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?