The upcoming Presidential election will likely feature plenty of discussion of environmental initiatives as well as the furor over a slow economic recovery and health care reform. There have been some notable debacles in recent years, and those mistakes will likely take center stage. But although those discussions are important to any assessment of leadership they should not detract from the slow progress that environmental activism is making towards reducing the damage we continue to do and repairing some of the damage that has already been done. Real progress is made in baby steps, such as the advent of environmentally friendly home cleaning and car care products.
Unfortunately, too often the politics of environmentalism overshadows the reality of environmental activism. Politics is a dirty game. Any time there is a position of influence available, those who aspire to it (and those who lurk in the shadows behind them) are driven more by ambition and private agendas than by a genuine desire to have like a good public servant. The intersection of environmentalism and politics is just as dirty. And it's not nice, earthy dirt you can grow a tree in, either.
Many of the largest environmental groups exist in that space, and in many ways their messaging complicates environmentalism. Most of these organizations started out to fight one battle; after they won it, they redefined their mission to stay alive and relevant. They no longer have the desire or purism of a grassroots campaign, but they do have well established fundraising and organizational structures.
Here's an example. Imagine there's a bird which natural habitat has been ate down to one small area of grassland; and there's a developer who wants to build a suburb there and connect the suburb to the city with a freeway. That would destroy the bird's habitat and force it into extinction, so a group of highly committed activists forms to fight on the bird's behalf.
They start out with only a cause. No money. No organization. They do what they can with their own money and time. But the fight takes more than that, and when they ask for pledges the floodgates open to save their bird. Volunteers line up to join their cause. They have to organize in order to manage the outpouring of support, and with that organization in place they win their fight, block the development, and save the bird's habitat.
By the time it's over, the leaders of the effort have put two or three years of their lives into endless protests, legal challenges, and lobbying. People work for the organization, and although they do it for passion it's also their job. Donors have been giving to the organization, and now that they've won those trusts. They could fold their tent and end it there, but it makes more sense to find a new cause in order to keep the organization intact.
As one cause leads to another, organizations tend to become more general in their mission. The passion that drives a single fight for a single cause gets spread out. They gather political influence, which they have to use in order to remain relevant. They tend to use it to accomplish goals that will have a big impact, even though the largest initiatives in terms of political rhetoric are not always the best in terms of actual progress. When these organizations get behind initiatives that fail, it adds fuel to the anti-environmental fire in the public debate.
The public debate is not about environmentalism. It is about the politics of environmentalism. And as such it is detached from real environmental activism or change. Overall, that change is positive: cleaner and greener car care products and household cleaners are gaining market share; recycling has expanded significantly; and the environmental regulations on business dramatically improve the quality of the air and water.