The environmental movement has made some amazing progress in spite of opposition from powerful interests over the years. However, while some aspects of our environment have gotten better, there are also declines, with many problems getting worse, and some with increasing acceleration.
Issues like climate change, the rate of species extinction and natural resource depletion have serious repercussions for our society's long-term viability. Efforts toward policy changes strong enough to get us on the right track often run into hostile resistance, especially when sustainability measures are framed as anti-business.
As a bicycle advocate, I am used to encountering the occasional road-rage screaming and online hate messages, and listening to excuses ad nauseam about why more can’t be done to make getting around by bike safer and more convenient. If we are going to break through and make the necessary changes needed to achieve true sustainability, we have to create a broader movement.
Unfortunately, many critical environmental issues have been made into partisan bickering matches. Sooner or later, though, achieving sustainability will have to become a post-partisan issue. By the very definition, our currently unsustainable existence cannot go on indefinitely. Even in Santa Monica, where "sustainability" and "going green" are buzz words, and many city polices are directed toward sustainable goals, our own Sustainability Report Card indicates we have a long way to go.
In the category of transportation especially, I think there is a great urgency—especially given how oil-intensive the transportation sector is, how much of the oil production we depend on is outside of our control, and in light of the wild swings in prices in recent years as supply flat-lined despite growing demand. So how do we get to the next level toward a sustainable future?
We have to start finding the common ground that reaches beyond those already inclined to think green. Traditionally, a lot of those most strongly supportive of environmental initiatives come from a perspective more left-leaning in thinking. So we tend to use progressive arguments and talking points to further the cause.
Instead, I think the ways in which environmental issues will impact everyone, even at the individual level, should be emphasized. Many critical environmental issues can be supported from a variety of angles, including from political ideologies most often juxtaposed against environmentalists.
A bleeding-heart liberal may care deeply about the declining habitat of the polar bear, but that message isn’t going to work for everyone. Howeve,r when you look at things like reducing oil dependency from a national security perspective, as the U.S. military is beginning to do, than you can start talking in terms more relatable across party lines.
For environmentalists to reach a stronger political consensus, I believe we need to start talking in terms of economics, public health and safety, quality of life and national security, and less of the hippie love-the-Earth stuff. As much as I may subscribe to some of that message myself, it is not going to create the unity necessary to build a consensus.
We also have to counter the rhetoric that environmental initiatives are some new attempt at "social engineering," a favorite talking point of libertarians, by pointing out we already live in a grand social experiment, one that is unsustainable. We live in a social experiment in which government policy has for decades dictated development around automobile dependency through zoning code mandates and massive resource inefficiencies supported by government subsidies. Our marketplace is warped by companies externalizing much of their pollution and waste as public costs, or exporting it overseas for someone else to deal with, all while reaping massive private profits.
At least on some issues, I think you can just as easily make a case for necessary environmental reforms from a right-wing libertarian perspective as you could a progressive one—such as some of the parking policy reforms advocated by the economist Donald Shoup, whose proposals have started to gain traction from both far ends of the political spectrum (ideas I discussed in on parking downtown).
So, the next time you see someone rolling their eyes about “going green,” consider shifting the conversation to the tangible ways in which more sustainable living are beneficial to our own selves and to our national interest. Our best hope is going to be reaching at least some of the people who may currently disagree with making the environment a priority. Ultimately, it will eventually be clear to everyone there is no economy at all without a stable environmental resource base to sustain it. By then it may be too late to avert great hardships.
There is no time to lose, and in a democracy, it’s going to take more coalition-building across party lines to get us there. It’s easy to write off reactionary movements like the Tea Party, which has at times been openly hostile to environmental initiatives. Instead we should view such developments as a challenge, and adapt our messaging accordingly. It’s changed the way I talk about bicycling in much of my own advocacy.
To me there is no greater symbol of liberty, personal freedom and patriotism than riding a bike. I support the troops, I support the local economy, and I support the Earth, and there is nothing contradictory or partisan about that.