A few weeks ago David Morris sent me The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage. David is the co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a recent Town Creek Foundation grantee. We support ILSR’s ‘Waste to Wealth’ initiative through which it is organizing support for expanding composting in Maryland.Founded in 1974, ILSR works to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. As its name implies, ILSR champions local self-reliance – ‘humanly scaled institutions and economies’ through which ownership is distributed as widely as possible.David works out of ILSR’s Minneapolis office, where he runs their program on Defending The Public Good. In their words, the program is a response to ‘the wild imbalance between those who favor protecting public assets and those who do not, between those who believe the public should take priority over the private, and those who do not, between those who would emphasize the ‘we’ over the ‘me’ and those who would not”.
David sent me the Guide because Maryland and Minnesota are two of the four states in which rigorous debates are currently underway about marriage equality. David is distributing the Guide in Minnesota and hoped I might be able to help to do so in Maryland. I am inclined to send the Guide to our grantees, and to profile it on our blog. I suspect that it will not be self evident to our grantees how we see any connection between their work and marriage equality. Most of these organizations are focused on restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and/or on insuring Maryland’s rapid transition to a clean energy economy.
Their instinctive reaction will probably be that they’ve not much to gain and possibly much to loose by entering the Marriage Equality conversation. They likely suspect that marriage equality proponents and supporters are already in the environmental camp, and they likely fear that the issue may alienate those whose support they are still trying to win.
I think that this reaction is reinforced by an argument that I often encounter in our grantees. This is the belief that environmentalism is, at bottom, a broadly held value that can override disagreements on a range of other things. This is the hope that we can agree to disagree about a range of things – music, fashion, spectator sports, recreational pursuits, the value of the public sphere, the appropriate size and purpose of government – and yet agree on the importance of environmental protection. This view of environmentalism as fundamental (if sometimes latent) and independent – untethered by ideology and disconnected from other values – drives and defends our perpetual quest for ‘unlikely’ allies and ‘unusual suspects’.
There are many interesting things about this perspective, one of which is the way that it rejects – without naming – a range of alternative possibilities. It rejects the idea that the will to protect the environment may be activated by a specific constellation of values, and undermined by an alternative constellation. It rejects the idea that our ability to protect the environment may be enabled by particular ideological commitments and undermined by alternative ideologies. In the particular case it overlooks the possibility that sustainability – the authentic, robust sustainability that we require – may be an emergent property of a more just, democratic, and equal society, and not simply a correction that can be grafted onto any society.
Now it would be easy to overstate this in unfair ways – indeed, I’ve probably already done so. While many if not most of our grantees act as if they believe that ‘we are all environmentalists under the skin’ I do not discount the possibility that they may just be acting. After all, forty years of demonization generates a certain incentive to present oneself as non-threatening and normal, just like everybody else. More importantly, we have made real gains arm in arm with ‘unusual suspects’ and ‘unlikely allies’, and it would be shameful of me to ignore or discount this.
I do think, however, that our assertion and embrace (whether real or tactical) of independent environmentalism is not without cost, not least of which is a certain kind of strategic atrophication. If we believe – or if we act as if we believe – that environmental protection is an independent value, lurking in everyone, then the critical questions probably wind up being tactical ones: How do we orient our work so as to most effectively and efficiently catch whatever appears to be the dominant stream? If, however, environmental protection is an interdependent, ideologically inflected value, then it would seem that questions of vision – and therefore strategy – become unavoidable. What constellation of values need we strengthen, and how will we do so? What ideological commitments need we broaden, and how will we do so? What society are we striving towards, who else is moving in that direction, and when, how, and where can we join with them? How, in other words, do we generate a stream that moves powerfully in the direction that we need to go?
There is always important engagement on these questions, and I’d like to see our community more involved with it. The World Wildlife Fund UK’s Strategies for Change Project has produced a series of reports exploring the relationship between values and environmental protection, and discussing the implications for campaigners if the will to protect the environment is activated by a specific constellation of values and undermined by an alternative constellation. I assume that many of us have read Naomi Klein’s powerful piece in The Nation on “Capitalism vs. The Climate” and Gus Speth’s “America The Possible” essays.
This work seems to me to be united by a sense that the systemic challenges that confront us – political, economic, social, cultural, and, yes, ecological – will not succumb to free market fixes, tailpipe tactics and ‘unholy alliances’. Arguably we environmentalists have a special responsibility to engage this possibility, because the most pressing signals are coming in on our wavelength. If climate change is the paradigmatic example of the planet rebelling against its political, economic, and ideological operating systems, we ought to be the first to recognize that we won’t get where we need to be by agreeing to disagree about politics, economics, and ideology.
So, I am posting about David’s Guide on our blog, and forwarding this post to our grantees. I don’t know what our grantees will do with this, or what they will think I want them to do with it. I’m not so sure about that either. What I do know, is that right now, Maryland is ground zero in a fight over the direction (and pace) in which we will evolve as a society, and it does seem to me that that is something that environmentalists ought to stand up and be counted about.