J500 Media and the Environment

Finding a Niche by jenh
February 5, 2008, 3:05 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

Water BuffaloI thought I had a hangover by the time I finished the Death of Environmentalism. Or that I was drowning in dramatic detail. Thirty years of environmental progress whittled to an argument that we must start over, that the current methods, as described by the authors, aren’t working. It sucked all the joy from highlights and progress over lo these many years.

I had an urge to quench my thirst by dismissing what the authors had to say. And I had a whole list of what I disagreed with, but then I realized it made me sound like a whiney environmentalist. Instead, I took a more sober view: what points had they raised that I agreed with? For one, I think that anyone who wants to change any aspect of the world – even someone else’s opinion – has to recognize the role that values play. Much has been written, in this article and elsewhere, about how much more effective policy change and even holistic social change can be when you tie it to individual value systems. I know from too many late-night conversations at a favorite brewery that if you cannot at least appeal to someone’s frame of reference, the values they already hold, you won’t change their mind. You have to make an argument personally appeal to their worldview.

I also agree that to some extent, environmentalists have defined themselves by what they are not. This is true of almost any movement I can think of. It’s part and parcel of our divisive culture. We are pro-this and anti-that, two camps for every issue. Then there was the claim that evironmentalists don’t know how to build effective coalitions or bridges across multiple groups (or that change would occur if X group would just join in).

But, they are straining in their overall arguments, such as environmentalism is overly tied to policy without politics, that it suffers from literal sclerosis, or that it is isolated from other movements and issues. Nothing crystallized this more for me than the rebuttal from Carl Pope. In Pope’s essay, I see the beginning of what happened between 2005, when “Death” was written, and 2008 – the monumental shift in public opinion to think about the impact humans have on the planet. As global warming or weirding has become more recognizable, it’s showing up as a component in news, the performing arts, economic news, global justice movements, insurance (think hurricanes), etc.

Pope mentioned that the only people the authors talked to were policy “wonks,” when many other people have an influence on environmental awareness and change – especially artists. This will be somewhat of a self-serving remark, but if you want to see how artists are approaching environmental change, go see the art installation “Niche” in Spooner Hall at KU next week. It’s art that can make people confront their assumptions about their environment and the consequences of their choices. It makes environmental choices such as housing and water bottles personal, a matter of (gasp) values. Perhaps that is something the authors of “Death” would agree with. -Jen Humphrey


5 Comments so far
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Do you think environmental leaders have been successful at convincing policymakers that global warming is a serious threat that needs to be dealt with immediately?

Environmentalists are starting to have their way at the grassroots level (and I agree that we should congratulate ourselves on that a bit), but how soon until Washington DC hears us?

On a completely different note, I have a class in Spooner, and I have seen artwork suddenly appear over the past week. It’s beautiful, and it’s a niche that I would have never thought of as being involved in the environmental movement.

Lauren Keith

Comment by laurenkeith

We’re dealing with chickens and eggs when we discuss who got past the filters of the American brain to actually seep into the collective consciousness — the fundamental shift I’m talking about. Is it that environmental leaders have been successful at convincing policymakers? Maybe, but I’d wager it has more to do with global climate change beginning to affect people on a personal level. When the big mammals go extinct because of habitat change, it can get their attention much better than an insect or tiny bird. Oer when weather patterns like the drought in Georgia last year, it made people wonder if there was something larger at work than an aberration in the weather. It makes them care because their values, such as the hoped continuation/success/propogation of the biggest, baddest mammal on the planet (homo sapiens) or the continuation of their livelihoods in the sunbaked southeast are at stake. Of course, media helps push these questions forward to the masses.

Policymakers — those who are voted in, anyway — won’t enact changes that will get them booted out in the next election, but they act more quickly when they realize that many, many of their constituents care about an issue. And just how did many of their constitutents begin to care about the changing climate? Again, the media helps bring it to their attention.

I went to the caucuses last night and experienced what I’d call values-driven hope. Here were 2218 people who drove through the snow, stood politely in a cattle-call line for more than an hour, massed into a giant corral in a barn to cheer for their candidates, and looked— well, happy. Hopeful. They (yep, me, too) were excited to participate in the process. They wanted to see someone with their values be their leader. What I saw there last night was a political process that got people involved, forced them to make a public stand for their opinion, and perhaps understand the underlying passion for why they supported a candidate over another. That’s what can get policymakers to enact change — the combination of a mass of people with a passion for something (environmental change, health care, gay marriage, whatever the call of the moment) and the willingness to be vocal about it. I know it’s polyannish to speak that way, but if I don’t believe in that power, then I forsee a bleak environmental path ahead.

On the completly different note, glad you like the Niche exhibit. It brings about unanticipated reactions, doesn’t it?

Jen H

Comment by jenh

Interesting you mentioned big mammal extinction, Jen. I actually think it’s pain at the pump that is galvanizing the effort. Not that those things are mutually exclusive, but one provides a greater imperative for the wonks. Lauren, I think it’s happening. Almost every Super Tuesday poll I saw listed the economy as the primary public concern. Don’t renewable energy investments, green collar jobs, green products and services all tie into that?

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

You’re right, I know. I guess I meant that people paid more attention to polar bears drowning than they have to many other hallmarks of global change. People do pay more attention when their wallet is on the line.

Talk about cheap fuel…The new biofuel gas station opened at Ninth and Iowa streets this week. If I understood as I slid by in the snow, it is offerering the uninformed consumer ethanol80 for $1.44, about forty cents cheaper than regular gas (please correct me if I’m wrong). It misleads people into thinking that all biofuels are the same, that the consumer is making a good choice and saving money.

Jen H

Comment by jenh

The biofuel station is a perfect opportunity to educate consumers about the differences in the fuels out there. Let’s try and start that reframing in class and see what happens 🙂

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

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