Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten mixed reactions from my last post. Some comments were that what I said speaks for many people who are struggling on how to use their role to empower others in the US climate movement and other comments about how passive I am in suggesting community empowerment, which takes a long time, can solve a problem that needs drastic action today by those in national and international power. I want to explain myself a little more about why I feel that those leading the climate change movement are not making room for the average person that cares about this issue and how by doing so they are losing out on innovative, workable solutions and a very large mobilized base of activists.
First, in my experience those with established careers in the current environmental movement are often the least likely to truly empower communities as part of their work. They do not reach into communities beyond signing their petitions and making phone calls for their campaigns, even though they understand intellectually that communities fighting locally have great impacts nationally. I’m specifically talking about national organizations here since most state and regional organizations are started by local volunteer community groups, who’s sole purpose is to improve their own community. Also, it seems that national and international organizations are the leading (as in covered by media) voices for climate change.
Second, climate change is a messy issue. The lines are not as clear as other environmental issues on the where, what, when, why, and how. The messiness comes from having too many answers to those questions. There is no one simple message that can be printed on a bumper sticker and will resonate for most audiences. Climate change encompasses issues related to industries with tailpipes, superfund clean up, product packaging, and cleaning supplies to name just a few - not a simple campaign.
Third, those leading the climate movement are people who intellectually understand injustices but did not come into their current position through leading and participating in a community fight. Instead they found their activist legs while in higher learning or through having a specific knack for causing trouble. (Both of which are true for myself, though I have often found myself working for community justice issues) This often makes their natural approach less inclusive and more dismissive of the true power of those suffering injustices first hand and are often uninterested in overcoming.
This disconnect is a messy mix of not knowing how to empower communities, being too impatient to work one on one with communities, believing that big enviros are more aggressive in demanding change and finding radical solutions than community members are, and possessing an inflated ego that makes them think they just know better than stay at moms, school faculty and gas station attendants. There is also a weird mix of idolizing community leaders to a point where they are unable to truly envelop their skills and connections into the movement because they are placed on a pedestal instead of in a position to roll up their sleeves while being listened to in a sincere way.
Fourth, I don’t believe that organizing communities to pass local ordinances and finding solutions within the frame of your own community is passive. People having to stop the contamination of their own community and find workable solutions are often much more radical than anyone getting paid full time to speak to politicians and business executives.
For one, they are often unwilling to compromise. If they did the true fall out of a bad deal is their childrens’ future, not just losing one fight in a long series of career fights. It is also because those fighting for local change are usually up against their own family members and the friends they went to elementary school with as well as the single largest employer in the area. That is something that people in those big organizations have never and probably will never come up against.
They are also without budget, have to become extremely creative to gain the support of those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves activists, and must face those against them at their children’s school, the grocery store and church. That is nothing short of radical.
Finally, we only know what we know. Those living steps from a facility with a belching smokestack that must wipe down their windshields before driving to work in the morning have solutions that those who use the stories about people who live near facilities with smokestacks to lobby politicians will never come up with. Similar to other local movements, local climate change movements are creative and innovative in ways that those working only on IPCC meetings and corporate campaigns are not. We will never expand the solutions and workforce to develop a greener economy without nurturing different types of innovation. That means making room for local climate change movements and people that do not speak or look like us. Since we only know what we know, we must make the table large enough to fit people who know the other parts.
I want to share some stories of people taking action in their own community and how they are changing the national landscape on those issues. But this post is already too long, so it will have to wait.