Environmentalism and other quaint ideas

The failure of mainstream greens to court the public is coming home to roost

Many environmental activists are in shock over the House vote last August permitting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For better and worse, green groups big and small, moderate and radical have made ANWR their flagship battle, the issue on which they were so confident that the American public agreed with them, rather than the oil-soaked White House, that they would force the Bush administration into a more timid spree of environmental depredation for the next four years.

They may have miscalculated.

Nowhere in the entire U.S. political system is there any base of advocacy for environmental concerns. Quite the opposite. All of the key decisions ultimately lie in the hands of two parties, neither one of which contains many environmental champions.

Poll after poll—at least pre-Sept. 11—shows that support for environmentally sound policies is highly popular in much of the country, especially when the questions are abstract. But those questions aren’t a good measure of most of the issues politicians (and, increasingly, judges) are being asked to decide. In those cases, green policies are increasingly carrying a serious economic cost.

Most polls also suggest Americans think jobs and houses are good ideas. Pols are betting, sensibly, that a lot of folks would pick jobs and houses over yellow-striped bellywarblers. Big campaign donors certainly do.

Thirty years ago, when America’s great environmental president, Richard Nixon, ushered in the era of reforms like the EPA and the Endangered Species Act, the population of the U.S. had just passed 200 million. Today it’s 270 million and growing. Moreover, we’ve added another generation of damage to our natural environments.

A law like the Endangered Species Act might have mattered in only a few cases in 1973. But today, were the ESA to be strictly enforced, economic activity in the entire U.S. would grind to a halt; species are dying everywhere, including everywhere that developers and industries want to locate. Many Americans would like to see nature take precedence over money for a change, but few politicians will make that call.

Including, these days, most Democrats. The truly alarming part of the ANWR vote wasn’t its House passage, but the bloc of Democrats who opted for drilling. Largely, they were pro-labor Democrats responding to pressure from the Teamsters and AFL-CIO. All that “Teamsters and Turtles” hooey from two years ago can now safely be buried. On what many enviros defined as the biggest battle on their list, labor, citing “job creation” (in the Arctic!), was the key to their defeat. And no more “moderate” Democrats will rush in to fill the void.

The very fact that Bill Clinton and Al Gore—famously described by David Brower as having been worse for the environment than 12 years of Reagan and Bush Sr.—would be adored by Big Green groups shows both how corrupt those groups are and how few friends they have in D.C. The failure, for 30 years, of mainstream environmental groups to court the public, preferring instead to have their egos and salaries stroked inside the Beltway, is making an enormous difference.

Sure, the bogeyman of a Bush White House is helping them raise money now—but what can they spend it on, besides salaries and more fund appeals? A whole generation of mainstream America has been taught to fight for environmental justice by writing a check, and now it’s being asked to mobilize.

If they show up, few in a position of power will be interested in listening. Pols have spent decades refining the art of writing press releases that look green-friendly while privately reassuring the despoilers in question that their needs have been fully addressed. They’re not afraid of the environmental movement. The United States could not possibly embrace—as it did under Clinton/Gore, long before Dubya came along—global warming policies the rest of the entire planet considers certifiably insane, unless its leaders weren’t worried about either international opinion or domestic environmentalists. Ralph Nader’s 3 percent didn’t exactly scare them into line.

The saddest part is that issues more critical than ANWR drilling aren’t getting nearly as much attention. But ANWR was thought to be among the most winnable. It still might be winnable, but meanwhile the paradigm that green advocates have assumed to be true since Silent Spring and before, of steadily improving environmental policies, clearly needs rethinking. Before even battles to stem the backsliding can be consistently won, a new environmental movement—one whose public face is neither Beltway frauds nor dangling hippies with "forest names"—will have to be built from the ground up. For the short term, it doesn’t look good.