04 June 2005

We Need a Bigger Tent

I and a colleague had an email exchange about the environmental movement the other night. He'd just read my post on enviro-evangelicals, which was really -- as he put it -- about how "just as those whose actions we decry rely on a strategy of creating a false 'other' (we can kill it because it isn't us), we enviros do the same. Indeed, we apply that strategy to everyone, so that in the end we are the only people left in the tent and here we stand arguing with each other about whether we are dead!"

That made me think that maybe the real problem is our tent isn't big enough. When my family went from three (two spouses and a son) to five (add twins born seven years after their big brother), we didn't decide to stop camping. We bought a bigger tent. Now we have a six-person tent rather than a four-person tent. It's roomy and bulky and while I'm not going to pack it into the Sierras in September, I'll admit it's a pretty comfortable tent.

The environmental movement is a bit like my expanded family. Sure we were nervous about how the twins would change the dynamic of the family; I was even a little worried about how they would change the existing relationships of the "Anderson 3". But I must admit, aside from a few minor inconveniences, the “Anderson 5” is better. There's more variety, our world views keep getting expanded in very interesting ways, and we've had to relearn or unlearn a few old tricks and even learn some new ones.

So it was alarming to me as I began to think more about the "Death of Environmentalism" debate and started to follow it a bit more, that the movement to make a better, more sustainable world is even more fractured that it appears. Whereas I was concerned that we weren't opening our tent flaps to evangelicals, people of color, and others, the situation is much worse: we aren't even inviting our own into the tent, let alone asking them to sit by the campfire.

In response to "Death," Ludovic Blain and others remind us how "white", "elite", "male" and "American" is the environmental movement. They also want to claim that the environmental justice is the true environmental movement, that we "already have a movement positioned to build a multiracial progressive agenda that democratically represents environmental interests of communities." Right on, Ludovic; so if I hear you correctly, the funders to whom Shellenberger and Nordhaus gave their report should shift all their funding to environmental justice groups and stop giving to any others, because they're all run by "elite, white male Americans." (He uses a variation of such phrase over twenty times in a recent Grist piece.) I'm sorry, but this doesn't sound very inclusive. Can't we all just get along, as Rodney King implored over a decade ago. Isn't it time to get beyond name-calling and race-carding? Your tent has some holes in it.

Michael Gelobter and his co-authors do a better job in "The Soul of Environmentalism," recently released by his group Redefining Progress. (As a poet, I’ll admit to enjoying the fun they have comparing the response to "Death" to the flak received by Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" essay of the early 90s.) In "Soul," the authors push for an agenda that is more integrated, inclusive, and interdependent. They draw some interesting parallels between where the environmental movement is today and where the civil rights movement ended up almost twenty years ago, after its peak. Finally, they call for "getting people to recognize [their] interconnectedness. Socially, economically, and environmentally," and suggest "it's time for us to start walking the talk." Now that's more like it. The tent flaps are open.

A few years ago, at the conference I mentioned in an earlier post, I took part in a series of dialogues on how to make the environmental movement more inclusive. Running-Grass, an environmental educator who runs the 3 Circles Center in Sausalito, California, was the only African-American in our room. And it was duly noted. He and Greg Watson were two of the few people of color in attendance at the conference. (We had a lot of women, however, so we could all pat ourselves on the back about that.) Running-Grass said that when he was invited to be a speaker he wasn't sure he wanted to participate -- he was also asked at what amounted to the last minute. We were glad he came.

The conversation we were having that day centered on the need for a new language to talk about nature. "Nature is different things to different people" and "While we may be high on biological diversity or ecological diversity, we are woefully inadequate on cultural diversity," read my notes from that session. I'm reminded now of something that Robert Hass, another one of the conference presenters, said, "Spirit is that which calls things into form." Maybe what we need is an old-time spiritual tent revival.

And when we look inside, I hope to see all of us there.

No comments: