Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why Lobby Day Reminded Me of the Maitre-D' in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

As much fun as I had at Monday's Lobby Day in Richmond and as impressed as I was to see so many people come out to ask their legislators to protect our environment for our children's future ... the event left me with some nagging concerns.

What bothered me was ... well, don't take my word for it. Let's play a little game and see if you come to the same conclusions I do.

Take a look at this picture:

Now answer these questions (yes, you can look back at the picture, I'm not keeping score):
  1. How many non-white people do you see?
  2. How many people under the age of 30 do you see?
  3. Doesn't my giant head (back left) stick out like a mylar balloon?
I counted two non-white people and about a dozen people under 30. (Most depressing moment of the day - realizing I'm no longer part of that demographic.)

To quote the maitre-d' in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, "I weep for the future."

Why so little diversity? Because minorities have seen the environmentalism as a movement of rich white suburbanites, and frankly, they've been right. If you're a poor city-dweller, you've probably never seen an eagle or a bear that wasn't in a zoo. What do you care about saving wildlife?

There are people and groups, like Van Jones, Dick Gregory, and the African American Environmentalist Association, trying to make the green movement more accessible to people of all backgrounds. But they can't do it alone. Traditional environmental organizations also need to diversify their issues, outreach, and publicity to bring more people into the movement.

There's one issue that's shifting the traditional paradigm over who has the most to lose -- climate change. The wealthy can afford to move away from rising seas. People in New Orleans didn't have a choice. The wealthy can afford to buy solar panels when carbon pricing like the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act makes fossil fuels more expensive. Renters who don't own a roof to put it on, never mind the money to buy a solar panel, won't have a choice (though the Climate Security Act does include $350 billion in transition assistance for low-income families).

It's also possible to draw in the other missing demographic - teenagers and young adults - through the same issue. Global warming has galvanized millions of young people, as the Step It Up rallies have shown.

Many traditional conservation organizations, especially local ones, still haven't caught on. At lobby day, the day's program didn't contain the words "global warming" or "climate." Instead, the top priority was "energy efficiency." While that was carefully coded to avoid scaring off climate change deniers, it also failed to capture the urgency of the issue and the passion of climate activists. Other priorities included preserving citizen environmental commissions and improving land use - important issues, yes, but also considered snoozers for the younger crowd.

Would modernizing the message turn off the well-respected lobbying groups who turn out now like the Virginia Garden Club? It doesn't have to. There's plenty of room between avoiding climate talk and destroying Hummers. Our challenge is to find that moderate ground.
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