The Problem of Defining “Real” Environmentalists

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In a recent edition of the Missoulian, I read another in the seemingly endless series of opinion pieces and letters from a member of the environmentalist community who spent most of his time defining who was not inside the club of those who are “real environmentalists.” I could link to the specific article, but what would be the point? At their core, all of the letters and pieces make the same argument: if an environmental organization isn’t as radical (not a pejorative, just a descriptive term) as the one(s) the writer prefers, the organization is little more than a corporate front group that might as well be clear cutting forests as their primary mission.

It’s a neat rhetorical trick: without the difficulty of engaging in substantive debate, these champions of real environmentalism confer authenticity on themselves as they deny it to those whose views do not align perfectly with their own. And without the need to actually pass legislation or policy, because purists have no time for the challenge of building coalitions and influencing policymakers, the writers critique every hint of compromise and every concession as a betrayal of the planet. They can ride off on their own solar-powered Rocinantes, certain that they, unlike so many others, are truly the champions of the environment.

But reality is just a bit more complicated than those who bestow the mantle of “real” environmentalism on themselves and select others seem willing to admit. While it’s incredibly emotionally satisfying to be a purist and unwilling to compromise, that’s almost never going to accomplish substantive change in our overly complicated, multi-layered, federalist system. If you want to protect a piece of land from development, you might have to work with local, state, and federal agencies. You might have to mobilize members of the local community, some of whom are less than friendly to environmentalism. Hell, you might even have to have a meeting with the industry people involved and see if there is an alternative possible.

You’re sure as hell not going to make those changes calling everything who doesn’t share your exact views names and refusing to listen to them. And you’re sure as hell not going to build a larger movement when so much of your rhetorical firepower is spent telling people that they don’t belong in your club, rather than finding areas of common interest and values.

The effort to define “real” environmentalists shares more than a little in common with the efforts of some Republicans to limit authentic membership in their party to those who hold retrograde views on civil rights, the Civil War, and musket ownership.

All that being said, a few caveats are in order. Mainstream Democrats certainly are guilty of the sins of exclusion, too. For my part, I’d like to see them try to score fewer political points by attacking environmental groups and make good-faith efforts to include their viewpoints in policy discussions. The Democratic Party isn’t likely to adopt those views wholesale, but the dialogue would be improved by having the voices in our discussions. In the current climate, more radical environmental groups serve a useful purpose as a punching bag for politicians on both sides of the aisle, which does little to protect the environment or help political discourse.

And I don’t want these more radical groups to stop their efforts to use litigation and other means to protect the environment. Are they wrong sometimes? Probably. Do they go too far in some cases? Undoubtedly. But their role, as passionate advocates who push for the extreme is as necessary as the compromise at the center of the debate.

All I ask, and what I have been trying to write about for years, is that members of these more radical organizations consider the impact of their refusal to acknowledge that other people, good people, can care about and fight for the environment without sharing all of their views, that those good people can indeed be “real” environmentalists.

As long as the environmental community is riven by accusations that are emotionally satisfying efforts to exclude well-meaning people from the community and to demonize others making good faith efforts, the only real winners are the extraction industries who exploit the division.

Let’s have passionate fights about policy; let’s disagree about the best way to implement change, but can we please stop acting like only this who share our views belong in the conversation?

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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Matthew KoehlerPaul MarshallNameless RangeThe Polish Wolfsteve kelly Recent comment authors
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Paul Marshall
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Paul Marshall

The process of selling one’s soul, as we all know, Is laborious, requiring much rationalizing and obfuscation. The internal dialogue is tedious and boring, as demonstrated here. Projection plays a large role, calling those who have stuck to their principles traitors. In the end, the person who has struck the deal with the devil has to come to terms with the devil.

Good luck, Pogie.

Rob Kailey
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Rob Kailey

Heed the voice of experience.

John Wilson
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John Wilson

Now retired I had a wonderful career in environmental protection in Montana. I chuckle at the what makes a “real” environmentalist debate. I see it more as political activists seeking to adjust public policy and environmental pragmatists who quietly get the job done “on the ground”. We need both the activists and the pragmatists. Environmental activists need a high profile to be successful (think Mt Environmental Info Center) Environmental pragmatists often need a low profile (think Montana Nature Conservancy or Montana Trout Unlimited). Montana is blessed with a full spectrum of folks who care about the environment and it shows!

Paul Marshall
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Paul Marshall

We need people who fight for their beliefs. It is not complicated.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Believe it or not, Paul/Mark, it is complicated. You can believe strongly in a cause but still have to abide incremental change. You can fight for your beliefs, but negotiation and compromise are steps taken toward a goal. A person who accepts nothing short of their world view will accomplish nothing.

By the way, John Wilson, I like your rather upbeat take on the environmental dichotomy.

Paul Marshall
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Paul Marshall

And you are …? I made it clear and in public that I was changing my screen name, and why. Please respect my wishes.

Compromise is an element of negotiation. It is the last in line, after you have fought to get everything you can. Pogie’s way, the Democrat way, the Trout Unlimited and Montans Wilderness Association way is to compromise first, before fighting.

That’s also known as losing.

Rob Kailey
Guest

Please respect your wishes when you keep returning to a site you have been banned from more than once? That’s a joke, right?

Paul Marshall
Guest
Paul Marshall

Thus spaketh the authoritarian type, the guy who likes that feel’of power over others, giving him a little boner twitch? Does it make up for your other deficiencies? Was that how it felt when you were the hall monitor in grade school? Banning is the gasping breath of the empty soul of the person with no means of rowing his own boat. It’s a way of making a statement, “I am smart” when “I am shallow” works better. It fits a guy like you, emotionally vacant, craving respect, imitating a human shell. Ban me, you miserable coward. After you do,… Read more »

steve kelly
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steve kelly

Sucking up to the status quo does not qualify one activist, or any activist group, as “real.” Priorities matter. If electing Democrats ranks as a higher priority than protecting the environment, well then, what is so important about needing validation as “an environmentalist” or “environmental group?” An honest assessment would disclose proud political activists interested in environmental issues without the disguise. Here’s the rub: money. The IRS qualifies organizations for not-for-profit, public interest – 501(c)(3) – status based on criteria that generally excludes expenditures related to campaign politics. There’s a lot of waste, fraud and abuse in the system right… Read more »

The Polish Wolf
Member

“Show me the acres (protected).” Show me acres that aesthetically resemble the state they were temporily in after the mass die off of their apex predators but before the introduciton of new apex predators, I think is what you mean here.

steve kelly
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steve kelly

No, what I mean is that real places are fought for and defended, allowed to continue to exist, functioning without the intervention of bulldozers, feller bunchers and other industrial equipment and human “financializers.” Imagine what you will, but very few individuals or groups actually defend against real threats to forests, fish and wildlife habitat and water quantity and qualilty. Most of what you see, or think you see, is fake.

Nameless Range
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Nameless Range

The term environmentalist may no longer be a useful one, and ultimately, we are discussing subjective values as absolutes. Which doesn’t work very well. If on 100,000 acres, 10,000 are clearcut, 40,000 are open for motorized use, and 60,000 are managed as wilderness, what is the status of that 100,000 acres? Some “environmentalists” would say the existence of clearcuts and motorized use renders the entire 100,000 acre block ravaged and destroyed. Some would be fine with it. Some would want the entire 100,000 acres managed as Wilderness with an exception- that mountain biking be allowed. Others would want the whole… Read more »

Paul Marshall
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Paul Marshall

The name of the game in politics is controlled opposition, or for those who want to log and destroy the remaining roadless areas to also control groups that supposedly defend those lands. It is not an easy matter to understand.Some groups, like Trout Unlimited, Montana Wilderness and Montana Wildlife, have clearly been compromised by foundation money and have abandoned their,original missions, not seeking compromise first,middle and last. These groups have adopted the mantra that the original groups who still hold high ideals and fight for them are “purists” who want perfect when good will do. That is PR talk, a… Read more »

Paul Marshall
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Paul Marshall

Eliminate the word “not” before “seeking” in first paragraph.

steve kelly
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steve kelly

Try to apply the scarcity principle, or rule of scarcity to answer those tough choices. 100,000 acres is too small an area to make those important value/policy judgments. Grizzly bears are scarce, mountain bikes, not so much. Clean water is scarce, areas for snowmobiling, not so much. Areas where sustainable, economical logging can occur in the Northern Rockies is a scarce commodity, logs sold at below-cost-of-production prices on public land, not so much. There is a glut of sold and uncut stumpage in Region 1. Why? Beating a dead horse ie. subsidized logging, is only fun for those who can… Read more »

Nameless Range
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Nameless Range

Yes, the math doesn’t add up in that first paragraph. Change 60,000 to 50,000. 🙂

Matthew Koehler
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Matthew Koehler

Hi Don, I posted a very similar comment when Pete Talbot tackled the same issue last week here on this blog (https://themontanapost.com/2015/09/09/environmental-discord/). I personally don’t ever recall using the terms ‘pseudo-environmentalists’ or ‘real environmentalists,’ and I honestly haven’t heard many people at all in the ‘environmental movement’ use those terms either. So I’d caution against using Bill Baum’s choice of labels in his personal opinion piece as representing the entire ‘environmental movement.’ But I do think that’s what you’ve done here. However, like I acknowledged to Pete, a ‘divide’ clearly does exist, and it exists mainly, in my opinion, because… Read more »

Matthew Koehler
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Matthew Koehler

Here’s a good real-world, current affairs example featuring how different groups (“Real” “Pseudo” or otherwise) reacted to the ‘historic’ and ‘epic’ decision by the federal government to not list the Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Please note that The Pew Charitable Trusts has given the Montana Wilderness Association over $1 million to fund their work with a few timber mill owners to pass Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. “These strong, science-based plans constitute a historic conservation action.” – Ken Rait, The Pew Charitable Trusts “They failed to adopt key conservation measures identified… Read more »

Matthew Koehler
Guest
Matthew Koehler

Here’s another real-world example from today’s Missoula Indy that I’d consider a ‘must read.’ http://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/birdbrained/Content?oid=2483263 Of particular interest is how the facts presented by WildEarth Guardians wildlife biologist match up with rah-rah rhetoric from groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Wildlife Federation and other groups and individuals that have strong ties (including Dark Money ties) to Dem Party politicians in Montana. Also, please see how the ‘Grazing Improvement Act,’ which was attached as one of the anti-environmental, anti-public lands, anti-science riders to the National Defense Bill in Dec 2014 makes the new sage grouse plans even worse. Remember, both… Read more »

Matthew Koehler
Guest
Matthew Koehler

Yet another real-world example I would hope readers would consider. Think back over the past few years, going back to the economic crisis of 2008 or so. The environmental groups opposed to Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill – the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act – which would have required the Forest Service in Montana to pump out an additional 100,000 acres (156 square miles) of industrial logging projects on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests – consistently brought up global economic realities, including NAFTA and Canada dumping lots of lumber into U.S. markets. Meanwhile, groups like the Montana Wilderness Association,… Read more »

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