Environmental Extremists Are An Asset to Our Movement

Joseph W. Carrillo/CC BY 2.0

The other day, Alex Steffen sent out a tweet about a political theory known as the Overton Window:

The Overton Window: tendency of most to triangulate opinions to reflect middle point between two most extreme-yet-credible views.

It got me rethinking some of my assumptions. From railing against the "anti-environmentalist" Dark Mountain project to questioning the viability of a 100% vegan world, I often find myself playing the role of the realist—pleading that environmentalists stop pushing for extremes, and instead find a viable middle path that is acceptable to the mainstream of society.

To some degree I stand by these assertions.

Sustainability Must Become Mainstream
Our central aim must be to create widespread, mainstream cultural change. But what the Overton Window teaches us is that this cultural change sometimes happens by advocating for what is currently "politically unacceptable". It's a tactic that the right wing of US politics has used effectively for some time, pushing ever stronger and more extreme memes, and in doing so they have shifted the center of gravity further to the right. It's not that mainstream independents and moderates suddenly agree with Glenn Beck (who incidentally wrote a novel called the Overton Window), but rather that they find their views gradually shifting due to the pull of his extreme rhetoric.

So what does this mean for environmentalism and the fight for a sustainable economy? It means we should probably stop worrying quite so much about what is, and what is not, politically realistic.

David Shankbone/CC BY 2.0

"Political Realism" is a Road to Nowhere
When energy advocates argue (rightly) that 100% renewable energy is perfectly possible, they shift the debate—even for those who believe fossil fuels must remain a part of our energy mix. When vegans argue that all animal husbandry in agriculture must end, they shift the Overton window so that animal rights become a more mainstream concern and cheese-lovers like me discover that vegan pizza doesn't suck. The same could be said of advocates for no growth economics, who influence mainstream ideas about what GDP can and can't measure. And when protesters decide to take on a tar sands pipeline that is a done deal in Washington DC, they move the political discourse regarding the acceptability of fossil fuels. Oh, wait, they also get to stop the pipeline...

laurigorham/CC BY 2.0

Maybe realism and compromise really is over rated.

Environmentalism as an Ecosystem, Not a Monoculture
It's not that all environmentalists need to shift to the fringes. Heaven knows we've been marginalized enough already. But by understanding the environmental movement as an ecosystem, we can work together at different ends of the spectrum—allowing some actors to "run point" and move the debate forward, while others work closer to the mainstream, helping to formulate opinion and coalesce it around key issues of agreement.

I've argued before that the success of the environmental movement (which ultimately is about the success of humans as a species) will not be measured by the virtue of individual actions. We need to achieve collective success. And we need to do so by understanding that we are all contributing to a wider, shared goal.

So let's stop bitching at each other about who is "too extreme" or "not committed" enough, and instead lets identify the Overton Window and stretch it wide open in the direction we want to go. And then let's have people who are ready to climb through it and bring others with them.

Thank you Alex Steffen for unlocking the latch.

Tags: Activism | Economics | United States

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