Tuesday, March 31, 2015

So Whatever Happened to the Environmental Moderates and Pragmatists?

As I noted in my throwback post, the Ensia article about how Environmental activism needs “good cops” and “bad cops” really brought back a lot of memories. But one thing it also caused me to do is to look back at how things have progressed since I wrote that article. The first thing to recognize is that the article was written in November 1994 (due to publishing schedules it ran in the Winter, 1995 edition). This is significant because 1994 was when the fall-out was happening from the Clayoquot protests. For those of you not familiar with the back story, the Clayoquot movement was really the first mass blockade/arrests in BC's" war in the woods". This was a time when environmental activism really came of age in our province. Direct action prior to that time had been mostly limited to Greenpeace vessels blocking whaling ships and on land to a relatively very small number of activists like “Earth First!” mostly coming out of Oregon and California. In Western Canada we had seen very few examples of “direct action” prior to Clayoquot and as we all know, we have seen many since.

Civil disobedience was a major component of the protest at Clayoquot and as result a lot of people were arrested for blocking roads and access to the forests. The major difference between the civil disobedience of 1993 and that of 2015 was in the consequences of the protestors’ actions. What a lot of the current generation of protestors seem not to recognize is that there is no “right” to commit civil disobedience. I listen with decreasing interest to protestors who argue about their “rights” since most appear to have no clue what a “right” actually means under the law/constitution. Most activists these days appear to believe that they should be allowed to block roads and break the law with impunity. One feature of the protests in 1993 that has apparently been forgotten by our current generation of activists, was that back then the protestors did not simply get to walk away after being picked up by the police. These protestors were arrested, charged, and had to face the consequencces of their actions in a court of law. As described in the Wikipedia article on the subject (ref) “of the 932 people arrested, 860 were prosecuted in eight trials with all those prosecuted for criminal intent found guilty”. As recounted, many of protestors ended up spending time in jail. Can you imagine a modern environmentalist discovering that their actions would get them sent to jail? 

By 1994, the time of my writing, there were two significantly differing views on how to progress within the environmentalist community, 1) the “activist” route of civil disobedience and direct action and 2) what I called the “pragmatic” approach. At the time, I was strongly influenced by the writings of Alan Borovoy whose book “Uncivil Obedience” I had taken to heart. For those of you not familiar with either, Alan Borovoy was something of a hero of mine. He was a champion of civil liberties and spent a considerable amount of time as the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In his book he talked of how activists can work within the system to foment change. He talked of forming alliances, making life challenging for the people on the other side but emphasized the importance of remaining within the letter of the law. My “Rules of Engagement” were drawn from the ideas expressed in his book. The pragmatic approach involved making allies, fighting within the system and making structural changes. 

As I describe in my previous post Modern Environmentalism: Trying to replicate the Clayoquot, we all know who won out on that schism in the 1990s. The activists built on their successes and used those successes to purge the moderates from their ranks. Since that time moderate environmentalists have been efficiently and effectively shown the door and the movement is run by the purveyors of the big, loud protests. As a consequence, in the modern environmental movement a moderate or pragmatic environmentalist is about as common as a spotted owl. We are told they exist and one or two are photographed every year, but they are now more noted by their absence than their presence. 

This brings me back to the Ensia article quoted above. You see the premise of the Ensia article is that we need both “good cops” and “bad cops” to move ourselves forward. 1994-me would absolutely concur with that sentiment but 2015-me has a question for the author of the Ensia piece (a shorter version of which I have asked online and will append if it arrives): 

In this hypothetical scenario of the “good cop” and “bad cop” we all know the bad cops are but I cannot for the life of me find any “good cops”. Can you name any “good cops” that can serve in the role you argue they need to occupy?

As I note, I have not yet received his answer to this question; but I have my own answer. Having small children I have watched the “Lego Movie” more times than I would care to admit and in my mind it presents the best analogy to what we see in the environmental movement today. As in the movie, the good cop have been erased from the picture leaving only bad cops and worse cops. There are no honest brokers or pragmatic environmentalists to serve as “moderators” as they (we?) have all been swept from the stage. Moreover, the potential allies I spoke of in 1994 are no longer out there in the numbers they once were. As I wrote in my earlier post about civil servant salaries, most of the technical specialists in the civil service are underpaid with respect to their private sector peers. What this means is that many of the folks working in the senior levels of the Ministry of Environment, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) etc.. are typically there because they have an actual sense of public service and actually want to make a difference. These true public servants are obvious allies of the environmentalists, but instead of being treated as such, they are often treated like enemies. Activists, even now, are occupying a DFO office while the employees of the Environmental Assessment Office are being called “stooges” and “tools of the oil industry”. Not exactly the best way to win their hearts and minds?

So where do we go from here? Well, there is a lost generation of potential allies out there wandering in the metaphorical wilderness. These people, like myself, want to be a part of the solution but are tired of being treated, at best, like unwanted pets and, at worst, as the enemy. As I have mentioned previously, we live in a democracy and in order to advance your cause in a democracy you need at least a plurality of the population on your side. Modern environmentalists have become very good at making enemies and alienating potential allies and very bad at building consensus and creating coalitions. Until they can do the latter they will remain on the outside looking in; all the time complaining bitterly when the people they abuse and mistreat don’t go out of their way to make their lives easier. Until they are willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt they aren’t going to be able to convince the working stiffs, stuck in traffic because of their illegal protests, to support them with their causes.

Monday, March 30, 2015

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 protesters. 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.