Are Professionalized Environmentalists the Problem?

Image credit: Sierra Club

Not long ago I was musing about the futility of painting those whose actions or politics we oppose as eco-villains—the subtext being that civilized debate and even (gasp!) compromise might get us further than conflict and grandstanding. But flicking through the pages of the UTNE Reader this weekend, I read an alternative viewpoint. Maybe the mainstreaming/mellowing of environmentalism is exactly why we are making such slow progress. That seems to be the core thrust of the argument being made in an interview with Kierán Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, a group of former Earth Firsters who are now busy suing the federal government—a tactic which has seen them win threatened or endangered listings for 380 species.

According to Kierán, the "professionalization of the environmental movement" is precisely why progress has been so slow on practically all major environmental challenges we face:

"These kids get degrees in environmental conservation and wildlife management and come looking for jobs in the environmental movement. I'm more interested in hiring philosophers, linguists, and poets. The core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law. It's campaigning instinct. That's not only not taught in the universities, it's discouraged."

I'll admit that, as a rule, I am not very good at conflict—so this is a message that sits somewhat uncomfortably with my own personal tendencies. But that's precisely why it made me stop and think. When do we need to co-operate/compromise, and when do we go all out for what we believe is needed? Suckling certainly seems to have little doubt in his mind:

"The environmental movement is strongest when it has a clear vision and is willing to be way out in front of political leaders, and is willing to cause controversy, which is absolutely necessary to change the status quo. I think it's weakest when it too closely follows the Democratic Party instead of playing an aggressive nonpartisan position."

Suckling's emphasis on nonpartisanship is key here—advocating an aggressive, ambitious position based on the principles of ecology—not the politics of left or right. And that is something everyone should be able to get on board with. (It's somewhat ironic to think that a more aggressive environmental movement could actually be less divisive if it steered clear of party-political allegiances.)

Very little major social change has happened without protracted and sometimes bitter debate, conflict and controversy. (And let's face it, shifting society from an unsustainable path to a sustainable one is about as major as it gets!) Given the urgency being imparted by climate science, ambitious goals like 100% renewables by 2030 are totally justified from a scientific perspective. So maybe we all need to stop worrying about whether or not they are politically feasible and push for them anyway.

At risk of returning to my fence sitting ways, I suspect that this is a case of both/and, not either/or. The environmental movement, like everything else, is an ecology of different actors working together (even when they don't realize it) to move society in the direction we need to go. We need the aggressive activists biting at the heels of industry and politicians, pushing them toward bigger measures, and calling them out when they screw up. And we also need the professional greens helping lead them to where we want them to be. To paraphrase a previous post, gardening is the best metaphor for everything. Even campaigning.

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