Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: Young Green Activists for a Warming World
Can a new group of young environmental leaders reinvigorate greens’ grassroots spirit?
The global headquarters of the international climate justice campaign 350.org is located on the fourteenth floor of a random building in downtown Oakland, California. Though "global headquarters" might be over-stating things: The offices consist of three rooms with worn carpeting and a collection of reclaimed desks arranged in a Tetris-like pattern. When I visited on a sunny afternoon in mid-September, the place was strangely silent given that the campaigners were just weeks from another worldwide demonstration demanding sharp greenhouse gas reductions. The organizers had already registered 2,700 events in 100 countries scheduled for 10-10-10; by the time the date arrived, they would clock in about 7,300 actions across the globe. Yet the office had none of the war-room frenzy one associates with a political operation in the lead-up to election day. The young and stylish - if rumpled - campaigners were at their desks quietly sending out emails, zipping instant messages, updating blogs, and posting Twitter updates. To my disappointment, there was no map on the wall full of pins marking confirmed actions. No one was on the phone shouting something like, "Get me Bogota!" The only sound was the click of keyboards.
"I wish we could still campaign like that," Jamie Henn, one of the 350's organizers said wryly as we sat down at the beat-up wood table that doubles as conference and lunch space. Henn has a disarrayed shock of red hair and dark-frame glasses, which makes him look like the lost member of some art-rock band. He is also, true to type, scary-smart. A second after joking about old-school campaigning, he was holding forth on the state of the environmental movement and theories of social change. "There's been a sense that's been missing from the movement about what we are really up against. People use the metaphor a lot of World War II and a World War II-like mobilization. That mobilization didn't happen because people suddenly got really excited about manufacturing. That mobilization happened because there was a real threat that people felt very personally."
Well said, I thought. And even more impressive given the fact that Henn, like the rest of the 350.org organizers, is 26 years old. With the exception of a couple contractors hired for the weeks before 10-10-10, the entire 350 staff is half the age of the campaign's spokesman and (unpaid) figurehead, author-activist Bill McKibben. The folks who brought you what CNN called "the biggest demonstration in history" weren't old enough to cast a vote in 2000.
The 350 campaigners' age might make their accomplishments extraordinary, but among environmental organizations their youth isn't unique. For the first time in a generation, a number of significant green groups are led by people under 40. Phil Radford, who took over Greenpeace USA last year, is 34 years old, as is Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins at Green for All. Erich Pica, the new executive director of Friends of the Earth USA, is 36. Becky Tarbotton, a 38-year-old Canadian, has been tapped to lead Rainforest Action Network. In the clearest sign of a generational shift in leadership, last spring the board of the Sierra Club - the oldest and largest US environmental organization - picked 39-year-old Mike Brune to head the century-old group.
The transfer in leadership away from the Baby Boomers who built today's environmentalism comes at trying moment for US greens. Despite some minor victories, 2010 has been an annus horribilis for environmentalists. The Senate defeat of even weak legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions was a body blow. Perhaps more demoralizing was the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: The worst oil spill in US history occurred last summer and Washington, at least, just shrugged.
The twin setbacks have sparked something of a soul searching. On the green blogs there has been no shortage of theorizing and counter-theorizing about what went wrong. The executive offices of environmental organizations were busy this fall with strategy sessions to figure out how to do better. When the heads of the largest green groups met in New Orleans in September, the defeat of climate legislation dominated the agenda. The environmental movement is trying to rediscover what it has to do to fulfill its political aspirations - and do so very quickly, given the implacable threats of climate change, ocean collapse, and fresh water scarcity.
"I don't think it's a secret that the environmental community is at an inflection point," Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth said to me. In our conversation, Pica was impressively candid about the shortcomings of environmental politics, going so far as to question whether you could even say a green "movement" exists. "We just spent the last, probably, six years trying to pass cap and trade legislation. ...And we lost. We had some victories along the way, we shouldn't undervalue those. But we kind of lost the big enchilada. In looking at it, we have to ask some of the serious questions."
To better understand those questions, I spent several months on a listening tour of environmental leaders. In the course of more than 15 interviews, I spoke with the young leaders now taking ownership of the environmental movement as well as some of the veteran greens whose shoulders they stand on. By way of disclosure, I should note that some of these people, like Henn and Tarbotton, I consider friends and that others, like Brune, I have known for years. That said, these conversations weren't just some intellectual circle jerk among a tight group of eco-cognoscenti. Hanging over the discussions was the very real fact of the planet's failing ecosystems. How these individuals respond to the conjoined challenges of ecological collapse and political inertia is deadly serious. If the warnings about Earth's terminal health are accurate, then it is not an overstatement to say that the wealth of our civilization depends in large measure on the ability of a cohort of twenty- and thirty-somethings to succeed where their predecessors fell short.
"We have a very short period of time to stave off some really massive environmental crises," Greenpeace head Radford told me. "We have very little time to prevent enough carbon dioxide being emitted before it makes the oceans acidic. We have very little time to stop global warning. And we have very little time to prevent the next death from coal-fired power plants. For me, it doesn't keep me up at night. But it does get me up early."
Goodbye to Fucknutsville
There isn't a political operative who doesn't feel some righteous frustration with Washington, DC. This isn't a radical view; even within the corridors of power it has become conventional wisdom that our national governance is busted. In an interview with Vanity Fair, outgoing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel described the dysfunction of the capital with a single, evocative word: "Fucknutsville." I'm not sure what that means, but it doesn't sound good.
The legislative scorecard for environmentalists looks particularly bad. The Senate's inability to even debate a climate bill marked the failure of an effort 15 years in the making. Congress's inaction around the Gulf oil disaster was an especially obvious sign of greens' lack of political muscle. The BP blowout was more than 800 times bigger than the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 that helped spark the modern environmental movement. Yet Congress did little more than go through the Kabuki theater of oil executives' scripted apologies, and President Obama hasn't revoked his proposal to expand off-shore drilling.
When asked about the defeats of the past year, some of the new leaders pushed back against the idea that greens have lost their mojo. "Despite all of the despair and the navel gazing, we're winning," Radford said, citing the Vermont Senate's vote to close the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant and the success in stopping more than 100 new coal power plants across the country. With a shaved head, goatee, and the shoulders of a middle-weight boxer, Radford is what you might expect from one of the most aggressive environmental groups.
The Sierra Club's Mike Brune also debunked any hint of demoralization. "I don't think that we are failing as a movement," he said during an hour-long conversation in his San Francisco office. Wearing black jeans and a short-sleeved collared shirt perfectly matched to his blue-grey eyes, Brune chose his words carefully, his expression attentive to the nuances of the discussion. "Solar and wind continue to grow, and coal power is significantly decreasing. We are building momentum."
Part of this, I have to say, felt like spin. As Harriet Barlow, a longtime environmental activist and director of the Blue Mountain Center, bluntly put it: "We got our little heads ground into the dirt." But in all fairness, Brune and Radford are only doing their jobs - naysayers and cynics do not, as a rule, get the keys to the executive offices of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. In their more candid moments, the new leaders admit that the situation in Washington is grim. "Too many people, including people I spoke to in Congress, don't feel this is a challenge we will effectively meet," Brune said at one point in our discussion. "There is an undercurrent of lack of confidence."
"I wasn't a big fan of the Senate climate legislation, I thought it was pretty weak," Larry Fahn, a Sierra Club board member, said. "But even so, its failure did represent a failure of old-style politicking by the environmental movement."
Among those I spoke with, complaints about inside-the-Beltway stratagems were a constant. Although few people were willing to mention them by name, the criticisms of cap-and-trade legislation were not-so-veiled digs at the cloakroom dealings of EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) and the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the organizations that spearheaded the Capitol Hill fight. In the view of many people I spoke with, those groups - which, for what it's worth, are still run by people in their fifties and sixties - compromised too much in drafting the legislation. By doing so, they lost the enthusiasm of the environmentalist base - and in legislative fights, the base is everything.
"The strategic mistake was appealing to people in the middle," said Tony Massaro, vice president of the League of Conservation voters. "We did a poor job of appealing to our base on the climate legislation. In trying to pass legislation, you need to have more passion, and we didn't demonstrate we had more passion on our side."
EDF and NRDC legislative staffs didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. Wade Crowfoot, the West Coast political director of EDF, did assure me, twice, that "EDF is not going away," but said most of my questions were beyond his pay scale. An attorney with NRDC acknowledged that within that organization there was frustration with the compromises made on the climate bill. "The people I know are all really discouraged and feel pretty cynical," this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Such feelings of discouragement have forced a rethinking of how much energy to keep putting into Washington-focused legislative strategies. The emerging consensus is that it's time to take a step back from Capitol Hill and put more energy into long-term movement building. The younger leaders say they are focused on putting their organizations' efforts into, well, organizing - working community by community to build the political muscle to eventually succeed at Washington maneuvering. It's time, the young leaders agree, to get back to the grassroots ethic that characterized the early days of the environmental movement.
"It's too easy for people to see Congress as the sole mechanism for effecting change," Brune said. "Smarter organizing is to evaluate your success based on the results. The best football coaches go in at halftime and they look at game tape and they say, ‘OK, our offensive line is getting hammered, so we need to go to the passing game.' Or whatever it might be. And there is very little of that among green groups, big and small. We have to come up with new ideas or there's no guarantee that things will change.
"We do our best work when we bring our base along but we are finding new friends and speaking to them about the values that they care about," he said later. "Fighting climate isn't something that's going to be resolved in a matter of months. We're gonna be working on this all decade long. So our base has to grow with time, not wither away with time."
Fortunately for them, the young leaders committed to broadening the green base enjoy the privilege of having inherited a billion-dollar movement infrastructure: offices, websites, and, most important, membership lists. Everyone I spoke with was appreciative of this fact, and had nothing but kind things to say about the people who came before them. "Our predecessors did an amazing job with what they had," Jennifer Krill, the 38-year-old head of the mining and natural gas watchdog group Earthworks said. At the same time, there's a feeling that the legal and regulatory tactics that have become the bread and butter for so many environmental groups may have reached the limits of their effectiveness.
"At some point in the late seventies, early eighties, we got really aggressive and successful at lobbying Capitol Hill and the White House, and that was a transition from being more of a grassroots environmental community," Pica said. "And I think that the successes that we had ... I think we took some of the wrong lessons away. That transformed the movement into this lawyerly, regulatory, DC Beltway-focused community. And we've kind of forgotten, neglected the power base that got us to that point."
To be fair, lawsuits and lobbying have been useful for enforcing - and, when under threat, defending - the country's landmark environmental laws. The attorney-centric NRDC, for example, has played an invaluable role in preventing rollbacks of earlier gains. But the insider strategy is unlikely to build the popular momentum needed to address the twenty-first-century threats to the environment. You're not going to overhaul the foundation of industrial society with a relatively small group of lawyers and scientific experts.
"There's a decreasing return on investment for this strategy of the dominant DC groups," Radford said, "investing in smart policy people, but not investing in the grassroots."
I heard some variation of "investing in the grassroots" from almost everyone I spoke with. To do that successfully, the new leaders must overcome challenges their predecessors didn't face - most notably, a graying membership and the tricky terrain of the internet.
Over the last 40 years, the green groups have built large lists of members mostly through direct mail. Now that membership is aging, and the twenty- and thirty-somethings coming up behind are immune to the mail request. This poses a threat to green groups' political strength and their financial health. Of course, many younger people do have a sense of civic engagement: The Obama campaign's success with the Millennial Generation proved as much. But they engage in a different fashion - online.
And that represents the second major challenge for the new leaders' aspirations: finding a way to ensure that internet activism is just as effective as the tried-and-true tactics of marching and petitioning and calling your legislator. This isn't easy. In the last decade, figuring out how to convert online "awareness raising" to real world action has become the Philosopher's Stone of political organizing. When it works, the Internet can be an awesome tool for social change, as proven by the continued strength of the 4 million-member Moveon.org. But sometimes it becomes simply "clicktivism" - mouse maneuvering as a substitute for real organizing.
Greenpeace's Radford is one of the leaders who has had some success in growing membership. As Greenpeace's organizing director, he increased membership from 100,000 people to 280,000 people, a success that propelled his precocious rise. He accomplished this mostly through old-school canvassing - college kids with clipboards going door-to-door and standing on street corners. The result, Radford said, is a membership more likely to take action when it comes time to press a campaign. "If you're saying, ‘Hey, do you want a cloth tote?' then you see your numbers jump dramatically," he said. "But what you end up with is a donor pool that responds far less to your mission or things that are just about taking action or being part of something bigger. It's just a really different dynamic."
Of all the environmental organizations, 350.org has probably been the most successful at translating online connections into real-world actions. The group has built a global activist community knit together by, of all things, a number referring to parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. "When we set out with 350, we really were trying to spread it as a meme, and the day of action was a tool to do that," said May Boeve, another 350 organizer. Boeve (rhymes with movie) is a California blonde who, like most of the 350 staff, started working with McKibben while a student at Middlebury College. The 350 staff is organized as a consensus-based collective, but with her executive focus and force of personality, Boeve operates as the de facto chief of staff. "I don't know if there's any campaign comparable to ours where all of these people all around the world who aren't on the payroll and who we don't even know send us 350 photos and set up their own 350 chapters. I think we were effective at trying all kinds of things just to get the number out there, and brand it as a symbol of climate safety and the science, but as something you could belong to."
Another challenge of today's political organizing is how to connect with the public in an era in which a certain sardonic attitude has become the default cultural language. Part of 350's success comes from its knack for communicating in a tone that appeals to people under, say, 35. The earnest appeals of yesteryear are a poor match for the zeitgeist of Stephen Colbert and Sarah Silverman. But issues like climate change and mercury poisoning are big time serious. So how do you balance a sober point with a lighthearted message?
"Our generation, we are so used to a personal type of interaction," Henn said. "We've tried to embody that in our emails and our communications. Our blog is not super polished, it's written in an off-the-cuff sort of way. Our e-mails from Bill are infused with this long-format, writerly voice. It has to be fused with a real sense of personality, especially over email and especially on the Web. My theory on writing e-mail blasts is that if you wouldn't write this way to your friends, you probably shouldn't write that way to your members."
"Strategic irreverence, I'll call it," Becky Tarbotton, the new executive director or Rainforest Action Network said to me. "The work has to be fun, inspiring, energizing, and sexy. We're not going to attract people with a sign that says, ‘The End is Near' - even if it is. Irreverence is about inviting people from all walks of life, rather than chastising them for not already being with us."
If the new generation of leaders intuitively gets how to how to mix earnestness with humor and connect with a younger audience, it's because, well, they're them. And as Atari babies - or, "net natives" like Boeve and Henn - they aren't flummoxed by technology. These generation-specific sensibilities mark a real culture shift for environmental activism. The willingness to be off-the-cuff is one of the big differences between the young leaders' and their predecessors. The new leaders are confident they can ditch the focus-grouped, poll-tested language that many organizations depend on, and speak in a language that is more emotional. The overly scripted appeal, they feel, is no longer working. Today's Millennial Generation - awash in marketing and hype - has an exquisitely attuned bullshit meter, and it isn't swayed by spin.
"This new generation sees through messaging frames that aren't authentic, sees through solutions that are only halfway there, that aren't real solutions," said Jessy Tolkan, the 29-year-old former director of Energy Action, the largest campus coalition working on climate (and an Earth Island-sponsored project). "I have to say that the work I have done to mobilize young people to work on environmental issues has reinforced to me how important it is to be authentic."
According to many people I spoke to, a lack of authenticity helped doom the Senate climate legislation. The environmental organizations that spearheaded the fight weren't completely honest with people about whether the proposed solution matched the scale of the problem, and in the process they lost their supporters. The eco-base simply was not buying the proposition that a market-based cap-and-trade deal - agreed upon with corporate America and full of compromises - could head off catastrophic global climate change.
"We have to be able to call balls and strikes, as the champions of protecting the planet," Pica said. "This is true up and down the generational board - you have to have some integrity in how you communicate. If you lose the battle of who is more trustworthy, then you lose your audience, whoever you are talking to."
You Gotta Have Faith
"We have to build a movement." That has to be the most tired phrase of center-left organizing retreats, campaigner e-mail listserves, and op-eds in The Nation. Most progressives - aware of how much US history has been driven from below - intuitively understand that only street heat can overcome the corporate cash and political corruption. On this point, few in the environmental movement disagree. "Who would say, ‘No, we don't need better, smarter organizing?" Brune said to me.
The question, then, is how exactly. Finding the answer represents the biggest test for the new crop of young leaders, who have before them an opportunity to redefine environmentalism, redefine what it means to be an environmentalist, and even, perhaps, build something that transcends those labels.
In talking about the necessity of base building, the green leaders I spoke to often referred to the hard work (and ultimate victories) of the civil rights movement. It's a useful analogy - until it's not. Because there's one major difference between the efforts of Ella Baker and Baynard Rustin and the environmental community as it exists today: passion.
The fact is, despite the best of efforts, environmental issues don't strike a visceral chord with many Americans. Unlike the LGBT movement (in which people are demanding basic civil rights) or the labor movement (which combines enlightened self-interest with a broader call for social justice), environmentalism can seem detached. It's often about saving far-off places or eliminating chemicals we can't see, much less pronounce. There's a lot of jargon. The result is a political movement that - aside from the tiny EarthFirst! contingent and the fever of animal rights activists - can often feel emotionless. Or like emotion without context, like screaming that the house is on fire when nobody can feel the heat.
"You have to go where people's passion is, you have to," Justin Reuben, the 37-year-old executive director of Moveon.org, said to me. "You have to be doing the stuff that when people look it they say, ‘Hell, yeah.'"
One of greens' biggest hurdles in getting to that "hell yeah" moment is what I would call the problem of eco-empathy. The threats to our shared environment are so big that it's hard to attach emotion to them. Global climate change is the best example. Green campaigners sometimes complain that global warming is "hard to understand." True enough. But it's not just that climate change boggles the mind - it also turns off the heart. Emotions depend on closeness. Yet the most worrisome of environmental threats is planetary in scale. We simply don't know where to begin feeling.
"I think that with climate we've been talking about it on such a huge scale, and with such a sense of apocalypse that it's hard for people to wrap their minds around it," Henn said. "Not that they don't care, but they can't feel at that level."
How do you get around this problem? Several people suggested that the answer is to internalize some of the wisdom of the old bumper sticker, Think Global Act Local. The best way to grow the movement for sustainability is by putting new emphasis on the threats - and the solutions - that are near to people's homes ... and close to their hearts.
The successful effort to stop proposed coal-fired power plants offers one model of how to do that. In the last few years, a coalition of more than 100 organizations - from big groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC to small, local outfits - have prevented the construction of 131 coal plants. And they have done so without having to rely on single vote in Congress. The anti-coal battle has been won, Brune told me, because it connects so organically to home-front issues like air pollution, water pollution, and public health.
"It was very local, people could look out their windows and see this giant coal plant spewing pollution into the air, or the prospect of another coal plant being built that would do the same, and they had a very tangible way to stop that plant from being built, or to shut it down," he said. "We're not just appealing to one constituency that cares about climate. There is a broader, more diverse coalition of groups that can be brought together."
Perhaps what's needed, as I wrote in my notebook while listening to Brune, is for "the sustainability movement to focus on a livability agenda." Because when greens emphasize basic quality of life issues, they gain the opportunity to push a broad-based (and non-partisan) agenda. The potency of a livability agenda can be glimpsed in the popularity of the sustainable food movement, as organic farms take root even in dark-red communities like Louisiana and Texas. Livability also meets sustainability when it comes to the widespread frustration with suburban sprawl; even in conservative Phoenix, light rail is popular. And of course livability comes into play in the continuing strong public support for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which can fuel those local struggles against dirty energy.
Another example is the growing opposition to natural gas extraction. The battle against what's known as "fracking" is gaining force because it has the immediacy that drives emotion: People will fight to keep their drinking water clean. "Eight-hundred thousand natural gas wells spread out across the United States as of 2008, the industry is drilling in America's backyards," Earthworks' Jennifer Krill said. "The people who are fighting the natural gas industry are of all political persuasions. We have Tea Party people, we have Republicans, we have farmers and ranchers."
This, of course, is the great asset of a livability agenda: It attracts new people. The passion for working with unlikely bedfellows represents another distinguishing characteristic of the new generation of leaders. They may be resistant to compromise as it has come to be played in Washington, but they are eager to cinch unlikely coalitions.
Few of the new leaders are arguing that greens should give up on Washington and surrender the key territory of national law making. Rather, the idea is that local campaigns can serve as a recruiting tool, and eventually those new supporters will become committed to a larger national and international agenda. No one I spoke to had much interest in following the recommendations of gadflies and ditching the label "environmentalist." Much better, everyone agreed, to expand the definition of what that means.
"I don't think it's about changing the label of ‘environmentalist,' I think it's about changing who participates," Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, the executive director of Green for All, said to me. "I think the reality is that the larger environmental movement has not been diverse. And that is going to have to change to win."
Green for All has been at the forefront of the effort to create bonds of solidarity between low-income and people-of-color communities and the still largely white environmental organizations. Founded by eco rock star Van Jones, Green for All is one of the most vocal organizations making the case that transitioning to an ecologically sound economy will be a huge jobs boost, and therefore is an endeavor everyone can engage in. With a background in the union movement, Ellis-Lamkins seems the perfect person to build relationships between environmentalists and the working class communities suffering from the intransigent recession. A highly photogenic African-American woman, she has the organizer's knack for connecting with a broad range of people all at once. I've seen her address a room of several hundred people and, in the course of a ten-minute speech, pivot effortlessly from girlish enthusiasm to braniac gravitas. Her tone is much different from the past generation of environmental leaders.
"Faith, and what moves people to action, should be at the center of change," she said to me. "Change can be fun, it doesn't have to be painful. And that's part of what the next generation of people, the people who are in college and who are just coming out of college, that's what they are realizing. Change is transformational. It is positive. This is God's work. This is the best of this country."
The embrace of a moral language is perhaps the most impressive trait of the new leaders. They aren't afraid to appeal to people's hearts. They want to talk about right and wrong - not "baseload power" or "sulfur dioxide." In listening to the new leaders, I heard appeals to basic morality again and again. Erich Pica spoke of "a movement that has to be values-based" and connected to a "moral thread of social and economic justice." Mike Brune talked about the "ethic" of Sierra Club volunteers who "just want to make their world a better place." Jamie Henn told me about "the small victories in the face of overwhelming tragedy that can help bring out the emotions that we need to build a movement." This spiritedness, it seems to me, is what most differentiates the young leaders from their predecessors. I have a hard time imagining EDF CEO Fred Krupp talk about "God's work."
The force of emotion is fueled by the fact that time is running out. At this pivot of history, the only way to avoid the meltdown of the ecosystems on which we depend is to get people to really care. Being, well, young, the new young leaders are optimistic they will succeed.
"Our movement is moral and righteous, and that's what we need to talk about," Ellis-Lamkins said. "This will either be the moment where we can look back and remember it as the moment we shifted, or remember it as the moment when we should have shifted. I don't think we'll have those regrets."
© 2011 Earth Island Journal