Why doesn’t environmentalism bridge the political divide?

No one expected to hear anything about the environment or climate disruption at the Republican convention. So it has been no surprise that the words climate or carbon or, say, endocrine disruptors are not even footnotes, let alone headliners. (Note: I wrote this before Romney’s spectacularly ill-received joke about Obama’s promising to stop rising sea levels.)

Nor am I holding my breath in anticipation of their resurgence at the Democratic convention. In a way, that makes the whole topic non-partisan: neither party is talking about it. The Republicans have given the issue such a pariah-like image that even the formerly supportive Dems have been cowed into believing it’s a non-starter politically. Of course, that isn’t actually the case and I wrote recently about how this political strategy may not be accurate.

The evolution of environmentalism from a grass roots populist movement to being cast as anti-jobs and anti-capitalism has been well documented. (Less frequently noted is that environmentalism used to be a Republican platform, dating back at least to the days of Teddy Roosevelt.) Lost in this is the observation that environmentalism is really a partisan issue only in the eyes of the corporate interests who fear (often incorrectly) that they are threatened and in the mouths of the candidates who perceive those interests as the voice of the populace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Republican Teddy Roosevelt was famously taken camping in Yosemite by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and father of preservationism. Though Roosevelt later sided more with conservationists, who advocated “wise use” of resources rather than the stricter approach of preservation, there’s no doubt that his tenure as president established the validity of government’s role in environmental issues.(Photo source: Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

But a basic tenet of EcoOptimism is that environmentalism and the economy are not at odds, that the portrayal of the issues as a tradeoff of one for the other is not only a false dilemma, but is just flat out false.

Rhetoric, as has been widely acknowledged, has taken the place of fact and discussion — a carbon tax is patently bad because it is both a tax and, we are repeatedly told, an anti-jobs extremist idea. (Repetition of something often enough, even if it’s your own words, makes it true, right?) Never mind that there are demonstrable ways to set up carbon pricing that are capitalist in nature (no pun intended), that will increase employment and diminish the deficit, perhaps while being “revenue neutral.”

The description revenue-neutral , combined with the benefits just listed, should make carbon pricing a point of non-partisan agreement, especially when it has the potential to include a reduction in income taxes and perhaps a simplification of our ridiculously convoluted tax code (which often includes “perverse incentives” that favor investments in unenvironmental activities and essentially lead to a double whammy of reduced government income and increased government expenses to repair the damages incurred). But “revenue-neutral” is not going to make anyone’s top ten bumper sticker slogans. How else can we bring intelligent discussion to the topic?

If environmental initiatives can help fix our current economic woes and can do that utilizing capitalist approaches, why aren’t they political no-brainers? (Yeah, I know, “political no-brainers” opens the door to all kinds of comments. I’ll resist.)

The painfully obvious answer, of course, is that it would, in the short term, upset the corporate apple carts, especially those belonging to fossil fuel interests. And since money is now equated with free speech, theirs is now the free-est.

There are numerous companies, both existing and startup as well as those not yet envisioned, that would benefit from such a correction to the free market. (In a true free market, one of the necessary conditions is accurate pricing and, when polluting or causing harm to others is free, that’s a strong indication that the free market isn’t working as it should. Even conservative icons Adam Smith and Milton Friedman would agree with that.) Unfortunately those companies do not have the financial or political clout to outshout the “big boys.”

Nor do non-profits. Even if they did have equivalent resources, they are characterized as fringe groups interested only in destroying American enterprise. Which brings us right back to the point that doing this will not destroy the economy or capitalism or “American exceptionalism.”  More probably it will save and improve all of these things.

Yes, I know Citizens United made this imbalance of power far worse. But still, there has to be a way (I’m drawing here upon the optimism part of EcoOptimism) to convey such a broadly appealing “morning in America” message. What’s the path to convincing a climate change skeptic that carbon pricing (staying on that one topic for a moment) is a good – or great – idea even if it turns out all those scientists are wrong. How does a win-win solution become tagged as a loser?

I’m writing this the day after Paul Ryan’s nomination acceptance speech, a speech which has been condemned even by Fox News columnists for being built on lies. So I may be somewhat less than my EcoOptimistic self in wondering how distortions (“you didn’t build that”) and lies can be overcome. Or how, when protesters are kept so far from the candidates that their (less funded) viewpoints can’t be seen or heard, voices can be equaled.

Simply shouting louder is not the answer when you don’t have the stage. Environmentalists certainly didn’t have any part of the stage at the Republican convention and aren’t likely to have much of one at the upcoming Democratic version. Corporate Republicans built their own stage in the form of Fox News. Democrats have occasionally tried (did anyone ever watch Current TV or listen to Air America?), but they’ve lacked the corporate “free speech” money.

They’ve also lacked the unrelenting, single-minded, take-no-prisoners clarity of messaging, truthful or otherwise, that Fox and Republicans hew to with a military-like oneness. Should Dems and environmentalists copy that method? That’s probably a rhetorical question given the nature of the participants.

If the only viable path, given the lack of regulation on campaign contribution and lobbying, is to seek corporate money and major contributors, why don’t we  seek to show the signatures behind that money that we’re not their enemy, that the pursuit of win-win environmental/ecological solutions will be in their interests. Even oil companies, if they remain focused on that one energy source, will find themselves dead-ended in the long run. (We’ll save the issue of short-term financial tunnel-vision for another time.)

All the Patagonias and Ben and Jerry’s in the country can’t come close to the financial clout of an AT&T or a Murdoch or the misleadingly named US Chamber of Commerce. Does our only route involve gaining their ears (and wallets)? I don’t want to think so – I want to believe rational thinking and persuasion can win the day on their own — but it certainly seems as if we need to alter the political equation. And surely there are ways to convince the entrenched interests that the path they are pursuing is not, in fact, in their interest. It’s not a false choice between capitalism and the environment. It’s an opportunity – one that we pass up at the risk of losing everything and that we take to open the way to a world in which individuals, nations and capitalism can flourish. The downsides and disruptions, though there, are temporary, short-term and relatively small while the rewards are huge and continuing.

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2 Responses to Why doesn’t environmentalism bridge the political divide?

  1. Kaja Gam says:

    Hi David,
    I completely agree with this!. There are repuplican juicers and democratic plastic bag carriers! I have many clients who are republican – I am not – but we have a lot in common when it comes to our national attitude towards the environment. Political differences do not always run along the expected environmental fault lines, and we do the planet a disservice if we presume otherwise-

  2. Pingback: Biking and the Fallacy of Zero-sum Environmental Thinking — Financial Press

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