The Failures of the Environmental Community

Skocpol's report is important - we need to move the convinced to action; convince the persuadables, and neutralize/soften the opposition. Public opinion and grassroots passion are the way to go. -Charley
- promoted by david

The failures of the environmental community have been
(a) giving up on a “no regrets” strategy that concentrates on all the things the majority can agree on whether or not they believe in “global warming”
(b) concentrating on legislative and regulatory action to the exclusion of grassroots empowerment through practical demonstrations of individual and community solutions
(c) not building a united front of organizations all pushing in the same direction at the same time and actually executing a common strategy long-term through a battery of complementary tactics short-term (the environmental community is notorious for not knowing the difference between strategy and tactics)
(d) motivating almost exclusively by fear and thereby building learned helplessness and despair rather than fostering individual and community competence
(e) focusing almost totally on a problem orientation rather than a solutions orientation

Other failures include refusing to capitalize on prior success (almost everything the environmental has actually gotten enacted – clean water, clean air, removal of lead from gasoline, toxics use reduction and directory, acid rain, ozone depletion…); refusal to learn from history (not continually pointing out forcefully that the arguments against climate change action are the same arguments used against ozone depletion action and against tobacco action…).

I am not saying that the environmental community (whatever you consider that to be) should give up on legislative and regulatory activity. What I am saying is what I’ve learned from my martial arts teachers: “Use everything!” Eco/enviro/greenies need to do everything they can in every venue they can find, from the personal to the international, from citizen to citizen to government to government. So far, we haven’t. This is working with one hand tied behind our backs and a boxing glove on the other.

I offer this criticism not to be negative but to point people in positive directions. My proposals for positive actions can be read at How to Change US Energy in One Growing Season (, My Solutions to Climate Change (, and, last but not least, I’ve been promoting the idea that Solar IS Civil Defense ( for at least a decade now.

These thoughts began as a comment on Theda Skocpol’s analysis of the failure of cap and trade legislation in President Obama’s first term:

For those in the Boston area, there are two upcoming events where you can engage on these issues with Theda Skocpol:

Climate Change and Social Action
WHEN Mon., Feb. 11, 2013, 4 – 5:30 p.m.
WHERE Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge
GAZETTE CLASSIFICATION Environmental Sciences, Ethics, Humanities, Lecture, Science, Social Sciences, Special Events, Sustainability
ORGANIZATION/SPONSOR Harvard University Center for the Environment
SPEAKER(S) Stephen Ansolabehere, Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School; Rebecca Henderson, Harvard Business School; Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan; Theda Skocpol, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Moderated By:
Daniel Schrag, Faculty of Arts and Sciences; School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
TICKET INFO Admission is free. No tickets or RSVP required. Event entry based on space availability.
CONTACT INFO 617.495.8883,
NOTE What is the role of social action in confronting climate change? What role can a grassroots environmental movement play in sustaining long-term action? What can those concerned with climate change learn from other social movements? Learn more about the event at:…

Thursday, February 14, 2013
4:15-6:15 pm,
Tsai Auditorium, Harvard University, CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge

What lessons can be learned from recent successes and failures including the “cap and trade” effort to win legislated limits for carbon emissions in 2009 and 2010? What are the next steps in the fight for public policies to limit emissions and encourage climate-friendly U.S. economic growth?
Sponsored by the Columbia School of Journalism and the Scholars Strategy Network, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism
Panelists: Theda Skocpol
Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, Harvard University; Director of the Scholars Strategy Network
Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation
Gene Karpinski, President of the League of Conservation Voters
Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign
Lee Wasserman, Director of the Rockefeller Family Fund

Open to the public. RSVP not required. Wheelchair accessible. This event will be videotaped.
Questions: Abby Peck

Recommended by trickle-up, vgreenactivist.


4 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. But we're too scientific to be political!

    There’s an ongoing tendency for the environmental movement not to see itself as part of the broader progressive movement. It’s as if enviro issues were somehow more objective, as if they didn’t require political persuasion.

    On the other hand, the climate change deniers are very clear that they’re in a broader conservative movement. They don’t think their positions are in any way harmed by being politicized.

    • Convincing People

      Reading behavioral economics and marketing books, it seems that facts don’t convince people. Actually, more facts may deepen people’s antagonism to the ideas you’re trying to convince them about. Stories and examples may be much better and we don’t tell a hopeful climate change story.

      In addition, the broader progressive movement tends not to see itself as having anything to do with environmental issues or that movement. The false dichotomy of jobs or environment is alive and well on the progressive side of the aisle too.

  2. I don't see the false dichotomy on the progressive side.

    What I do see is too much talk of sacrifice and cost and who has to pay, and what we can’t do. We need to have more of a yes we can, both/and, carrots rather than sticks. Make it easy, convenient, and cheap to be green and the vast majority will come along.

    • I think Theda Sokpol would agree with you

      Her critique is pretty much about specific things the national environmental organizations, and the foundations that fund them, have done wrong.

      In particular, she compares two big policy initiatives, many years in the making, cap & trade and what we now call Obamacare. It’s worth reading.

      In terms of your observation, however, I think there is a deep structural problem, in that we are entering a period of real environmental and related economic crisis that is making nearly everybody less well off.

      The solutions are better than doing nothing for everyone, but they do not obviously lead to a return to happy days of cheap energy and free lunches. They are thus a hard sell and an easy target.

      That last bit is not Skocpol, it’s me. To my mind the biggest weakness in her analysis is a failure to incorporate any economic thinking. But still a very provocative read with some very solid work form a polisci perspective.

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