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Reforming the Environmentalists

Almost two generations have passed since the first Earth Day in 1970, and a debate swirls about whether the environmental movement is dying. In Los Angeles, progress combating ozone and particle pollution seems to have ceased. Dreams of electric vehicles have faded. Diesel pollution from the freight industry kills thousands from cancer, and the best solution on the table is simply to limit deaths to their present level.

Globally, glaciers shrink and oceans rise as climate change proceeds under an atmospheric blanket of man-made gases. More geologists, even the oil companies, warn that petroleum will become scarce, if not run out, in the lifetime of today’s children. Scientific studies show that industrial chemicals have tainted Earth’s atmosphere, soil, water, and the web of life itself.

If there was ever a time for environmentalism, it should be now, but instead, concern about the environment has sunk like a rock in American public-opinion polls.

The problem is that at some point in the last 35 years, environmentalism, especially the big environmental groups — from the Sierra Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council — lost touch with the root concepts of ecological balance and sustainability that gave birth to the movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, these concepts are as valid as ever because they provide answers to the big questions of how the economy should be organized, how cities should be shaped, how buildings should be built, how children should be educated and how we should relate to one another.

Yet, in 2005, too often it is difficult to distinguish between the representatives of mainstream environmental groups and corporate industrialists, both of whom have pushed the radical concepts of ecological sustainability aside, albeit for different reasons. The big environmental groups have abandoned the root ideas to win public acceptance and donations by not challenging Americans to do too much to protect the environment and conserve resources. Industrialists have managed to push aside any concept of sustainability because it threatens their need for constant economic growth to sustain corporate profits in the next quarter.

The result has been a confluence of opinion on what’s needed to solve environmental problems among government agencies, corporations and the so-called environmental community, which is dominated by the big national environmental groups and their local and regional look-alikes.

This was evident this summer as a panel of industries and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged the state to back development of “clean coal” power plants in the West to provide cheap electricity to the state, a policy championed by the Bush administration in the recent energy bill. The unanimity of opinion surprised one member of the California Energy Commission, who questioned the “stampede to coal.”

The scientists, attorneys and policy analysts who labor at the big environmental groups surely are knowledgeable. However, they have fallen into an existential crisis, wondering what to do at this juncture.

They well know that clean-air policies have left whole communities behind and have embraced the environmental-justice movement only after it developed independent leaders who posed a challenge to their prominence. They likewise know that consumerism and globalization, with their massive and inefficient use of resources, pollute the air, wreak havoc with the climate and threaten to exhaust the world’s oil supply.

However, they are too much a part of the establishment to advocate the radical changes needed to solve today’s environmental problems. Instead, they focus on the techno-fix, a better catalyst, a new chemical formula, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen highways. They leave unchallenged the suburbanized, class-segregated consumer lifestyle, which — with its sprawl, auto dependence, oil addiction and blowback of diesel soot from cheap imports — profits major corporations but kills people with pollution, creates zones of urban despair and is foreclosing the prospects of prosperity for future generations.

Consequently, they remain welcome in legislative chambers, government halls and foundation boardrooms, where they are seen as trusted team players who accept the conventional wisdom of unlimited economic growth and globalization.

True, this trust has allowed them to wield some influence over lawmakers and regulators. When influence has failed, their legal expertise has allowed them to win many a court battle. Through influence and the courts, they have brought about many improvements, for which they deserve great credit.

Yet their coziness with regulators and lawmakers also has made them captives of the system and increasingly prone to advocate — with only a pale-green shade of difference — the same solutions as corporations, or at least not stand in the way. These include “safe” nuclear power, “clean” coal, “green” ports, and the import of liquefied natural gas, “the clean-air fuel,” from unstable nations abroad where people hate America’s profligate use of their resources.

Such solutions may bring incremental improvements, but will not end the illness caused by air pollution in Los Angeles or move the region toward a sustainable future. Instead, the major environmental groups need to expand their thinking and do more to join with environmental-justice, sustainable-living, civil-rights and economic-development groups in a search for synergistic policies that improve the overall quality of life in Los Angeles, the nation and the world.

To get started here in Los Angeles, their next move could be to press for creation of a strong regional agency with a mandate to control land use and transportation to curb sprawl and redevelop urban areas. Yes, they may alienate some local politicians in the process by threatening to remove their prerogatives, but the stakes are high. The change could unleash a massive reconstruction boom that would bring employment, new industries and affordable housing to the region, especially to blighted urban areas where it is needed. It would move the region away from auto and oil dependence and the attendant air pollution. As the upper middle class, working class and poor increasingly share the same space, it would provide new impetus to solve the education crisis in urban schools and provide more services for the poor and homeless.

Second, they should join with groups that are promoting re-localization of the economy, including the organic farmers-market movement and small-business and green-business groups that are engines of employment in Southern California. When more is grown and made here, there will be less pollution at the port, less fossil fuel burned and less greenhouse-gas emissions.

Third, they should close ranks with human-rights, labor and indigenous-rights groups abroad to make sure that people in areas where oil and natural gas are produced and goods made get a fair shake from the giant companies that run the world’s economy. Likewise, they need to work with labor unions at home to help organize low-paid workers. Maybe then they’ll be able to buy their own new cars that have lower emissions rather than depend on taxpayers for subsidized repairs when they are embarrassingly cited for driving “gross polluters.” Better yet, they might be able to afford a home near where they work. Such steps might raise the price of gasoline and other goods, but that could accelerate the shift toward denser living, public transit, renewable energy and local production, all of which would provide jobs and reduce air pollution and other environmental impacts.

Finally, people are looking for meaning, connection, fun and the chance to use their productive skills. Today, membership in most major environmental groups means sending checks and getting a newsletter and periodic calls related to pending legislation, always ending with a plea for more money.

However, people want to do more. So to make a difference in the years ahead, the major environmental groups must learn how to rise above the narrowness of technocracy and policy debate to constructively engage people in their movement. If they succeed, the air just might end up a little cleaner.


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