Losing the enviro war

An obsession with small battles and petty posturing does nothing to address the big picture.

Here's a typical environmental campaign: Step one, get annoyed by a problem behaviour. Step two, rally other people and groups who are equally annoyed. Step three, create some posters and stickers and flyers about it. Step four, put out a press release. Step five, hold a public event with a dash of fun, a splash of controversy and a pound of education.

Step six, write a grant proposal to turn the event into an ongoing, more sophisticated campaign involving research into the societal dangers of the problem behaviour, strategy on how to influence people to change it and endless committee meetings. Step seven, start a listserv and get your subscribers to write their politicians for bans on the problem behaviour.

Step eight, celebrate media coverage and new legislation with local organic wine and cheese, and lots of talk that the fight has just begun.

It's more complicated than that, with all kinds of exceptions and possibilities, but most environmental campaigns contain those basic elements. Breaking it down into that simple formula, it's amazing the influence environmental campaigns have had.

They have made global warming household lingo and a favourite topic of the CBC. They've created a new breed of specialized lawyers helping companies and activists understand the encyclopaedic set of environmental laws, and a sideline of green-wash spin doctors trying to trick savvy consumers into believing they can shop their way out of every crisis.

But despite their influence, the environmentalists are losing. Here are some reasons why:

First: Like it or not, environmentalists are in a propaganda war with advertisers, mainstream media and even institutions like our lauded education system. The message we receive from our first breath is, "This world is yours; take it."

And we do, for every short-term gain we can get; every plastic high and cheap thrill. Most of the time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, environmentalists don't even know about this war. They are losing and they don't even know it because they are so focused on:

Second: "Winnables." I remember sitting in one strategy session years ago with several of Toronto's leading environmental activists. The topic was winnables: Quick hit campaigns in which the objectives could be achieved relatively quickly. Think giving out energy efficient light-bulbs, convincing people to put anti-idling stickers in the windshields, things like that.

No one asked what the point of these activities was, or what kind of impact they would have, if any. It was taken as a given that they were the right thing to do. They were winnable!

One person (not me; I was young and nervous in a new job) had the courage to say we should think bigger, about things that might actually make a difference to our great-grandchildren. Someone else suggested we get Rick Mercer on TV talking about energy efficient air conditioning and we moved on.

Most often environmentalists are obsessed with legislation---minor rule changes they call big victories but will rarely be enforced. Sometimes it's a new, more efficient consumer technology. Rarely is it the kind of fundamental change in how we live that might actually save us.

Third: Be the change. There is nothing inherently wrong with Gandhi's advice to be the change we want to see. The problem is when we stop there. How is it that some people can go to the lengths of learning how to build a vegetable-powered car but never stop to think their actions are meaningless if they go it alone? Meanwhile J.D. Irving Co. clear-cuts the land and sea.

Fourth: I suppose the opposite of being the change would be attacking the behaviour of everyone else and making few friends and allies along the way. The truly inspiring success stories---the ones that leave a large swath of land protected for future generations or put environment into the curriculum so young people at least get some counterweight to the mindless consumption message---happen when environmentalists reach out to their old enemies, sit down with them and figure out another way, human to human. That's how HRM's Blue Mountain-Birch Cove was turned into a massive protected urban wilderness, which we hope stays above water.

I write this not to disparage the environmental movement. Many of my heroes are environmentalists. I write this because I think those of us who care about the future will do much better when we take an honest look at our work, and figure out how to really find the world we hope for.

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