Environmentalism and Pragmatism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – A blast from my past

I was reading an interesting article at Ensia the other day about how Environmental activism needs “good cops” and “bad cops” and I could not help but have a mighty case of déjà vu. The reason for my vision was not that I had read this piece before, but rather because I had pretty much written this same piece a long time ago. To be clear, I am not claiming any copyright infringement or plagiarism of any sort. Rather I am pointing out that I had very similar beliefs back when I was still a puppy in the environmental world. I wrote a bit about the topic in my previous post Modern Environmentalism: Trying to replicate the Clayoquot where I recount how in the early 1990s, I worked at the University of Victoria as a research assistant and subsequently a graduate student out of the Department of Chemistry and the School of Environmental Studies. At the time the Environmental Studies Student’s Association (ESSA) produced a periodical called “the Essence” that included contributions from the ESSA membership. The following was written by my and published in the Winter 1995 edition. In a follow-up post I will discuss where I feel we have come since 1995.

Environmentalism and Pragmatism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive (The Essence, Winter 1995)

Having spent several years doing environmental research I have come to learn that there are many environmental problems which cannot be viewed only in black and white. I have had to learn to compromise to get things done. There are numerous extremists out there who feel that accepting a compromise somehow changes one into an anti-environmental collaborator. I suggest to many extremists that they risk losing an incredibly useful asset: the pragmatic environmentalists.

The environmental movement today is facing a crisis. It used to be that people didn’t believe politicians and businesses. Now, polls indicate that some environmental groups are less trusted than the faceless corporations they are battling. This lack of trust results directly from the alienation of large groups of supporters. As the “Green” movement has grown so has the role of “professional” extremists in the decision structure. As a result, those environmentalists who work with, and in, the system to help change it, have become more and more isolated by the increasing extremism of their peers. Environmentalists who work for environmental causes inside governing agencies are being marginalized for being insufficiently “pure” while moderates outside the system are belittled by their extremist compatriots at meetings and are seldom fully included in the decision structure. Some environmentalists in government are even pointed to as part of the problem and not part of the solution. What the new extremist core of the environmental movement must understand is that its most valuable asset is the number and diversity of its people. By setting strict criteria for inclusion in the new environmental “clubs” or “cliques” these extremists are alienating potential supporters. This is resulting in a gradual loss of mainstream support for the environmental cause.

The timing of the demise of environmental power couldn’t be worse. Just as there are psychopaths in our society who have no qualms against causing others bodily harm to get what they want, there are others who have no qualms against destroying the environment for personal or financial gain. These people cannot be stopped by blockades, public pressure or letter campaigns. They can only be stopped by public outrage as displayed through legislation; the development and strict enforcement of government regulations; and prosecution. Thus, the most important objectives of the environmental movement should be insuring that the legal protection of our wild lands is not watered down and that new laws improving the level of protection for those lands are enacted.

Today the environmental movement needs more pragmatic activists. People who understand that most decision makers are motivated by a solid sense of self-preservation…not by idealistic words about the good of society. Pragmatic environmentalists are needed both in and out of the system. Outside to work as mediators in the battles between extremists and policy makers; and inside to develop the laws and regulations and open the doors for discussion. Extremists must understand that both they and the pragmatists need each other. Pragmatists understand the need for extremists on two levels:

1) Extremists are needed to frighten the establishment into accepting compromises; and

2) Extremists represent the moral high-ground (since they argue not for themselves but for all life).

Extremists need the pragmatists for the same two reasons:

1) The establishment is unwilling to get into discussions with the extremists as history has shown that these discussions are generally fruitless and so look to moderates for discussion; and

2) All compromise involves stepping down from the moral high-ground and giving something away. This may be the best course at that time, but it is seldom the total victory desired by extremist philosophy.

It must be understood that one can be both an environmentalist and a pragmatist; being one does not necessarily exclude the other. If the environmental movement is to continue its work and be trusted as protector of the public good, then the extremists and pragmatists must solve their differences. If these differences prove to be insurmountable, then the current trends in distrusting may continue.  One final point: being a pragmatist does not mean one has to be always willing to compromise nor does it mean accepting bad deals. Some issues are too important for compromise. Remember the meek will only get the earth once the strong are done with it.

The Pragmatist’s Rules of Engagement

1) Extremist action almost always results in an extreme response which usually far exceed the initial action.

  • In almost every case of civil disobedience more press is concentrated on the breaking of laws than on the reason for breaking those laws. A fine example of this was the storming of the legislature last year. The resulting press essentially ignored the issues being raised and dealt exclusively with the damage to property etc..If possible attempt to stay within the law as society is less willing to deal with “wild law-breakers” than it is to deal with peaceful, lawful I would advise those looking for alternative methods to get one’s point across to try reading A. Alan Borovoy’s book “Uncivil Obedience”.

2) Just because you don’t get the whole loaf don’t refuse a piece of it.

  • After a while those pieces add up. That is don’t expect everything right away. Accept and build on the small victories.

3) Direct your effort to where it will do the most good.

  • Taking on impossible odds may seem like fun, but drawing away resources from a battle that can be won to fight a battle that cannot be won is the ultimate waste. Choose your battle carefully.

4) Don’t be afraid to become a part of the system. You can’t change nearly as much from the outside as you can from the inside.

  • Some of the most powerful allies to an environmental group sit in the offices of Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the provincial Environment Ministry. These people are almost always sympathetic to the environmental cause and do not deserve the abuse that is often hurled at them.

5) Pissing people off does not make them friendly to your cause.

  • Don’t piss off people who you may need later to help you, and don’t try to upstage people on your own side. Sure ruining a politician’s moment in the sun can be fun, as long as you don’t expect help next time. That often means keeping your mouth shut when you don’t want to.

6) If you are going to make a scene make sure there are a lot of people there to see and make sure some of them are reporters.

  • Most environmental groups do not have the resources to combat large corporations in public awareness campaigns. So if you are going to do something newsworthy make sure the news is there.
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6 Responses to Environmentalism and Pragmatism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – A blast from my past

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