasional raw sewage discharges down two rivers, the South and the Chattahoochee, despite the 43-year-old law intended in part to stop such things. But this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to.

A lot of the people I’ve seen get jaded or burned out became that way because the slow progress was hard to recognize. The only problem with counseling extreme patience, of course, is that melting ice caps and vanishing forests and species may not accommodate much patience.

Caucasian conundrum continues in conservation caucus

Can somebody please deal with the white thing? In January 1990, civil rights activists sent a letter to eight major U.S. conservation groups, calling them out on their “isolation” from poor and minority communities. The leaders of those groups responded by acknowledging the problem and vowing to do better.

A quarter century later, Big Green can show modest improvement in its ranks, but almost none at or near the top. (Exception: Rhea Suh, the new Korean-American leader of the Natural Resources Defense Council.).

Learn from others, even if you may not like them

In the 1980s, the National Rifle Association confronted an image issue similar to one that vexes environmentalists. Many Americans viewed NRA members as single-issue maniacs. Their solution was a successful imaging campaign featuring Main Street Americans like little Bryan Hardin. A barrage of NRA ads featured not only adorable towheads with BB guns, but construction workers, schoolteachers, nurses, African-Americans, Latinos, and more.

Today, the NRA is a political juggernaut. If a group that advocates assault rifles and hollow-point ammo (not to mention NRA’s recent foray into anti-environment measures) can paint itself as benign, can it be that hard for enviros?

Advocating for clean and air water shouldn’t make you an unpatriotic job-killing pariah. Let’s work on this.

Don’t be afraid to brag

I’m astonished that, aside from organizations’ fundraising apparatus, there’s little sense of accomplishment for the environmental movement. Environmentalists’ efforts haven’t been flawless, but they’ve been effective and accurate in ways that don’t get enough credit.

Cleaner air, cleaner water, scads of preserved open space, a recovering ozone hole, and countless species either recovering or at least hanging on are gifts to America from enviros, as well as from some widely despised laws, regulations, and government agencies. Take the credit as often as you can.

Use history as a (nonviolent) weapon

Name a genuine American environmental hero. Okay, now name one who hasn’t been dead for fifty years or more.

The modern environmental movement is old enough to have a history. Not only is it one to brag about but the history of environmental opponents is pretty shameful. One example: It’s useful to be well-versed in the list of public figures who used to embrace action on climate change, until it no longer fit into their business model: John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich were all avid about climate action until the presidency became a goal for each of them.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and his boss, Rupert Murdoch, spoke out strongly on climate change until about ten years ago. And best of all, Alaska governor Sarah Palin signed a forward-thinking executive order on climate change in 2007 but, less than a year later, she was on the vice presidential campaign trail, insisting it was all a hoax.

The media: Oy vey

Talk about white, wealthy, and whiny. Talk back to your TV. Raise hell with your editor. The science on climate change is so thoroughly validated that while honest debate is always welcome, climate denial is no longer honest debate.

Any news organization that still thinks it’s appropriate to “balance” climate science with a crackpot political operative should hear from you. If the topic were medicine rather than climate change, they wouldn’t pair Sanjay Gupta, M.D. to “debate” a witch doctor or faith healer, would they?

And speaking of debates, the nation’s political reporters and pundits are still largely in a climate coma. We endured an entire presidential campaign in 2012 with not a single debate question about climate or energy.

The inevitable asterisk

Every bit of this is easier said than done, and to a lot of veteran advocates and activists, much of this is stating the obvious. But much of it remains undone. If years from now, far too many Americans still perceive of the environmental movement as white, wealthy, and whiny, we will have wasted a lot of Earth Days.

This post originally appeared at Environmental Health News.


  1. user-349933 | | #1

    Green Privilege
    I would add to your list of things to avoid are creating perks for those who go green. Things like special parking spots and traffic lanes for electric or other hybrid cars. These cars might not only be for the rich but certainly are less affordable then what a large segment of the population can afford.

    In the county I live in they now offer a reduction in the building permits and faster permit times if you claim your building to gold or platinum LEED standards. Now if you you can afford LEED you are given privilege over others who might just be doing a small remodeling job on their home. Who is really greener the one that tears down and builds a large luxury green home or the one that makes small improvements on their modest home?

    Could you imagine being in line at the deli in your grocery store waiting your turn while someone else cuts in front of you because they are buying grass feed beef or organic products and the store decided to give those customer privilege over your budget choices? At least in this case you could take your business elsewhere unlike a permitting department.

    Public services like roads and permitting departments should be fair level playing fields providing equal services independent on how wealthy you are. They should not be handing out green privileges based on some subjective standard.

  2. exeric | | #2

    Dan, are you running for
    Dan, are you running for office?

  3. n7ws | | #3

    Reply to Eric
    If Dan is running for office, I'm voting for him.

  4. n7ws | | #4

    I have to chuckle
    "a group that advocates assault rifles and hollow-point ammo"

    Almost 65 years ago, on my ninth birthday I was given my first firearm. It was a Savage Model 6, .22 rifle.

    By today's lunatic thinking, this was an "assault rifle" because it was semi-automatic and had a 15 round magazine. Furthermore, I used to shoot---gasp---"hollow-point ammo", purchased in 500 round cartons of 10 boxes of 50 rounds each, from the Home and Auto store where my dad worked in the machine shop.

    Disclaimer: Despite being a gun owner all of these years, I am not, nor have I ever been an NRA member. I've never pointed a weapon at anyone either.

  5. JIM BAERG | | #5

    The media
    I stopped contributing to NPR this year because they gutted their environmental desk. There are plenty of other places that need support.

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