Whatever happened to the environmental movement?


It can no longer be denied: The national environmental movement has stalled.

It became glaringly obvious as the movement campaigned against George W. Bush for three years with no noticeable influence on his re-election. It’s proven more subtly by the fact that Congress has passed almost no significant environmental laws since 1980, and by now, whoever happens to be president can jerk around the priorities of key agencies like the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The environmental movement’s halt is important in the West, because this is the movement that set aside all the federal land that distinguishes the region, and it defends the bedrock laws that preserve the qualities of the land, wildlife, water and air.

Bush and the increased Republican majority in Congress are likely to continue rolling back the laws and regulations, to enable more oil and gas drilling, coal-fired power plant construction and other industries that have negative impacts on the environment. So it threatens to become a full rout for the environmental movement.

It’s ironic. There is still widespread public support for protecting the land, air and water necessary for life, but the national groups have trouble tapping into it. For decades, they’ve built their staffs and budgets, but as they’ve grown large, they’ve become a bureaucracy, or enough like a bureaucracy that they’re perceived as one — a movement of clerks filing the paperwork of appeals and lawsuits and official comments, insisting on procedure and technicalities.

The movement has lost the excitement it had during its peak years, in the early 1900s when it invented federal public land, and in the 1960s and ‘70s, when it passed the laws that began protecting many aspects of the environment. It’s easy now for opponents to portray the environmentalist bureaucracy as an inhuman special interest.

To become effective once again, the environmental movement needs to demonstrate that it’s not a bureaucracy. I think the movement can do that, by getting into motion, organizing a Green March on Washington, D.C.

At the peak of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. drew 250,000 people to the Washington Mall in 1963; today the Sierra Club alone has 700,000 members. The environmental movement should be able to rally a half-million people to the Washington mall, possibly even a round million.

It would be a showing of all the different kinds of people who support the goals, many of whom don’t identify themselves by the stodgy and bureaucratic term "environmentalists". This protest march could include Wyoming ranchers who don’t want their land ruined by coalbed methane drilling; residents of Libby, Mont., who are dying of asbestos fibers in their lungs because mining and health regulations were ignored; scientists whose research on global warming and endangered species is being squelched by the Bush administration; American Indians and commercial fishermen who want to save salmon runs; hunters and anglers who want habitat in roadless forests kept roadless; recreation businesspeople and real estate agents who rely on healthy rivers and scenic views to attract customers.

They could link up with people from West Virginia who want no more of their mountaintops lopped off for coal mining, and people from Florida who want the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge saved from oil drilling. From cities across the country, there could be a large contingent of "asthma moms," whose kids are caught in the growing epidemic of lung ailments caused by tiny particulates in emissions from SUVs and power plants.

This wouldn’t be another touchy-feely Earth Day march; it would be more insistent and grounded in real crises. The national news organizations would devote coverage to it, because it would be right under their noses.

If the Green March came together in a big way, it would be inspiring, strengthening the identity of the movement and widening its outreach. It would shore up the Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress, encouraging them to resist the Bush moves. It would make it tougher for Bush to act under the radar screen. Grassroots groups around the West could point to the crowd and say, "We’re part of the whole." It would flesh out the movement with hundreds of thousands of faces and many diverse stories of personal commitment.

Most of all, it would test whether there really is an environmental movement. Will most groups’ members remain content to mail in comments and dues, or, will they march?

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is editor in the field for High Country News in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.