An Open Letter to the Environmental Movement

The environmental movement is facing some pretty tough challenges. Not only has the shamelessly retrograde George W. Bush been re-elected to the Presidency of the United States, but Republicans, whose overall voting record is significantly less environment-friendly than that of the Democrats, have had their majorities increased in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. This enhanced Republican domination increases the chances for appointment to the federal judiciary of judges who will rule against regulatory protections of our environment and who will prove amenable to the giveaway and/or unmitigated exploitation of public lands.

This is sad enough to contemplate, but what makes it even sadder is that the environmental movement might well bear some responsibility for the election results and for the current state of threats to the planet. It’s not that environmental groups have been guilty of a lack of attention or fervor in pointing out Bush’s appalling record. Through such means as the Internet, and their respective magazines and newsletters, together with their generating of petitions and bringing of litigation, environmental organizations have repeatedly focused on Bush’s damaging appointments and directives—which have otherwise taken place largely under the mainstream media radar. But while highly commendable, these efforts have fallen short of truly energizing the American people.

In my view, environmental organizations have been guilty of two sorts of failure. The first has to do with the movement’s not having been able to get the environment on the list of major issues raised by John Kerry during his long run for the Presidency. We heard from the Democratic candidate again and again about Social Security and Medicare, the Iraq War, national security, job loss, the national debt—all of course important matters—but where was the environment? This issue, despite being manifestly and continuously relevant to the American people, was, through a kind of perverse magic trick, rendered virtually invisible in public debate.

Understandably, Bush wanted it kept out of view. But Kerry? He has one of the best environmental records in the Senate. Why didn’t he feature that record and put Bush, so vulnerable in this area, to shame? More to my point, why didn’t the leading environmental organizations come together to develop a strategy for holding Kerry’s feet to the fire in giving an ongoing, prominent place to the environment in his campaign? Failure to craft such a strategy rendered the environmentalist platform an abstraction, because it was left without a candidate to stand on it.

What is particularly galling is that this is the second Presidential election in a row in which a candidate with very strong environmental credentials somehow got away with keeping the environment off his issues agenda. Back in 2000, Al Gore, Mr. Environment himself, a man who was sufficiently troubled and knowledgeable about our impending global catastrophe to have written a book about it, Earth in the Balance, seemed to have suffered a kind of amnesia about the matter while on the campaign trail. The environmental establishment had four years to contemplate this stunning phenomenon and resolve that it would not happen again. Well, John Kerry pulled a Gore. Where was the pressure on him not to do so?

The second failure of leading environmental organizations consists of their not having done enough on their own to make Americans in general see the relevance and urgency of environmental issues. Simply assuming that our citizens already do so, and enough to influence their vote, is a fatal mistake. True, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters knocked on some 2.2 million doors of “swing voters” between them in the months leading up to the election. But as far as I can see, too much environmentalist activity still involves preaching to the converted, through endless postal and electronic mailings sent to current supporters.

More time and energy in 2004 should have been directed at punchy TV ads—similar to MoveOn’s excellent political ones—attacking Bush and appropriate members of Congress on their poor environmental records. The movement could have pooled resources and brought them under a single rubric, say, Environmentalists United for America. The prospect of such a massive ad campaign might also have proved a persuasive talking point in getting Kerry to agree that he would make the environment a key part of his campaign. Even if that campaign had still failed, such ads would not have allowed the central issue of our time to dissolve into thin air, or, better, into polluted air, which appears to be where it is now. It’s almost as if the environmental movement must start up again from scratch.

If such TV ads are employed in future election campaigns, what should be their thrust? Sadly, a number of matters whose centrality is taken for granted by the environmental movement will probably not, in my estimation, prove effective when urged on the wider public, at least not as a starting gambit. The spiritual/aesthetic aspect of wilderness and the consequent need for its preservation is one such matter. Global warming is another. I believe this phenomenon to be, for many people, at once overwhelming but abstract, a terrifying development and at the same time not quite real.

No, where environmentalism could have its most immediate impact on the public consciousness is where its concerns intersect with the matter of human health, and children’s health in particular. Here, special emphasis might be given to the ways mercury is infiltrating our air, water and food supply, and to the health consequences of this for children and pregnant women. The increasing incidence of asthma among children and its relationship to polluted air could also be stressed, as could a focus on the presence of dangerous chemicals on school grounds. Once the movement positions itself in the public’s mind as a champion of children’s health, it will have improved its chances of building a politically fruitful national concern about the environment.

Perhaps the sort of TV ad campaign I have outlined can make some inroads even among a group of voters who supposedly proved important to Bush’s re-election—evangelicals. (The degree of that importance is subject to debate, though I think the large margin of support for Bush by evangelicals is indisputable.) The immediacy of their children’s health might give those evangelicals who would otherwise shirk off predictions of environmental disaster (because they believe an Apocalypse is imminent anyway) pause to think.

But the role religion plays in politics is not confined to the evangelical vote, and can in fact be harnessed to further environmentalist goals. For as E Magazine reported in its November/December 2002 cover story “Can Religion Save the Environment,” many Christians approach our planet as something that must be regarded with great reverence, and must be presided over with faithful stewardship. Of course this stewardship concept is important in many religions, but because the American electorate is overwhelmingly composed of Christians, it is this worldview that I wish to stress here. This stewardship view is embodied in the work of the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE), which runs a number of scholarly, educational and outreach programs.

Couldn’t the environmental movement do more to forge alliances with FORE and like-minded groups, collaborating in the preparation of mater

ials and programs aimed at churchgoers? Such efforts could create a climate of consciousness whereby voters of faith, when they eventually cast their ballots, would take seriously the matters of preservation and conservation, the desirability of maintaining a loving relationship not only to others but also to the Earth, and an appreciation of the web of life that binds the planet and its myriad species together. Such considerations might prove potent in the context of faith, whereas when presented within a strictly secular framework, they often fail to register.

President Bush’s anti-environmental tendencies should prove a rallying point behind which environmental groups swell their membership and support. But those boom times need to translate into maximum political effectiveness. Whatever the environmental establishment has been doing—and I speak as one who values and appreciates its activities immensely—has thus far not succeeded in positioning the environment as a crucial issue in our national elections or debate, and hence in our governmental apparatus. It is not too soon to begin action. Our environmental organizations should start preparing for the 2006 Congressional elections and beyond.

Alan Holderis a retired English professor and freelance writer. His regular environmental column, “Earthwatch,” appears in The Redding (CT) Pilot.