I’ve just gotten around to reading Nicholas Lehmann’s New Yorker piece, “When the Earth Moved.” Lehmann compares today’s environmental movement to the 1970 Earth Day-era environmental movement and, of course, finds it wanting. It’s an easy critical piece to write, and the prose is well-constructed. But I found the whole thing pretty underwhelming.
Lehmann is trafficking in a pretty standard critique of modern-day political organizing. “They’ve traded outsider movement-building for insider access.” Theda Skocpol offers approximately the same critique in her Scholar Strategy Network paper, “Naming the Problem.” It’s a tempting critique, but it’s also wrong. The environmental movement has attempted to engage in movement-building. If the outcomes haven’t been what we’d hope for, it isn’t for lack of trying. Building a large-scale social movement, it turns out, is not so simple.
Here’s Lehmann, talking about the failure of the 2010 climate bill:
The environmental movement had certainly believed that it was playing the big game [in 2010]. Bartosiewicz and Miley estimate that the groups behind the climate-action partnership spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to pass their bill. The organizers of Earth Day never would have been able to get a substantial group of corporate chief executives to sit down with them and negotiate, even if they had wanted to. Today’s big environmental groups recruit through direct mail and the media, filling their rosters with millions of people who are happy to click “Like” on clean air. What the groups lack, however, is the Earth Day organizers’ ability to generate thousands of events that people actually attend—the kind of activity that creates pressure on legislators. (emphasis added)
In October 2006, 6 recent Middlebury college graduates and 1 Middlebury college professor launched the Step It Up climate day-of-action. On April 15, 2007, six months of organizing — most of it facilitated through the Internet — produced the “Step It Up” day of action, which featured 1,410 events across the country. Step It Up later became 350.org, which regularly plans massive global days-of-action that feature 4,000-5,000 simultaneous events.
350 is not one of the old environmental lobbying groups that Lehmann and Skocpol criticize. But organizations like the Sierra Club helped Step It Up succeed. Sierra sent email blasts to those supporters who “click ‘Like’.” Sierra devoted field staff to help organize events on the ground. And the Sierra Student Coalition has been a key actor in the Energy Action Coalition, which regularly brings tens of thousands of college students together for the annual PowerShift conference. That all sounds an awful lot like the movement-building Lehmann is asking for.
The real problem with the Lehmann piece is the ceteris paribus* assumption that he sneaks in. (1) Earth Day felt like a movement and created pressure on legislators. (2) The 2010 climate movement failed to create pressure on legislators. Therefore (3) The 2010 climate movement wasn’t enough of a movement. The trick is, American government in 2010 is exponentially more broken than American government in 1970.
Here’s another key passage from Lehmann:
Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, blasted the environmentalists’ political ineptitude at a private meeting. (Bartosiewicz and Miley obtained a tape recording.) The big environmental groups had promised the White House that they could deliver a few key Republican votes in the Senate. Instead, Emanuel said, “They didn’t have shit. And folks, they were dicking around for two years. And I had those meetings in my office so it was not that I wasn’t listening to them. This is a real big game, and you’ve got to wear your big-boy pants.”
Rahm Emanuel insulting the “professional left” ain’t news. So let’s step back for a second and think about the actual threshold environmentalists were being asked to pass:
we had to deliver “a few” Republican Senate votes.
If we had the Senate of 1970, I think the modern environmental movement would have proved “movement” enough to get it done. And if the environmental movement of 1970 had faced the Senate of 2009-2010, I don’t think a single one of our bedrock environmental laws would have passed. When all is said and done, Earth Day 1970 was a bunch of campus teach-ins. If you think campus teach-ins, even big ones, would have broken the lockstep unity of our present-day Senate Republicans, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to the news.
I was on the Sierra Club Board in 2009-2010. We thought we could pass a climate bill because we thought the Senate was less broken than it actually was. We also thought health care reform would eat up less of the Senate’s clock (in a reasonable universe, it would have). And we thought we’d get more leadership help from Obama than we did.
Should the environmental community have invested more in organizing? I think so. But I would think that regardless. I think organizing is how you build power.
Should some members of USCAP have been less obnoxiously compromising and insider-focused? I think so. But I’ve had the same critiques of those organizations for 17 years.
Can the environmental movement pass a climate bill if it starts acting more like a movement? …Probably not. Should it try anyway? Well yeah. If something is vitally important but pretty damn unlikely, you take your best shot regardless of the long odds.
But let’s be clear: “building a movement” is not as simple as investing in movement-building. Scholars and activists alike are too quick to assume that we have direct agency over our own political power. Ask yourself this: what force would cause 60 Senators — including coal-state Democrats and moderate Republicans — to override a filibuster and pass major climate legislation? What force would make the cause of climate change more popular than the cause of closing background check loopholes so that criminals find it harder to purchase guns? Climate change is divisive and complicated. Background checks are unifying and simple.
I say all this because I badly want to agree with Lehmann and Skocpol. I agree with their aims, and I know they’re trying to help. And it is not as though either of them imagine the Senate to be a warm, friendly, or functional place — part of Skocpol’s aim is explicitly to make clear that environmentalists were not close in 2009, so they don’t trot out the same strategy next time. She’s right about that. But by harkening back to the movements of the 1970s, both authors are also wishing away the intervening buildup of dysfunction.
We have a broken government that cannot pass the easy, popular stuff. We have a slow-building cataclysm in global warming. It is in everyone’s long-term interest to address the crisis, but that runs counter to the short-term interests of assorted powerful actors. Passing climate legislation requires fixing the broken Senate while simultaneously building a broader social movement. Both of those tasks will take a lot of time, and we have precious little time left.
Casting blame at advocates for not trying hard enough to build a movement is the easy way out. We were trying to build a movement in 2007, 08, 09, 10, and onward through today. The movement is, in fact, building. I’d like it to build faster, and I’d like to see major organizations devote more resources to those goals. But, to be perfectly honest, more organizers in 2010 wouldn’t have made a difference. The dysfunction that scuttled the climate bill is far beyond the environmental movement.
*for those who didn’t take a ton of constitutional law classes in college, “ceteris paribus” = “all else being equal”