The State of the Environmental Movement

Recently, members of the Sierra Club voted by a two-to-one margin to support a ban on all timber cuttings from federal forests. Some in the environmental movement consider this a victory which gives credibility to an idea that, as recently as two years ago, was viewed by most environmentalists as impossibly extreme.

But a more objective interpretation is that, in adopting this goal, the Sierra Club has effectively taken itself out of the debate over federal forests. After all, the "no-cut" goal is a no-compromise goal, and in Washington, if you are not willing to compromise, you will not be invited to the table.

The Sierra Club's action symptomizes the increasing marginalization of the environmental movement. This once seemingly omnipotent political force now has, at best, the role of the spoiler--capable of preventing the passage of laws it doesn't like but incapable of getting its own ideas enacted into law. Sometimes it can't even stop laws it abhors, such as the salvage sale bill passed by the 104th Congress.

The environmental movement's loss of power seems puzzling at a time when three out of four Americans describe themselves as "environmentalists." It isn't due to the Republican takeover of Congress, as environmentalists were unable to get a single important bill passed in 1993 and 1994, when Democrats held both Congress and the White House. Most significantly, they could not convince the 103rd Congress to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act--spending authority for which expired in 1992--even though many environmentalists consider this law the linchpin of their efforts to protect ecosystems.

In large part, environmental groups are victims of political forces beyond their control. Those forces aren't some sinister conspiricy against the environment but are a natural part of the political system under which we live.

Historically, the environmental movement began more than a century ago, when people began calling on the federal government to create national parks and national forests out of federal lands that were then slated for sale. This movement, which was then called the "conservation movement," was highly successful, as we can see when we look at a map of the U.S. today: well over a quarter of the nation's land remains in the hands of just four federal conservation agencies.

Yet political conditions at that time were far different than they are today:

In such simple times, it was easy to get the attention of Congress and the president and to promote a broad understanding of such complex issues as forestry, water resources, and the benefits of parks. In fact, the conservation movement was one of the originators of political techniques commonly used by special interest groups today: mass mailings, write-in campaigns, and Washington, DC, lobby groups.

Today, the federal government is much larger and everyone is a special interest group. Only about 1 percent of federal resources are devoted to natural resources, and the average member of Congress who is bombarded by dozens of special interest groups every day doesn't have time to master the complexities of ecosystem management or biodiversity.

In such an atmosphere, interest groups quickly learn that they have about thirty seconds to gain the attention of any member of Congress or their staff. This means two things:

Of course, the reality is that neither a Republican Congress, with its ties to business, nor a Democratic Congress, with its ties to labor, is likely to shut down an industry that is important part of the economies of many Congressional districts. But within the movement, ideas such as the no-cut proposal became viable because of an internal pressure: the severe competition for funds.

During the 1970s, most environmental groups were poor and survived on the enthusiasm of the low-paid staff or unpaid volunteers. But when Ronald Reagan was elected and appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, it suddenly became easy for the big national groups to get new members and contributors.

Most of the money that came pouring into the national groups was used not to hire new staff or take on new work but to move into fancier offices and increase the pay of existing staff. The staff may have felt justified in getting pay increases after having worked for so long for so little. But local and statewide environmental groups generally did not share the "benefits" of the Reagan revolution, and resentments between the national and local groups built up that plague the movement to this day.

The targeting of Reagan and Watt as environmental enemies had another consequence. Before 1981, the environment was a nonpartisan issue, with voting split more along regional lines than party lines. After Reagan's election, the Democratic party was increasingly viewed as the environmental party, while Republicans were considered antienvironmentalists.

Since the national groups had blamed environmental problems on Reagan and other Republicans, it was only natural that, when Clinton was elected, many people felt that the problems were solved. National group memberships plummeted, shifting the balance of power to the local groups.

National groups work on a variety of issues, while local groups are more focused on single issue. They know that their ability to work in DC depends on their willingness to negotiate, so they tend to be more conciliatory than local groups. The local groups thus often accuse the nationals of "selling out." A power shift from national to local groups thus indicates a greater tendancy to be extremist and a lesser willingness to negotiate.

As memberships declined, groups of all sizes became more dependent on foundation fundraising. Since a few foundations set the trends for many others, this left the environmental movement following the whims of a few foundation directors. While those foundation leaders have only the best of intentions, this situation meant that environmentalists were increasingly out of touch with their memberships and with the American people in general.

All of these factors--the crisis mentality, the oversimplification, the push to extremes by local groups, the use of polarization as a fundraising tool, and loss of touch between environmentalists and Americans in general--worked together to create another trend: an increasing dependence on big government solutions to environmental problems.

Polls show that three out of four Americans support environmental goals. Yet the same polls show that three out of four Americans have no faith in government. This means that at least half of all Americans believe we should solve environmental problems without big government, while no more than a fourth believe in big-government solutions to environmental conflicts.

Despite these polls, and their clear reflections at the ballot box, most environmental groups remain committed to big-government programs: regulation, subsidies, and bureaucracy.

Greenpeace's confusion of means and ends is a natural result of a dependency on government solutions. As Peter Drucker wrote (and I've repeatedly quoted), "any government activity almost at once becomes 'moral.'" Similarly, once we've decided to use big government as a means to saving the environment, that means becomes the end. Anyone who questions our means is questioning our goal: Either you are for the Endangered Species Act or you are against saving endangered species.

Drucker goes on: "The absence of results does not raise the question, Shouldn't we rather do something differently? Instead, it leads to a doubling of effort; it only indicates how strong the forces of evil are." It may be that saving endangered species is truly the morally right thing to do, but, Drucker concludes, "we should always question the effort if there are no results."

Like any biological species or human institution, the environmental movement is best viewed as a product of natural selection. Those parts of the movement that are most successful will survive and be replicated by others. But "successful" doesn't necessarily translate to "saving the environment": Instead, it means things like "big budgets" and "attention-getting ideas."

Natural selection has no foresight and does not take the long view. It selects only for short-term success. If an attribute is beneficial in the short-run but harmful in the long-run, then that attribute eventually must die. But it will not necessarily be replaced by an attribute that is successful in the long run unless it can also be successful in the short run.

When Reagan was elected in 1980, or when Republicans won Congress in 1994, the most successful long-term strategy would have been to work with the winners and to make environmental programs attractive to them. But demonizing the Republicans was much more successful in the short run--successful in terms of getting members, contributions, and media attention.

The movement will probably survive the Republicans. But environmentalists' love of big government is much more disturbing that their hatred of Newt Gingrich. Nearly all of the agencies and programs they are fighting today are government agencies and programs--many originally created with the support of environmentalists. Yet environmental proposals almost all seem to give those agencies more money and more power.

The American people's increasing suspicion of bureaucracy, regulation, and other symbols of big government is much more sensible than the environmental movement's support for government power. The question is, is there a way for the movement to get out of the big-government morass? Or is it doomed to forever fight a losing battle because the short-term benefits of fighting that battle are greater than the short-term benefits of changing strategies?

I hope not. I hope that someone, with greater organizing skills than I, will reform an existing environmental group or create a new one that is based on saving the environment without big government. That group could be very successful, since it could draw the support of many of the 50 percent of Americans who both support the environment and distrust government.

If that group succeeds, other groups will shift their goals and strategies to emulate that success. Only in this way can the movement get back in touch with its roots and gain once again the power and credibility it needs to solve some of the important problems of our time.

Electronic Drummer | The Environmental Movement | Subsidies Anonymous