What's In the Name "Environmentalist"?

Someone sent me a blog post this morning titled "Don't call me an environmentalist," arguing that "we need to look beyond the divisions and understand that most of us are on the same side, regardless of the labels we place on ourselves."  Wouldn't it be great if that were all it took?

Here's my response:

First, I care less about what people call themselves than which side they’re on.  In fact, I spend much of my time these days working with people in Alaska who don’t consider themselves environmentalists – and have no aspirations to be. The only thing that matters is whether NRDC opposes the proposed Pebble Mine – and supports protection of Bristol Bay's wild salmon fishery.  We do -- and everyone should.  But tell that to the mining giants Anglo American and Rio Tinto who, so far, have a very different view.

Second, when I hear people imply or suggest that environmentalists don’t care enough about people or aren’t talking enough about green jobs, I think they must not be listening.  NRDC’s primary area of  focus in terms of staff and resources allocated is addressing climate change, and one of the central and consistently stated arguments in support of our work is the need to create green jobs, promote renewable energy, and protect people. 

NRDC’s largest public campaign at the moment is against the Pebble Mine, and I don’t think I ever talk or blog about it without emphasizing the sustainable economy and thousands of good jobs that are put at risk if that project goes forward.  I just saw a presentation yesterday by an NRDC colleague leading our fight against the Keystone XL pipeline – another of NRDC's most high profile campaigns -- and creating a green energy economy was at the heart of her presentation. 

Third, the key question for me is not what you call yourself but what is the strategy that will enable us to win.  Sometimes the message isn’t jobs even if the reality is that we‘re on the side of jobs.  Here's an example:  In our fight against the proposed Mitsubishi salt works at Laguna San Ignacio, NRDC's primary (though not exclusive) messaging focus was the need to protect the whales and their birthing lagoon, but the reality was that we were also defending the lagoon communities and their fisheries – and protecting a place that people can enjoy forever.  

The simple fact is that we could not have generated a million petitions against the salt works project by emphasizing the threat posed by the salt works to the region's economy.  And, by the way, though we were protecting gray whales in Baja – or marine mammals all over the world with our Navy sonar litigation -- the lagoon communities' sustainable economic activities, including their fisheries and eco-tourism, have prospered.  And even my own kids have gotten more out of going there  than just about anything I’ve ever done for them. 

And what about the fight against the terrible toll road proposed to be built through the California State Park at San Onofre State Beach?  The Coalition in opposition to the project turned out 3,000 people for a California Coastal Commission hearing and 6,000 people for a U.S. Department of Commerce hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds -- not because we were fighting for green jobs but because we were fighting to save a state park and world class surfing beach that serves 2.5 million people a year. 

Fourth, the reality is that sometimes we can’t create the kind of economy we want to create without also stopping bad projects that claim to create jobs but in fact simply perpetuate the kind of carbon-based, waste-based economy that is killing us.  Pick your issue:  Keystone XL, San Onofre toll road, Gregory Canyon landfill, Deepwater Horizon, 710 Freeway Extension, fuel economy standards, Pebble Mine, greening our ports, fighting poison run-off, Mitsubishi salt works, and on and on.  I’d like to think we could just sit around the table with all stakeholders and agree to do the right thing, but my experience has been that it doesn’t always work very well.

Finally, when I think of environmentalists, I think of just how challenging the work is, how long it takes to prevail, how complex are the strategic choices that need to be made, and how grateful I am for environmental organizations like NRDC, the Sierra Club, Audubon, the Center for Biological Diversity, and all the others who continue to take on these most difficult battles decade after decade.  And I’m grateful for others, too, who may not call themselves environmentalists but are still willing to stand up and work for clean air, clean water, healthy communities, wild spaces, renewable energy, and green jobs. 

Five hundred years from now this is the work people will care most about that we did for them today.