SCHONEKER: Green me up, Scotty



Jake Schoneker

Environmentalists are an endangered species. Despite the recent green streaks on display in Hollywood, the environment remains a marginal political issue. According to a poll conducted by Duke University in 2005, only 22 percent of American voters said that environmental issues play a major role in how they vote. The environment consistently ranks last in importance on a long list of issues- things like the economy, health care, education, and even moral values.

Where did environmentalism go wrong? It is not for a lack of enthusiasm or media exposure, quite clearly. No, the very ideals to which environmentalists prescribe are at fault, and if we are to create a real environmental movement, these ideals must be changed. There are three environmental ideals in particular that seem to be problematic for progress: conservation, division and limits.

Conservation, quite simply, is inadequate as a solution to the environmental crises we face. Global warming is a problem immensely bigger than acid rain, water pollution and the other issues that shaped the conservation movement of the 1970s. There is no single, identifiable source to attack, and there is no simple solution – global warming has incredibly complex, ancient roots that are tied directly to our lifestyle.

It is a problem that cannot be solved simply through carbon credits or fuel efficiency standards; what we require is an energy revolution, a fundamental change in the way we live our lives. Rather than focusing on conservation, then, we should push an investment-centered approach that aspires not just to minimize the damage of global warming, but to create opportunity for our future.

The ideal that has perhaps proven most problematic of all for environmentalists is division: the separation of man from nature, and the separation of social issues from the environmental agenda. The notion that nature is something distinct from man is the primary reason that environmentalism has failed to develop a unifying platform. The issues that most concern voters are things like national security, healthcare and the economy.

These are the issues that can unite social groups and provide the kind of diversified movement that is necessary to spark a fundamental change in the way that our economy works. If a new model of environmentalist politics is to emerge today, it must adapt its message to become one that emphasizes the creation of jobs, the bolstering of our economy, increasing our oil independence and making community health a priority. We must direct policy in such a way to empower all Americans and include them in our vision of sustainability.

The final, fatal ideal of environmentalism that has kept it from succeeding is its politics of limits. Environmentalists believe that Earth can only support so much life and that we are pushing our limits through industrialization and growth. This has led to the apocalyptic narratives that are routinely spread about global warming: ice caps melting, polar bears drowning and man going extinct. There is an underlying sense of futility and a lack of faith in human ingenuity to these stories that only serves to inspire fear. Fear is the last thing that we need to start a new movement – what we really need is confidence and hope that we can overcome the global warming crisis.

The new environmental movement must aim to do what the old could not: to be the impetus for progressive solutions. It will build its foundation on investment, not conservation; on consolidating interests rather than isolating them; and with a positive message of hope rather than a fearful doomsday narrative. It expresses our need to invest billions each year into developing affordable sources of alternative energy that can compete with fossil fuels.

It calls for investment in education and service, to position the poor to participate and thrive in the new green economy. If we can break with traditional, restrictive environmental values and begin thinking about the bigger social picture, we may be able to create millions of green-collar jobs for poor Americans, foster huge growth in our energy economy and help solve global warming all at the same time.


Jake Schoneker is a senior humanities and political science major from Landsdale, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].