The birth of the commons movement
Richard Louv, UNION-TRIBUNE, December 12, 2004
Get ready for the commonist revolution. No, not communist, commonist. Nobody is calling it that yet, but its enemies will – once they learn about the commons movement.
As described in this space last week, Adam Werbach is a leader of an upstart insurgency among progressives, a proponent of what he calls the death of environmentalism. To this thesis he now adds "the birth of the Commons Movement." Werbach, 31, served as the Sierra Club's youngest president, in 1998-99. He is now the executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Werbach argues that environmentalism is endangered because the commons are threatened. By commons, he means the assets we inherit as a community, rather than as individuals.
These assets include the atmosphere, oceans and rivers, our democratic political system, roads, wilderness, our financial systems, the Internet and more. Though diverse, these assets share several qualities. They are all inherited; their economic or biological value is inestimable; and none are adequately managed for the benefit of future generations. Instead, they're being sold to the highest bidders. Werbach is so convinced that progressives need to set their sights on the commons, that he no longer calls himself an environmentalist.
The E-word has certainly lost its luster. Indeed, if one were to measure power by who owns which words, progressives are losing left and right, or at least left. Feminism has faded (in word, but not deeds). So has the L-word; three decades ago, a vast, well, right-word conspiracy set out to stigmatize the word liberal. Now comes the word environmentalism.
Before the 2002 congressional elections, Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz delivered a 13-page memo about the environment to the Republican National Committee, urging candidates to characterize environmentalism as "the Protection Racket," and to depict environmentalists as extremists who chain themselves to trees, according to progressive communications strategists Michael Goldberg and Dick Brooks.
However, the decline in support for environmentalism, by any name, predates the presidency of George W. Bush. The Environics Research Group, based in Canada, reported that from 1996 to 2000, the percentage of Americans willing to accept higher pollution in the future to preserve jobs rose from 17 percent to 25 percent, and that the number of Americans who believe that people who belong to environmental groups are extremists rose from 32 percent to 41 percent.
"Anyone who breathes air, drinks water or feeds themselves can be a credible spokesperson for the environment," Goldberg and Brooks remind us. This is where the clubby, over-professionalized environmental movement went wrong. As early as May 1992, on the 100th anniversary of the Sierra Club, Executive Director Michael Fischer said, "We are faced with a choice: Will we remain a middle-class group of backpackers, overwhelmingly white in membership, program and agenda – and thus condemn ourselves to losing influence in an increasingly multicultural country?"
The year before, the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit had held its first conference. There, Robert Bullard, then a professor at the University of California Riverside, presented his findings that race, not poverty or any other factor, was the key determinant in the siting of hazardous waste facilities and dumps. As a result, an "environmental justice" movement was launched, largely on behalf of people of color.
Eight years later, the factions squared off, as older, whiter population-control advocates forced a Sierra Club vote on whether to support restrictions on immigration – a push that some environmental-justice activists called "the greening of hate." The anti-immigrant faction lost the vote, but the residual message was clear: environmentalists had followed their compasses to radically different subdivisions.
Now comes a new fight, this time between older, traditional environmentalists and a group of young activists questioning the very foundation of the movement.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, communications and opinion research experts, were among the first to introduce the "death of environmentalism" notion. To correct my quotation of them last week, they argue that too many environmentalists "ask not what we can do for nonenvironmental constituencies but what nonenvironmental constituencies can do for environmentalists." The movement, they say, should ask the opposite, and find common cause with labor unions and even the auto industry, helping move it to cleaner fuels – and creating jobs on the way.
Werbach says it's the values, stupid! He argues that American democracy and culture has relied upon "commons values" for economic and cultural growth since the Great Depression: "From Social Security to public education to the Clean Water Act, the framework for progressive political action has been the commons."
Indeed, most environmentalists would not consider fighting for the survival of public education to be an important battlefront for the protection of our forests. But "winning the fight over public education in a way that raises the profile of commons values may very well be the best battle that environmentalists can fight."
In other words, progressives should not turn away from protecting the environment, but should quit treating it and other good causes as special interests, and start fighting for the inclusive values of the commons – for the America we share. Or should.
Louv's can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or via www.thefuturesedge.com.