Seven Lessons To Learn In Order To Save The Planet (Updated)

I was a graduate student in Harvard’s Anthropology Department, which meant I had no funding. I was in the final writing stage of my thesis, and the problem I had was that teaching interesting biological anthropology (which I could do full time if I wanted) was too distracting from the mundane yet mentally challenging task of writing a PhD thesis. So, I got a job as a secretary at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Since I was able to follow instructions and was also not intimidated by Big Scary Professors as most temps were, I quickly rose through the ranks and became Richard Zeckhauser’s administrative assistant, working across the hall from Robert Riech and down the hall from Tom Snelling, and generally surrounded by very notable notables. I may or may not have once delivered a secret package to a future Secretary of State in the lounge of the thinly disguised CIA office at the JFK-school, instructed to wait for a hand written reply that I was not to read. All in all it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot.

I was put in charge (meaning, I got to do all the paperwork for) a program that garnered large sums of money from various corporate entities and then distributed the money to promising young faculty and graduate students for various research projects. Moments after being put in charge, one such young faculty member showed up in my office.

“I understand you are in charge of the JCAP.”

“Yes, I guess I am, what can I do for you?”

“I need $10,000 to do a project. We’re going to look into buying and selling the right to release Carbon dioxide into the environment by big industry. You know, using market forces to help the environment. We’re working with Senator X in Washington, he wants to draft a bill, we’re helping him.”

“Sounds great, the check is in the mail!”

And that, to my knowledge, was the beginning of the whole Carbon Tax and Trade thingie, which as you probably know, has more or less failed in its recent incarnation in Washington. The Senator in question was a Republican … yes, using market forces to save the environment was a conservative, Republican idea at the time, though these days the Republicans seem to hate it. And it is still probably a good idea, dammit. Maybe its century has yet to come.

There is a paper you need to know about. It is written by the esteemed political scientist Theda Skocpol, at Harvard University, and it is called “Naming the problem: What it will take to counter extremism and engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming.” Click here to download a working draft.

Skocpol’s paper is excellent, but it might be quicker to read a piece in The Guardian by Susanne Goldenberg. Goldenberg notes that Skocpol

…has put the blame squarely for America’s failure to act on climate change on environmental groups. She also argues that there is little prospect Barack Obama will put climate change on the top of his agenda in his second term.

Skocpol in effect accuses the DC-based environmental groups of political malpractice, saying they were blind to extreme Republican opposition to their efforts.

Environmental groups overlooked growing opposition to environmental protections among conservatives voters and, underestimated the rising force of the Tea Party, believing – wrongly, as it turned out – they could still somehow win over Republican members of Congress through “insider grand bargaining”.

That fatal misreading of the political realities – namely, the extreme polarisation of Congress and the Tea Party’s growing influence among elected officials – doomed the effort to get a climate law through Congress. It will also make it more difficult to achieve climate action in the future, she added.

Inside lobbying failed, and grassroots organizing won. So, the side that used the inside lobbying – the environmental groups – needs to rethink their strategy. The Tea Party, which for unknown reasons is against the environment (I mean, really, who would be against The Earth?) has got their strategy down, and doesn’t need to make much of an adjustment.

Many of us have understood for a couple of years now that there is no compromise in the Republican party. That Environmental lobbyists did not realize this is disconcerting. Recently elected Republicans have told their non-Republican constituents that they are not interested in hearing their opinions, and in some cases have openly admitted that they only represent those that voted for them. Moderate Republicans have been replaced by extremists in most of the Congressional districts they once represented. Extreme Republicans representing districts with a mixed constituency have replaced public talks, town meetings, and the like with highly scripted and restricted things that look like public fora but are not, or with highly moderated internet events. With respect to the environment, the majority of Americans think one thing, the Right Wing does another.

And when I said above that the Tea Party is opposed to environmental sense for no apparent reason, you must have noticed that I was being cynical. The average Tea Party member is opposed to environmentally responsible legislation because they are told to be opposed to it by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. And Rush and Fox are supporting ultra-wealthy corporate interests. These are the same ultra-wealthy corporate interests that picked Mitt Romney to be the Republican Nominee at some point during last year’s primary process, and paid for his makeover from technocrat to social, environmental, and political extremist.

There are lessons. We must learn them.

Lesson one is that well organized grassroots movements work. They work better than unorganized grassroots movements, they work better than inside baseball (on its own), and they work better than their reputation.

Lesson two is that the Tea Party, a successful grassroots movement, works well in part because its grassroots members are willing to think, say, and act in concert with the plan, whatever that plan may be. I don’t suggest that the Progressive Movement or environmentalists develop an army of zombies, but I do suggest that a certain amount of “getting with the program” is a good idea.

Lesson three is that the Tea Party is strong and effective, and the corporate sponsors of that extremist movement are getting what they want, because they have powerful tools like Rush Limbaugh and FOX News running herd. We have Al Gore. I love Al Gore. But he is not Rush Limbaugh. Which is a good thing. But still. I think you can see my point.

Lesson four is a sad emerging reality: Nobody will care about Sandy, the droughts, the fires, or any of it unless FOX News and Rush Limbaugh verify that these things are real and important. Perhaps the coming Bacon Shortage will turn a few heads. This, of course, relates back to Lesson three.

Lesson five, and if you ever had a conversation with a Communist for more than a half hour you heard this from them, and ironically, it is a truth that is being exploited by the Right Wing: inside trading always becomes mere trading and that always becomes the hobgoblin of the state and corporate interests that the inside trading may have initially sought to change. Compromise means the corporate interests win. Compromise means the status quo wins. The reason old school dyed-in-the-wool communists like to point this out is that the obvious solution is a pervasive, complete, and if necessary violent revolution. The problem with that, of course, is that you are more likely than not to end up with Stalin. That is not good for the environment and is probably bad for a number of other reasons.

But since we are talking about collective action and such, we can bring in Lesson Six. Lesson six is that one of the most powerful political forces in this country (and a few other countries as well) is being left out of this conversation, but is perhaps the best ally environmentalists can develop. Unions are losing power, and it is not a coincidence that their struggle is against political entities bought and paid for by ultra-rich corporate interests and individuals. Unions stand the most to gain from a new Green Economy. Unions can be rebuilt on the backs of our current crisis, and our economy can be rebuilt on the backs of the Unions, if everybody would just get a stronger back and start doing the heavy political lifting we need to do. In the meantime, we save the planet.

Lesson seven, then, is that Unions have been too long in bed with social conservatives and other right wing causes. The Union shows up to endorse the Democrat, but the union member all too often exercises his or her right to vote against the interests of that same Union. Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority were the hard hats and other Union rank and file, and that hasn’t changed much. What we need now is more of a recognition of Silent Spring by that Silent Majority. The Unions have to get on board with the environmental movement, and visa versa. The next round of Progressive candidates to run for the US House have to be endorsed by Bill McKibbens’s and by the AFL-CIO. Strongly, honestly, and in the voting booth and not just the pocket book.

Can we get organized, people?

UPDATE: One could see this all as a matter of blaming the environmental group. But that would be wrong. In fact, it is the corporate interests, wealthy, their stooge, the science denialists who deserve 100% of the blame. Also, the American People for their irresponsible voting habits deserve some of the blame. And, poor strategy on the part of environmental groups. And maybe the grassroots too, for not being active enough. There is plenty of blame to go around, and yes, it does add up to about 200% or more! An important perspective on this is this post by Joe Romm: What Theda Skocpol Gets Wrong About The Climate Bill Fight

Related: Beyond baby steps: Analyzing the cap-and-trade flop by Bill McKibben.


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