Jerome Ringo: A New Face for a New Environmentalism?

When most people picture an American environmentalist, they probably don't conjure up the image of Jerome Ringo. A former worker in the petrochemical industry of Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," Ringo is an African-American union member and community organizer. Ringo is not just an environmentalist, though, but is also the head of one of the country's largest and richest environmental organizations, the National Wildlife Federation. Ringo's ascension to a position of leadership in the environmental community, which is usually manned (I use that word deliberately) by white men from well-to-do backgrounds, may signal a shift in the community as a whole. According to writer Mark Hertsgaard in a new article for The Nation, the traditional large environmental organizations may have recognized that their focus on issues that matter mostly to people like themselves has alienated large groups of people most likely to be affected by environmental degradation: the working class and people of color. Ringo represents a new approach to environmentalism that realizes many people find it hard to get concerned about global warming because they're not sure how they'll pay next month's rent:

...Ringo wants to bring these varying constituencies together across class and racial lines to build a broader and more powerful green movement. His chosen vehicle, besides the NWF, is the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, business leaders and elected officials that advocates a massive green jobs and development program for the United States. Apollo proposes investing $300 billion of public funds in green energy technologies over the next ten years. This investment would create 3 million new jobs and countless business opportunities, Apollo claims, while also fighting climate change and cutting US dependence on foreign oil.

The benefits to poor and working-class Americans of such an economic stimulus program are clear, but the idea is also business-friendly enough to have attracted support from prominent Democratic moderates and other centrists, including the group Republicans for Environmental Protection. "I had a phone call with the chief of staff of [New Mexico] Governor Bill Richardson just this morning," says Ringo, who assumed Apollo's presidency last September. "Several months ago I joined Hillary Clinton and [Pennsylvania] Governor Ed Rendell when the Democrats released their Energy Independence 2020 Plan, and one of the first items was an Apollo project. Apollo began five years ago as a vision. My goal is to turn it into action."

It's still too early to say, but if Jerome Ringo and the Apollo Alliance are representative of larger trends, green politics may at last be finding its voice again in the United States. In the past, most environmentalists did not bother to articulate much of an economic message. Perhaps because they tended to be economically comfortable themselves, they overlooked the fact that many Americans live paycheck to paycheck and thus need to hear that green policies can mean not only cleaner air but also more and better jobs. Indeed, environmentalists often failed to reach out to other constituencies at all; they stayed inside their own issue silo and assumed that having facts on their side was enough.

Hertsgaard's article is long, but it's worth a read, if only to see the many positive actions taking place around the US. While the federal government remains mired in partisan squabbling and denial, state and local governments, headed by members of both major parties, are making ambitious and innovative strides towards addressing some of the biggest environmental challenges facing us. Businesses like Wal-Mart and GE are getting on board. All of this requires reaching out to broader ranges of constituencies, and many, including other leaders of environmental organizations, recognize that people like Ringo, with diverse backgrounds in business, industry, labor and local politics, will likely be the leaders who help "Big Green" transition to these new realities. As Hertsgaard notes at the end of his article, mainstream environmentalism has largely lost its connection with the mainstream. With overwhelming challenges like global warming and energy insecurity facing Americans squarely in the eye, it's good to see that some environmental leaders realize they belong in the rough-and-tumble of political battles, not above them. ::The Nation via Alternet