A Different Shade of Green

If one word summed up the mindset of those in the American environmental movement, it could be “stop.” They advocate a stop to polluting, a stop to driving, a stop to eating meat, a stop to buying large cars, and a stop to using fossil fuels—in short, a stop to doing everything that American culture demands. They call for a stop through laws or technological standards with little explanation of why it is necessary to stop this behavior.

This is not a new attitude in the environmental movement, but it is one that must be changed. Global warming is far too complex to solve with statutory regulations. If the environmental challenges that face the world now are to be successfully addressed, it will require the engagement of a much wider audience and greater focus on education than in the past.

Historically, environmental protection has been the province—almost exclusively —of relatively rich white men and women. The lack of involvement from inner-city and minority communities is one of the greatest failings of the movement. While environmental justice issues involving these communities have garnered increasing concern in the last several years, the problems with engaging a broader audience run deeper than environmental justice issues.

These communities need to be included in the movement, not because of the environmental justice concerns that they are a part of, but because they represent a majority of the population. Without their support, the environmental movement will fail to successfully address global warming problems and all of its implications. Statutory regulations can solve air pollution when the majority of pollution is caused by industries that can be regulated. But global warming is a problem that is far more pervasive. It can only be addressed if individuals make the decision to change their behavior. This is not possible if the majority of the population is ignorant of the challenges.

A recent Pew poll found that, among the public, global warming ranked last of 20 possible policy problems. More importantly, however, the poll found a serious disconnect between concern over the environment and global warming. While it is heartening that the environment was not listed last, it is worrying that people see a difference between the environment and global warming. These two policy problems are inextricably linked, and dealing with one means dealing with the other. That this poll separates them indicates a serious lack of understanding of the problem.

People cannot—and will not—protect what they do not know or understand. The general lack of understanding is what underlines the importance of changing the focus of the environmental movement. In order to successfully engage these communities, environmentalists can no longer rely upon scientific innovation and legal roadblocks. To actively protect the environment, policy requires engagement from groups outside the traditionally active white suburbanites.

Making the investments necessary to create engagement in inner-city communities will require a titanic paradigm shift within the environmental movement. Currently, the five largest traditional environmental groups have a budget of $325 million. Yet only $49 million of that—barely 15 percent—goes to environmental groups that work with lowincome and minority communities. There can be no disparity between these numbers if new communities are to be brought into the environmental movement.

Rather than demanding that people protect the environment by introducing it through education programs, environmentalists have the opportunity to motivate people to protect it for the same reason that the environmentalists do: because they have an understanding of, and legitimate concern for, it. While it may be easier to tell people not to do something, making them not want to do it is a more effective means of protection.

True protection calls for a reevaluation of how the value of the environment is assessed. The environment is not a luxury good, and by some estimates it contributes $33 trillion to the global GDP, so it can no longer be treated as an unnecessary amenity. But the reevaluation requires massive cultural shifts, which, yet again, require education, not new laws.

This will not be easy. The environmental movement has, for a very long time, been a group on the margin of American public policy and one that has not tried to engage outsiders. Their methods have worked passably well thus far but will no longer be sufficient. Global warming will not be legislated away, and concern for the environment cannot be demanded in the same way that a catalytic converter can be required.

Education and outreach must play a larger role in the environmental movement, and this begins with increased investment in those organizations that work with low-income and inner-city communities. This population has been ignored for decades by the environmental movement and only recently received attention. Now, the challenges facing the world demand that this attention not only be continued but also be increased.


Patrick Behrer ’09 is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. He is the director of the Harvard EnviroEd program.