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When The Going Gets Tough…

Was It Over When The Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?

During difficult economic times, protection of the environment drops as  a priority in most measures of public opinion as the energy and attention of the population becomes focused on more pressing issues like finding or keeping jobs and caring for families. Special interests and the politicians who serve them are quick to take advantage of these circumstances. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency has come under assault from Congress on many fronts. All environmental regulations now have a new prefix: job killing. Years of progress on things we now take for granted like clean air and clean water are set to be rolled back as powerful industry interests seek to eliminate air and water protections under the guise of economic development. The environmental movement is on the ropes in America’s current political landscape and its time to heed H.G. Wells’ admonition,“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

Support for individual environmental issues remains strong and public perception of environmental protection remains positive according to a recent Galllup Poll. However, overall support for the environment is declining. Why? Certainly economic circumstances play a significant role in the trend but it goes even deeper than just bad unemployment numbers. The dynamics of politics in the United States have changed. In a post Citizens United world the corrupting flood of special interest money is going to have an effect on both political debate and election results. Political and issue ads fueled by a supply of cash that is, for all intents and purposes, nearly unlimited are overwhelming the American political process. Anyone who doesn’t believe that environmental issues are squarely in the sights of the big money interests had better wake up. The growing cacophony of anti-environmental rhetoric fueled by corporate money is undoubtedly taking a toll on support for environmental protection.  So, what’s the plan?

The first step is to take stock of the situation. On the positive side, environmental protection, even with recent declines, still enjoys widespread public support. Threats to the environment still exist. What has changed are the methods of those who profit from reduced environmental protection and the amount of financial resources they can bring to the debate. Environmental advocates need to adjust to the changing world. The place to start is by tapping into the well of public support for environmental issues to demand accountability from elected representatives. Making elected political representatives responsive to the 60%-70% of the electorate who value protecting the environment rather than the small portion of the population who profit from either exploiting the nation’s resources or conducting commercial operations without even reasonable restrictions is a basic element of making environmentalists relevant in the political discussion. The environmental movement as a whole may be doing a credible job of educating the public about issues but they are failing when it comes to translating those issues to policy-making and electoral results. The majority of  politicians do not respect environmentalists as a political force. That must change.

Another approach is to go after the nation’s corporate community. In his dissent to the Citizens United decision, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that corporate spending on politics should be viewed as a business transaction designed by the officers or the board of directors for no purpose other than profit-making. He called corporate spending more transactional than ideological. Therein lies the opportunity. Corporations operate by their very nature to maximize profit and return on investment. The model of buying access to politicians who then ease regulations, lower taxes and enable corporate activity at the expense of the environment has been a profitable and effective course. Changing that methodology and providing an alternative where profit lies in responsibility and good citizenship through either positive or negative reinforcement needs to be a viable option. Environmentalists must devise a strategy that can co-opt some of corporate America’s vast resources and direct them towards environmental protection as well pressure corporations to engage in better behavior.

John Cronin, the nation’s first Riverkeeper and the current director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries was a pioneer in holding corporations responsible for environmental damage. He took on corporate giants like General Electric and Exxon and held them financially liable for polluting the Hudson River. He has since found ways to partner with corporations and  tap into their resources to achieve big gains in cleaning up the environment. This may not be “environmentally pure” in the eyes of many in the environmental sector, but it is effective. Results count and in an increasingly difficult political setting, every avenue should be explored.  No, corporations are not people too, my friend, but they are made up of people who presumably support protecting the environment in roughly the same percentage as the public at large. Couple this with the effort and expense that corporations put into burnishing their public image and the opportunity to harness their assets through cooperative efforts should not be passed up.

These are difficult times for environmental advocates. Right now they are out-gunned, out-manned, out-resourced and out-messaged by their opponents. In spite of the apparently dismal circumstances, there are opportunities and the fight is far from over. Whether seen as an inspirational quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi or a call to action from “Bluto” Blutarsky in the film Animal House, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” provides a valuable motto to guide the environmental movement. It has never been considered acceptable to be an anti-environment politician, regardless of political party. It shouldn’t be now. Holding our elected representatives accountable for their actions in these difficult times is essential. Our elected officials need to know that protecting the environment is still a priority. It starts with insuring that there are political consequences for politicians who ignore or oppose reasonable environmental protections.

Likewise, there should be no profit in environmental destruction. A combination of bringing pressure on corporations that potentially affects their profitability and entering into partnerships with companies willing to engage in positive environmental action in a manner that enhances their returns needs to be part of the environmental arsenal. Adapting to the changing political landscape is imperative and right now that means fighting for what you believe in with every available method. Failure to make appropriate changes to the advocacy methods of the environmental community will surely result in continued free-fall into political irrelevance despite continued threats to our resources and in spite of the substantial public support that still exists. After 40 years of successes and failures, the modern environmental movement is in the fight of its life and there will be real consequences if , as a whole, those involved in protecting our quality of life by protecting the environment are not up to the battle. The exact methods to engage in this strategy can be left for another day. Right now its time to fight.

-Ben Spinelli

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