How To Steer Environmental Movements: 15 Year Quarterbacking

I was rather concerned 15 years ago that the Al Gore - led carbon global warming movie was gathering so much steam that it was cannibalizing the "Rainforest" focus of the previous decade. I was concerned that, tactically, it was recruiting people away from Rain Forest action more than it was attracting non-environmentalists (though I conceded it was doing both). My suggestion then was that Gore, McKibben, and cohorts make habitat preservation as a "carbon sink" more front and center than energy generation.

About 10 years ago, a reporter friend, Ingrid Lobet, who had worked on NPR's Retroworks de Mexico coverage let me know she was going on assignment to Indonesia, where the burning of the rainforest was exposing so much peat and carbon sequestered (deep organics under trees) that it was turning the geography (former rain forest) from a "sink" into a top emitter of carbon.

Here's news about an agency making dead rain forest carbon a top issue.

Time passes...  About 5 years ago I learned that the beef farms in the Amazon were likewise generating double the methane that the former forest had consumed in carbon.

It was about the rain forest, not the Prius.  And mining of rare earth metals - the 1970 focus, was threatening habitats.

Rainforests - and the Rainforest Action Network - was the cool buzz in 1985, when I was in Africa, still in touch with early 20s liberal environmentalist buddies. So in 2000, it was 15 years after the Rainforest became the center of attraction for Agents of Conscience.

But we'd gone from WHO and Rolling Stones concerts in 1980s to Placebo and Fatboy Slim and Alanis Morrisette and Tracy Chapman, and were now into Eminem and Gnarls Barkley... Just as it's hard for musicians to remain relevant, so it is difficult to remain a hot, coffee table cause celebre.

So I guess I am glad I wasn't too ashamed of the glares I got when fellow environmentalists mistook me for a killjoy 15 years ago. Scientists and engineers were attracted to the carbon science, and that was a net asset. But they can also tell you when you are building a weak foundation or losing added value in an existing species-oriented Rainforest alliance. Looking forward, young carbon focused environmentalists should bond with the aging generation of activists like Jane Goodall, WWF, and craft a LORAX message which isn't TMI, but which gives forest and habitat preservation higher billing than hybrid cars.

But I'm also open to the idea that I'm Monday morning quarterbacking on this. Perhaps dialectic during periods of emotional recruitment isn't a solution either. I'm not an engineer.

After all, 15 years ago, I was 40. That was the beginning of being the oldest dude in the college activist room. Married with twins, you lose the chemistry that goes with the excitement of being around motivated people... Because activism somehow incorporates sexual chemistry... which we know has "attraction" psychology to it.

And dialectic - disagreement - is psychologically an acquired taste. It is harder to win the weekend... etc., etc. Etc! 

Warhorse.  This is a link to a blog I wrote about the mistake Europeans made, in the MPPI - PACE discussions to set "rules" for export (which I knew wasn't export, it was import), to not incorporating Africa's Tech Sector. I reread the blog (frankly surprised by how many hits it had gotten), and it's on a similar theme of psychology, motivation, and the role of dialectic in emerging "movements".

They were fascinated - and distracted - by fire and exotic people of color and post-colonial guilt. They never had an African or Asian importer in the room, and it was like setting Bureau of Indian Affairs policy without native Americans in the discussion. They were staring at Awal, and ignoring Wahab.

You don't let retired generals run your wars for you, but you don't neglect to interview them, in depth, and incorporate their experience. The experience of the "carters" and depression-era recyclers in Massachusetts I drank in at MA DEP guided me in understanding value added, which proved to be a key litmus test in defining the economics of trans-boundary movements from people who saw "waste" to people who saw "opportunity".

Sure, you can point out that Al Gore was a way hardier warhorse than I was. But he was in kind of a unique place at the time, having just lost a shocking Presidential election. And I am today the age Gore was when he lost... so there's a weirdness to this integration of generations theme.

Being a grumpy old environmentalist has to fit in somewhere in the chorus of everyone involved in the environmental movement, which is itself a hodgepodge of self-promoters, English majors, photographers, singers, nerds, etc who share a fundamental "agent of conscience" spark. I see how much better engineering and health science has gotten, after so many mistakes, and I think "maybe criticism and warhorse talk will have a value in the long run, after the personal egos have been diluted".

The concerns of Vance Packard (Waste Makers), Rachael Carlson (toxics), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) are all still alive today, I'm not saying our movements or Agents of Conscience forget them.  It's just an engineering puzzle, and we have to incorporate as many motivations and factors and psychology, etc. as we can.  The carbon and global warming focus did in the end bring a number of number crunchers into the room who were missing in 1960.  Environmentalism has to be a big tent.  If the number crunchers found that rainforest preservation is key to the climate math, then it's an opportunity to bring PETA and animal activists into the movement.  Big tent.

Postscript:  If you have lived in your house for 15 years, and the lights go out - pitch black - you are not being arrogant or bossy to try to lead your guests out of the house.  You might bump into something, and some of your guests will.  But it's your responsibility to try, rather than throw your hands up in the dark.

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