Is environmentalism dead?

Talking Green election column by D. Simon Jackson

In a week filled with market jitters, the economy has superseded the environment as the top issue on the minds of Canadian voters. That has many in the chattering classes wondering if the environmental movement in Canada has missed its best chance of having the environment be the central ballot issue in a federal election. 

In fact, Liberal strategist Rob Silver, in his online blog this week, opined that the Canadian environmental movement is now dead.

Because environmentalists failed to rally behind the one party (meaning the Liberals) that embraced the policy proposals they have been "begging" for, Silver argues that environmental groups themselves are at least partly responsible for diluting the issue's importance in the public mind at such a critical juncture.

By abandoning the political terrain, he goes on, these groups have lost all credibility as a movement in pushing for future policy changes.

Let's leave aside the fact that the laws governing charitable organizations in this country hamstring the lobbying efforts of many environmental groups — and prohibit political endorsements — or even the suggestion (reading between the lines) that some parties might be putting forward bold environmental policies simply for electoral gain. 

As I've argued before, this election's environmental debate has been framed as all about carbon pricing. Just because one policy issue is sliding in the polls — understandably perhaps given the larger economic uncertainties — doesn't mean that the big environmental debate is now a political third rail that will never be discussed in future election campaigns.

Still, there is validity in asking whether the environmental movement as a whole has lost relevance with both the public and decision-makers. Has this election, for all of the wrong reasons, underscored the fact that the green lobby has lost its ability to inspire and affect change?

Too much baggage

Shawn Smith of Global Agents for Change, an organization that seeks to encourage citizens, especially young people, to become involved in issues that affect their world, would disagree with that assessment. But, he says, there is a big hurdle that is holding back many new supporters from embracing the cause.

"Environmental organizations are part of a healthy national debate on a critical issue. No one is disputing that," said Smith. "Individually, these organizations are accomplishing lofty goals, but as a general cause — as a voting block, as a united movement — environmentalism has lost strength."

His reasoning is that "the word 'environmentalism' has become too ideological, and as a result, the true base of support for the issue is not accurately reflected or leveraged to achieve maximum results."

While some people will always have positive associations with the term "environmentalism," many more will associate it with left-wing politics, a broad anti-development agenda and Birkenstock-wearing, pot-smoking, tree-hugging radical protesters.

This is far from an accurate picture of today's environmental organizations, but the stereotypes persist and the result is a brand heavily burdened with political baggage.

Not ideological

The reality is that environmentalism at its core is not ideological. It is, in fact, one of the few issues that should be non-partisan. After all, who doesn't want to have clean air to breathe, pure water to drink and life to exist within a sustainable balance?

The true environmental base in this country is not limited to socialists and hard-line activists. It really should include rural citizens who rely on the land to farm and hunt; businesspeople who need a sustainable environment free of hurricanes and drought to make money; and many social conservatives who view the environment as their social justice cause.

Yet in the environmental debate that we see today, this potentially broad coalition is not engaged.

Rather than have all political parties put forward a comprehensive environmental platform out of political necessity, as we see with health care and the economy (both of which are intertwined with the environment), the issue has become a political football, used to drive a wedge between voters. This has only been reinforced in the current election campaign.

"Canadians need to take back the word 'environmentalism,'" says Smith. "The connotations of the word are too negative and narrow to engage the broad coalition of real environmental supporters necessary to affect the change that is so urgently needed."

Redefine the term

And, indeed, some Canadians are trying to redefine environmentalism.

Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform Party, may not sound like the usual voice in the debate to save the environmental movement from itself. Yet, he has repeatedly stated in opinion articles that for many conservatives, especially in Alberta, the environment is the sleeper of the political debate.

Manning's argument illustrates that once the key to unlocking environmentalism's true potential base of support is found, the issue could become a political powerhouse.

That may be especially true if you see this as part of a generational shift.

Take Ryan Goodman, for example. He's a passionate environmental advocate. But rather than join one of the many environmental organizations that exist, he - like so many other young people - has decided to start his own group, EconicLife, along with four of his friends.

EconicLife is not your usual benevolent organization. It is a social venture: one that seeks to blur the environmental bottom line with the economic bottom line in order to find green solutions that also turn a profit.

Dev Aujla of DreamNow, an organization that focuses on "innovating the way people do good," just completed a fascinating study titled "Occupation: Change the World" that proves Goodman is not alone in wanting to redefine activism.

"Having had the importance of the environment ingrained in them at an early age while equally growing up in a me-first society — one driven by Hollywood culture and societal comforts — more and more young people want to find a way to bridge the two seemingly incompatible worlds by bringing issues like the environment into mainstream society," says Aujla.

"They want to use traditional business models as the engines for change and show that the sacrifices we need to make as a society, in the end, may not only benefit the planet but also provide good, well-paying jobs as part of a high-quality lifestyle."

It's this new paradigm of environmental entrepreneurship that might be the key that is needed to break down the stereotypes associated with environmentalism and make it accessible to millions of new supporters.

So, while many people may be declaring that this election has signaled the death knell for the environmental movement, it may only be through its demise that the grip of overwrought stereotypes will be broken, allowing for a new green movement to rise from the ashes — one that is free of ideology and has a diversity of voices.