Reaching Out to Get the Job Done

My New Year’s resolution for 2005 was the biggest one yet, and the one I’m proudest of keeping: I quit smoking, a habit I took up in college almost twenty years ago. It was REALLY hard, but unbelievably rewarding. Like tossing aside a huge burden on my body.

It was also a relief in another sense: I’m committed to natural resource protection as a career, and the contradiction haunted me: An environmentalist who couldn’t resist polluting himself.

It also meant that I supported companies and politicians with whom I disagreed. Big tobacco contributes a great deal to political campaigns, and I was pouring money directly into their coffers. Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative firebrand, was rumored to greet smokers in the halls of Congress by shaking their hands and thanking them for their support. Some may remember that Helms was jokingly mentioned as one-half of a Presidential ticket in the funny-and-sadly-defunct comic strip Bloom County, along with liberal icon Jesse Jackson (“Let's Alienate Everybody! Jesse and Jesse in ’84!”).

Which brings me to the new year’s resolution I propose for all of us who labor to protect the environment: Reaching out beyond the choir in our work.

This is a challenging resolution to make on the eve of the most open Presidential election (i.e., where neither a current or former President or Vice President is on the ticket) since 1952. Partisan and ideological tempers will flare, no doubt.

But it’s necessary if we’re to win the race against such global threats as climate change and species extinction. First, because as I’ve written about before we need policy reform in order to respond in proportion to the scale of such problems. Second, because the reality is that when you aggregate up from state and local policymaking you find that the much-hyped division between political ideologies is not so new, and certainly not transient. A synthesis of findings from 2006 Harris Interactive polls found that

 ...the percentages of liberals and moderates have stayed very steady in the past four decades. Only the number of conservatives has changed, up from 32 percent in the 1970s, to 38 percent in the 1990s and down to 35 percent in this decade.

In order to win -- at least at the national level -- we must reach out to those who inhabit parts of the political spectrum besides our own. Fortunately, environmental protection offers one of the best opportunities to do just that. Another Harris poll found that 53 percent of adults agree that there is too little “government regulation or involvement in the area of environmental protection,” including 68 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Independents and 36 percent of Republicans. Given traditional American suspicion of “big” forces in society – both government and corporate – this is a pretty strong signal of support for environmental safeguards. Harris also found that an overwhelming 81 percent of adults agree that America “needs to set the lead when it comes to controlling greenhouse gases and pollution.”

Outside of polls, we see signs of widespread support for the defense of natural resources, from well-known books by former Democratic Presidential candidates Gore and Kerry to Republican governor Whitman and House Speaker Gingrich. The consensus becomes even stronger when the subject is our reliance on one particular fossil source of energy: petroleum. Small wonder. As the World Resources Institute shows in a recent analysis, there is a lot of overlap in the means for breaking this habit, with 95 percent of the solutions helping to meet both security and climate objectives. We sweat the five percent that involves tradeoffs here at Switchboard, but it is still just five percent, which is why tackling this problem in particular resonates with greens, hawks as well as green hawks.

And this is the not-so-secret reason we broke the 30-year logjam on Federal fuel economy standards for autos in 2007: It resonated with a majority of lawmakers due to economic, security and environmental benefits.

The New Year’s resolution I propose for all of us working to protect the environment is to reach out to those with whom we may not agree, in both the physical and virtual worlds. Contribute to conversations in blogs we may not normally visit. Drop in on events we may not normally attend. Check out groups we tend to dismiss because they have a different viewpoint. In order for our outreach to bear fruit, we must remember a fundamental rule (according to the Harvard Negotiation Project, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, and others): Listen and work to understand where others are coming from before making ourselves understood.

In 2007, we got started with several new environmental projects such as pushing energy-efficient technology into the marketplace with the new energy bill, and committing to putting caps on carbon dioxide pollution in place. But the job is far from finished. And it’s pretty clear we need more hands on deck to get it done.

Here’s to working together to build that critical mass in 2008!