The Promise of Environmentalism

"Environmental issues, especially at the state and local levels, are bringing together conservatives and liberals who agree on little else, providing common ground in an increasingly polarized nation." That's the lede in a good Philadelphia Inquirer story today about the bridge-building potential of environmental issues.

Citing dozens of examples of eco-success stories in the red states, they note this news from the South:

In conservative Gwinnett County, Ga., where 66 percent of voters picked Bush, voters by the same margin approved a one-cent sales-tax increase to pay for $85 million to protect open space. In Indian River County, Fla., voters went overwhelmingly (61 percent) for Bush, and even more overwhelmingly (67 percent) for spending $50 million to preserve open space. Nationwide, 162 of a record 217 land-preservation ballot measures were approved, according to the Trust for Public Land, a land conservation organization.

There's a deep level of support for environmental issues in the South and other conservative corners of the country -- although in most communities, they aren't known as "environmental" issues. Usually they're viewed in terms of "public health," "conservation" or "quality of life."

And there's no reason progressives can't build on this support around the country.

One excellent example is hunters and fishers -- the "hook and bullet vote." Do you think they really want to wade around in 520% more toxic mercury a year or like seeing forests logged into oblivion? Progressives are belatedly reaching out to this constituency in the West; hopefully they'll do the same in the Midwest and South.

Environmental issues, when properly framed and organized around, have had a positive impact on race relations, too. Anne Braden, a matriarch of the Southern left based in Kentucky, has argued that the environmental justice movement which launched in the late 1980s was one of the most effective issues ever in uniting African-American, Latino and poor whites in the South. Grassroots multi-racial alliances sprouted up in response to toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards that were deliberately inflicted on low-income communities by greedy corporations and complacent governments.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus's essay "The Death of Environmentalism" has been generating good discussion about the environmental movement's shortcomings -- for example, its reliance on narrow political maneuvering and technical fixes instead of long-term strategy and broader vision. Along with others, they also decry the movement's single-issue focus and lack of creativity in forming the necessary politically alliances for success.

These points are well-taken. But it's also true that environmental organizing -- when done right -- has proved one of the most effective issues for getting low-income whites, African-Americans, Latinos politically involved and seeing their common interests. We need more of this kind of work in the South if the region is to enjoy a more progressive future.