New Century, New Challenges

“The Death of Environmentalism” has stimulated a lot of debate, and not just at tables where environmentalists gather. It asks questions that are legitimate and necessary to consider: how to fight Wal-Mart, how to win universal health care, how to create a world of limitless opportunity instead of widespread hunger and disease. It suggests the need for a completely new approach to combating global warming -- an approach that must reach across the planet to address megacorporate power, economic interests, cultural differences, and individual expectations.

These are 21st-century organizing challenges, made more difficult in the case of global warming by the scientific community's demand for immediate action to prevent ecological disaster. They require new alliances, new ways of thinking, new strategies, and new tactics. They require us to define ourselves in new and bold ways, not to change our behavior based on their criticisms or spend time responding to their efforts to define us. What they do not require, however, is that we abandon everything we have learned and accomplished. Our organizing and coalitional skills are the foundation upon which to consolidate the power needed to win.

The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Coalition building is the bedrock. Our progressive history is filled with examples, as when firefighters and dump-site communities worked together to pass community-right-to-know legislation, or when conservative faith groups and anti–World Trade Organization activists together won global debt relief. We must build bigger and broader coalitions, anchored in mutual trust and the ability to move beyond “siloed” issues. Some coalitional issues are overarching, like “clean elections” and electoral reform. Others are similar in spirit, as when ideology trumps science at the National Institutes of Health or when administration officials dismiss the science behind global warming. And others may not be of direct concern to one partner but, by strengthening other coalition members, may make the whole more powerful.

Be bold and proactive, not timid and reactive. As my mother used to tell me, “Stand up straight.” Those on the right are constantly trying to define us in the minds and eyes of the media and the public. Don't let them. They want to present us as elitists, as out of touch with America. But we are people who care about preventing asthma and birth defects, who want children to drink arsenic-free water, who believe that investing in renewable energy and conservation will create good jobs while reducing oil dependence and protecting the environment. Those are majority American values. Our coalitions must aggressively define our values and be just as aggressive in attacking the falsehoods being used against us.

Act locally, act globally. Whether we are talking about the global environment or the global economy, we must build coalitions in our neighborhoods, across the nation, and around the world. During the Central American Free Trade Agreement debate, Central American workers, public-health advocates, people of faith, and elected officials developed joint strategies with their U.S. colleagues. We must build those ties more securely. The Bush administration's refusal to adopt global treaties creates common bonds among environmentalists supporting the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, women's rights activists supporting the United Nations Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and other international agreements.

Make it real. An oil-company ad now appearing on television asks a woman whether she would give up her car in order to improve the environment. She answers that she wants clean air but that giving up her car would be like giving up chocolate. While the ad goes on to talk about “clean fuels,” it damages our message. It caricatures environmentalism as forcing a choice that requires giving up a car or a job, or perhaps freezing in the dark. Whether we are fighting against global warming or for national health care, we need to talk about our issues in personal terms, demonstrating benefits and dismissing false dichotomies. We should highlight the positive trade-offs environmental progress will bring. For instance, investing in renewable energy sources will bring new jobs, and cleaner air and water will lead to lower health-care costs. For these reasons, the Apollo Alliance and other blue-green efforts are critically important.

Diversity is a necessity. We must build coalitions that are racially, geographically, economically, and socially diverse. We are battling wealthy, powerful interests, and we will win only if we put together a coalition that represents the majority. Just as we cannot win if we organize only in blue states, we cannot win if we do not create a movement that from the beginning invites people of color, persons with disabilities, those living in rural communities, and others. The environmental-justice movement has succeeded in building diverse coalitions by uniting allies in civil-rights, education, legal, medical, and scientific organizations. Currently, a coalition of those organizations is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that the government listens to the concerns of stakeholders and community groups when environmental hazards threaten their communities.

Electoral politics is essential. At the end of the 20th century, most groups were convinced that being correct on issues was not enough; they had to build political power by engaging in electoral politics. We learned the lesson that voter registration, mobilization, and education is more important than preparing a policy brief, and that training and running progressive candidates can matter more than testifying before Congress.

We need to become even more strategic -- not just in focusing resources and developing a “farm team” but also in recognizing that it matters who is in control. Think about what it would mean for progressives if Nancy Pelosi were House speaker and congressional committees were chaired by people like George Miller, John Conyers, Charlie Rangel, and Henry Waxman. Would we still have to work hard to stop global warming or win labor rights? Absolutely. But we wouldn't have to spend our time keeping the Republican leadership from turning back the clock on mercury emissions or fighting against Social Security privatization and the destruction of Head Start. In other words, in making endorsements, it is more strategic to think about who the candidate will support for speaker than whether he or she will co-sponsor a bill that will never see the light of day.

Just do it. We all must do more and do it better, the operative word being “do.” We should not be debating whether it is better to act to prevent local utility power-plant emissions or to build support for a strengthened Kyoto agreement. We must do both. We cannot wait to implement a strategy until we are positive it will succeed. Of course we want “achievable wins rather than impractical losses.” But -- by building power and expanding coalitions, by creating trust and personal respect, and by creating a progressive frame that is inclusive and encompassing -- we can turn what is impractical today into what will be achievable tomorrow.

Jan Schakowsky represents the 9th District of Illinois and serves on the House Democratic Leadership Team as chief deputy whip.

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