Four reasons why environmentalists fail



Dear HCN,

Jon Margolis' column on voting trends in the West (HCN, 11/25/96) should be stapled to the forehead of every environmental activist in the Northern Rockies. The fact is, he's right: People around here do tend to respond more positively to environmental issues than they do to the environmentalists who talk about those issues. Why is that? Four guesses on my part:

Most local environmental groups aren't very well organized.

I don't just mean things like turning out the vote and staffing phone banks; I'm talking about basic things like returning phone calls and recruiting members. Need an example? I've called the Idaho Conservation League thrice, asking to join. Each time I was told a membership application would be in the mail. I'm still waiting.

Most local environmental groups don't do a good job of growing local leadership.

Both of Idaho's senators were student body presidents at the University of Idaho. Coincidence? You wouldn't think so, having seen the way Republicans are organized on this campus. The Idaho GOP uses campus politics as a way of identifying and training future leaders; local Democrats (and environmentalists, for that matter) have yet to develop a comparable means of spotting future talent on this campus.

Most local environmental groups are far too tolerant of the weirdos in their midst.

I was going to do this sustained rant about the time I took my kids to hear something that was billed as a "special environmental program for children," but I won't bother. Suffice it to say that somewhere around the time we were being urged "to seek one-ness with Brother Elk and Sister Recyclable Bottle" (and no, I am not making this up), my kids wrote the whole thing off as both fearsomely strange and terminally boring.

Most local environmental groups seems to go out of their way to annoy potential allies.

Let's face it - there aren't enough environmentalists in Idaho to start winning elections on our own. If we're going to acquire some clout, we're going to need to build some sort of coalition with other right-thinking people in this state. So to whom can we reach out? Labor? No way - too many of "them" are in mining and logging. Besides, where were they when the civil rights movement needed them? Hunters and fishermen? Nope - that will tick off the animal rights people.

Mainline churches? Forget it - everyone knows the whole Judeo-Christian ethic is to blame for the mess we're in. The tourist industry? Who wants to hop in bed with a bunch of out-of-state interests that don't pay a living wage, anyway? Native Americans? Perfect - except they don't seem to be nearly as interested in working with us as we are in working with them. The glow-in-the-dark gang out at INEL? It's true that some of the people there were instrumental in the establishment of both Sawtooth and Hells Canyon national recreation areas. But there's that whole issue of nuclear waste, and their attitude towards technology, and their tie-in with the defense industry ... and no, definitely not them.

Who are we left with? College students who aren't being used effectively. Ivy League alumni like the ones who keep showing up as interns at HCN, and aging members of the counterculture who keep their brochures for Earth First! right next to their poster of Ho Chi Minh.

Don't get me wrong - I'm sure all these people are deeply committed to whatever cause is at the top of the list this week. And I know they throw great potlucks. But as far as winning elections go? Forget it.

Greg Brothers

Moscow, Idaho

The writer, who teaches at University of Idaho, is working on a doctorate in the history of the American West.

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