Dissecting Environmentalism: An Interview with Adam Werbach

Adam Werbach is not only a staple of the environmental movement, but an authentic innovator and one of environmentalism's most honest critics. At twenty-three, he was elected president of the Sierra Club. He is now head of Act Now Productions and sits on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Werbach's most recent endeavor is Ironweed Films, a DVD club and social networking site for the socially and politically progressive. Last year, Adam made a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco called, Is Environmentalism Dead? He checked the pulse: dead indeed. He's been dissecting ever since.Jacob Gordon: If environmentalism is dead, what's next?

Adam Werbach: It's time for us to move beyond separate issue movements like environmentalism and start organizing to move the frightening shift in social values that's occurring in America today. If nothing else, the 2004 elections proved that organizing each liberal constituency around their own issue was not enough to create a winning majority in America. The shift shouldn't be surprising, we've been seeing it creeping into our reality since 1968. In 1968 liberalism and its various sub-movements, including environmentalism, were the majority view. Today, conservatism is the dominant political strain in America. What's next? Building a movement that's united around our common values for social progress, not splitting ourselves up into silos. Call it post-silo organizing.JG: How do you identify yourself at this point?

AW: As a kosher vegiquarian. Seriously, I've always hated labels—they reduce all of us to these simplistic categories that never make any sense.

JG: Who are the American progressives?

AW: The progressive base is about 25% of the population, slightly larger than the conservative base. They're people who have a global view of the world, believe in equality in the household and the workplace, believe that people deserve a hand when in need, believe that people should be allowed to do what they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Progressives come from a proud American tradition that proved that government could be an effective voice for the people. One of the best examples of this tradition is the success of America's environmental policies created in the 1970s.

JG: What do you see out there that epitomizes the positive evolution of earth stewardship?

AW: I've been impressed by the evolution of campus and online activism. I've also been pleased to see that organizations like the Sierra Club have been getting back to their community organizing roots. We need a movement in America again—not just about protecting the environment, but about reclaiming the idea that collective action can improve our country.

JG: You've said that saving ourselves depends not on our ability to shock but rather to inspire. What's the key to inspiring people about solutions to environmental problems? What is inspiring you now?

AW: We fail when we tell people that the problems are horrendous and the solutions are easy. That's just not authentic. The truth is that we need solutions that are as big as the problems. The other side is out there advocating the castration of the United Nations, the rejection of international law and the abandonment of our civil rights. We're telling people that changing light bulbs will do the trick. Yes, changing light bulbs is critical, but it's nowhere near the scope of what we need to be focusing on.

JG: Some people see the most innovative environmental solutions coming from business and industry. Do you see the private sector taking a genuine lead on environmental issues?

AW: In terms of the implementation of environmental protection, there is no doubt that businesses are becoming much more active. That's to be celebrated. Part of the fanfare is due to the fact that the federal government has totally abdicated its responsibilities to create clear, effective, national standards to guide business. In the absence of a national standard on carbon dioxide, businesses are left to figure out their own so that they don't get stuck with future liabilities.

JG: Should people be making environmentalism sexy?

AW: Our goal should be to make social activism for social progress sexy. Some people will focus on things that the public understands to be "environmental," others will focus on things that are important to them. That's fine. We're fighting the Middle Ages right now—we just need people to engage the fight.

JG: What role does earth stewardship have in the future vision of this country?

AW: Important, I hope. I don't want to live somewhere without clean air and beautiful places.

JG: Care to tell us what you have in the works now?

AW: I'm launching Ironweed Films, the first progressive DVD club. The idea is to use great films to get people together in house parties across the country, one living room at a time. We're also launching a new social networking tool on the site in January—a "Friendster for movie lovers." You put in your favorite movies and meet other people with similar interests. We're looking for people who want to champion great movies to be our first adopters. Check it out and spread the word!

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