The Political Right and Environmentalism

Posted on August 30, 2012

The American Right is crushing the environmental movement.

Environmentalism is in retreat in American politics. I have previously described climate change as a toxic brand politically. Environmental issues have been beaten down the political agenda and politicians of whichever party have to tread carefully before supporting any kind of environmental agenda. This represents a significant success for the political Right at the expense of the environmental movement. As we watch the Republican Party Convention in Tampa, it may be appropriate to reflect why we have come to this.

The environmental movement and the American political right (the Right) represent almost polar opposites in attitudes, approach and perceptions. The long-term success of the Right and the short-term meteoric rise of its Tea Party wing are based on a number of characteristics that contrast vividly with the environmental movement. Here are only a few.

A Cohesive, Emotive Narrative

Agree with it or not, the Right has a cohesive narrative. The political stance is clear and presented in simple (some would say simplistic), understandable language that is able to reach people’s emotions. The environmental narrative is none of the above. It is neither clear nor presented in simple language. Where the Right broadly speaks with one voice, every environmentalist organization presents a different perspective as to why ‘the environment’ is important. There isn’t even clarity on what is this ‘environment’ we are trying to protect. For some it’s about climate, for others endangered species, for others pollution, for others wilderness areas, for yet others it is all of the above in a kind of foggy blend. Neither is any of this presented in ways that emotionally engage most people. The Right offers “economic growth”, “cheap energy”, “drill baby drill” and “an America that leads the world again”; environmentalists offer “biodiversity”, “ecosystem services” and “2 degrees Celsius & 565 gigatons”. Irresistible political dynamite?

Grass Roots

While having a cohesive narrative, the Right has built its support bottom-up – both in terms of framing and in terms of implementation.

The Right takes values that are well established among a significant proportion of the American public and builds its political story on the strong base that such values provide. In implementation, the Right starts from small town America and works upwards from there. The Right’s natural habitat is among ordinary people and communities. Their support is solid because it is built upwards from grass roots.

The environmental movement on the other hand is a top-down enterprise. Its ideas and values are constructed by scientists, NGOs and in the halls of academia and then pushed out – first to decision makers through lobbying and later to a general public that remains largely bemused. There is a wide disconnect between so-called “environmental values” and the values and everyday concerns of ordinary people. The environmentalist’s natural habitat is in universities, think tanks, NGOs, scientific bodies and other elite groups. The environmentalist is often an intellectual; more interested in ‘nature’ than in people; more interested in the science than in popular appeal; and who largely feels that earthy, competitive, everyday politics is better morphed into ‘political science’ before it becomes an acceptable subject for discussion.

Hope Not Despair

Finally, the Right has an energizing narrative. It is offering Hope, Freedom, Self-determination and a positive future to aspire to. One may or may not agree whether the policies being put forward will actually achieve such positive outcomes, but one cannot deny that the platform is positive, aspirational and energizing for many.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, remains stuck in its narrative of human guilt and austerity. There is no positive future to aspire to – merely repentance for our sins of the past, sacrifices today and, for subsequent generations, a future that remains an abstraction. The prize on offer is the avoidance of an ill-defined apocalypse at some uncertain time in the future.

Playing to Win

Love them of hate them, the political Right has been hugely successful in American politics. They are playing to win and they are good at it. Rather than wrapping themselves in the superiority of intellectual blinders and dismissing the Right with disdain, environmentalists can instead afford to take some time to learn what they can from the successes of a political whirlwind that threatens to kick environmentalism into political oblivion in America.

There is much that the environmental movement can learn from the Right’s successes – as well as from their own successes. It is not coincidental that so many successful environmental initiatives are locally based and grass roots focused. They do, however, tend to stop at being merely ‘local projects’ rather than becoming part of a broader political approach that builds from the ground up. What needs to be understood is that taking the easy route of targeting decision makers at the top and hoping that one’s ideas will then be forced down on to a reluctant population will never, ever work. The all pervasive language of science; the irrational, but seemingly unshakeable, belief in the human as rational actor who can be convinced with facts and figures alone; the attempts at imposition of ‘environmental values’ that have no basis in people’s everyday experiences; treating the Right with disdain rather than learning from their successes  – these tactics will not be sufficiently successful.

Fortunately, we are seeing a new brand of environmentalism start to emerge – one that has a greater chance of success. More of that some other time.