Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Evangelical Environmentalists

Kate Sheppard has an interesting article about the rise of evangelical environmentalism, a movement that has percolated for several years but over the past 12 months has gained a lot of publicity. Both Sheppard and Dr. Slammy, who she links to, rightfully note that there are significant cultural divides between traditional environmentalists and the new evangelical earth-lovers. For instance, environmentalists likely won't appreciate evangelicals trying to convert them while relatively few Christians will tolerate the marijuana legalization activists that are often attracted to environmentalism as well.

How to overcome this divide? I have mixed feelings about these issues. First, I think that a lot of this work has to be done by the traditional environmentalists. One problem the environmental community has had for many years is talking down to other people. The holier than thou attitude badly hurt them in the spotted owl crisis that dominated the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Environmentalists cared only about saving owls and trees and showed no interest in building coalitions with other parties, compromise, or even talking to loggers with the slightest show of empathy. Mostly, their attitude was to tell loggers to go find jobs at Wal-Mart. That went over about as well as you might expect.

How will the environmental community deal with new environmentalists who hold strong conservative values? To some extent I wonder how much it matters. Alliances of convenience are powerful and I suspect we will see a lot of that, leading to the passage of important legislation in the next presidential term. The sheer numbers of evangelicals could also simply overwhelm traditional environmentalists, leading to the dominant themes of the movement being couched in Christian terms. I don't necessarily have a problem with that as it would probably lead to a lot of good, as much as I find a lot of conservative values personally repulsive. Obviously, some kind of dialogue needs to take place, but I don't think establishing a baseline of understanding and a series of priorities should be that difficult.

Dr. Slammy provides an interesting analysis of language between the two wings of environmentalism. He's right--they often talk past each other. But again, I'm not convinced that this is a crisis. If both sides just agree to work with each other on issues that matter to both, they don't necessarily need to share a common language or common values, other than the need to protect the environment.

Looking at history can help us put this problem into perspective. The high point for environmentalism was the 1960s and 1970s, when a broad-based coalition, including both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, responded to the pollution crisis by passing a broad swath of legislation, signed by both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It was only with the explicit anti-environmentalism of Reagan and the environmental movement's turn to lawsuits that the coalition fractured and environmentalism became a partisan issue. The recent move back toward coalition building bodes well for the future of environmentalism, regardless of whether the different interests have anything else in common.