What Environmental Activists Can Learn from Politicians

GOP 2016 candidates

By Xu Qifei

| Is there actually a scientific consensus on climate change, hydraulic fracturing, nuclear wastes and other controversial environmental issues?  In a way, asking questions like that is almost irrelevant at this point. The rhetoric against making environmental policies has now changed to focus on the fact that with regards to opinions among American citizens, it is consistently shown by surveys and polls that environmental issues remained the lowest priority in government policies and budget planning. Politicians claim that they are not making environmental policies because people don’t want them to.

What does that tell our hardworking environmental activists who place great value on data and evidence? The politicians are getting their ways, and not because of validity or veracity. They are winning because of rhetoric and strategies, and they are only getting better at it. Activists have to realize that only having the truth on their side isn’t at all enough anymore. As sad as it sounds, the belief that “truth will prevail eventually” is almost a dogma in the current political sphere, and the circumstances call for Machiavellian pragmatisms for their causes.

However, that doesn’t mean environmental activist groups have to start lying and commit manipulative schemes to succeed. In fact, here are a few strategies activists can learn from politicians without “being dragged down to their level”.


Strategy one: The powerful rhetoric of ideology

Activists need to make their influence “deep” rather than “wide”. It doesn’t matter how many people are aware of an issue if the support cannot be turn into votes or bills. For instance, it is shown by a recent survey that 89% Democrats, 79% independents and 70% Republicans agree that global warming is happening and at least partially caused by humans, and yet we haven’t made any progress federally in almost 5 years. If more than supermajority of the nation concur with activists but political actualization fails, it means that the influence isn’t deep enough for most people to take actions.

To create such deep influence, ideology is key. Being a liberal, a Mormon or a feminist is so fundamental to people that it affects daily lives. These ideologies are often used as powerful political rhetoric because they turn followers into voters. However, far too few activist groups connect with people on such level. To create true believers, people need to be able to identify with an idea, and they need to be proud of it. That was why “hippies” were able to accomplish so much. Right now the rhetoric from activist groups don’t give people much to be proud of.

Here are some examples of inspiring theoretical frameworks of environmentalism that can be of use to create a powerful political rhetoric:

Ecofeminism – A view that believes every feminist should care about the environment, because the logic of domination against the environment is virtually the same with the logic of domination against women.

Land Ethic – “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Deep Ecology – A theory that focuses on how humans should live in relation to the environment or the local community and stresses the intrinsic but not instrumental value of the wilderness.

Animal Liberation – A utilitarian theory that denies the arbitrary line drawn between humans and other animals. It calls for veganism or vegetarianism, because revoking animal rights would be a form of speciesism.


Strategy two: Temporary coalitions

Any individual activist group alone always have a hard time making substantial changes on a certain issue. More often than not, collaborative and coordinated campaigns lead to the best result in activist work. During the 1990s there were many campaigns against globalized trading exploitation that made real changes including campaigns against Nike sweatshops, WTO and IMF. They were all products of collaborations, even though the activist groups involved all have quite different focuses and ideologies.

It is for this reason that I suggest for any certain environmental issue, an activist group should find other groups that can get behind the same discourse despite advocating it for very different reasons. The coordination then will resemble that of Super PACs supporting politicians. In addition, these campaign-based temporary coalitions also make campaign resource management much more efficient, simply due to the economy of scale.


Strategy three: Target the Money

Want to target politicians? The optimal way is to target their money.  There is no doubt that if we want to make policy changes, we need to put politicians’ self-interest on the line. However, putting pressure on individual politicians through different alleys perhaps isn’t the ideal way anymore. In a research based on many case studies examining recent protests and social movements, it is shown that rather than primarily focusing on pressuring politicians, it is much more effective to threaten the corporate and institutional adversaries directly. One of the primary reasons is that there is a huge amount of money from these corporations in US politics. The effectiveness of pressuring corporations can also be seen if we take a look at the success stories of activist groups like Green Peace, and we will find that most of their accomplishments are results of such strategy.


Like I said before, these strategies barely require compromises from environmental activist groups, and yet they have proven to be remarkably expedient. Nevertheless, the big picture still doesn’t look promising. There are entire corporate think tanks spinning and framing environmental issues to keep people away from taking actions. Hereinafter, the environmental activist groups need to combat these schemes head on, and these proposed strategies are indispensable now more than ever.


Image: Flickr

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