Points North: Whatever Happened To Activism?

Environmental Protest
Environmental Protest

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In a time when politicians seem to view the natural world with attitudes ranging from indifference to abhorrence, in separate conversations I recently asked three prominent environmentalists the same question: Is there a discernable environmental movement in Minnesota?

The question gave each of them pause. After all, environmentalism is an institution here. Numerous environmental and sportsman’s groups are large enough to support offices and paid staff. All are active in a wide array of causes and good works. Still, with longstanding conservation programs and environmental regulations at great risk of being dismantled by short-sighted politicians in both parties, the broader environmental movement seems unable to engage the public to defend them.

What’s missing, in a word, is activism. Gone are the days when environmental causes were championed by concerned citizens who wrote letters to politicians and newspapers, organized rallies and built the public momentum necessary to achieve victory. When environmentalism “grew up” and became institutionalized, it lost touch with its roots. There isn’t much room for activists within the walls of an institution.

One of the environmentalists told me that aside from Garry Leaf and Sportsmen for Change, virtually no environmental or sportsman’s organization in the state has the ability to reach out to the grassroots and rally the troops. And so, during what is becoming the darkest political hour for the environment in recent memory, the environmental community is strangely quiet. Aside from a few sound bites, we haven’t heard much at all from Minnesota’s environmental institutions.

Perhaps they’ve forgotten how to communicate with the rank-and-file. Of the three environmentalists, one was grumbling that he didn’t know how to “figure out” Netflix, another had just purchased her first cell phone, and the third had no working knowledge of Twitter and Facebook. This may say more about the current state of the environmental movement than anything else. Such technological illiteracy suggests at least these three environmentalists are woefully out-of-touch with the mainstream. It’s hard to rally the troops if you don’t understand how to reach them.

Along with the rest of the outdoor world, environmentalists are getting old and have few young recruits joining their ranks, which may explain why these techno-dinosaurs haven’t been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital age. But the fact they are dinosaurs suggests their organizations have not fully harnessed the extraordinary power of the Internet to organize large numbers of people and affect change. In today’s world, successful activism relies on a mastery of social media and the Internet.

The environmental and sportsman’s groups may be quiet for another reason—money. Some nonprofit conservation groups are so adept at acquiring and leveraging public money they’ve become dependant on tax dollars to fund their habitat work or other projects. It is unlikely groups who rely on public monies will do anything that might raise the ire of the politicians in control of fund appropriations. So they may quietly voice displeasure about what is happening in the Legislature or in Congress, but they are unlikely speak out in a public forum or to the media. Many groups are similarly indebted to their corporate benefactors.

Speaking of money, many organizations are attracting less of it from traditional sources such as foundation support or memberships. This has translated into staff cuts for some groups and a tighter focus on key concerns. This means groups are less likely to serve as environmental watchdogs or to have the staff and financial resources to address emerging issues.

While the possibility of interrupting the flow of tax money or corporate donations may dampen the enthusiasm of some groups to take on powerful interests when they threaten the environment, such matters don’t concern the general public. Politicians know this and instead distract us with legislative straw men. For instance, sportsmen are currently trying to defeat bad bills such as two-line fishing proposals and attempts to rescind existing, largely uncontroversial, hunting and fishing rules. In a Legislature where common sense, good science and public input are either ignored or pooh-poohed by a disappointing number of politicians, sportsmen have little choice but to pour their limited time and energy into what may prove futile efforts to derail these politically self-serving proposals.

The largest straw man of the Legislative Session may be the ongoing debate over raising hunting and fishing license fees. Not long ago I talked to a wildlife advocate who believes the legislation to raise fees will eventually pass, but politicians are holding it as a bargaining chip for end-of-session budget negotiations. If that is the case, sportsmen will get a doubly raw deal: While they are trying to convince legislators to raise license fees—in essence taxing themselves—the same politicians are slashing conservation budgets and trying to hamstring future efforts acquire land for public hunting and wildlife. Sportsmen may find themselves paying a little more in license fees and getting a lot less in terms of real land and water conservation.

Actually, whatever good for the environment that emerges from this Session—be it raising license fees or preventing bad bills from becoming law—will result from the hard work of the troops we have left in the trenches. Some are employed by nonprofits. A few are citizen activists. But their numbers are few and the issues are many. We need more of them—a lot more of them.

Airdate: April 19, 2011

Photo courtesy of Jodie Atkinson via Flickr.

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