With Federal Outlook Dim, Major Environmental Groups Look Towards the Grassroots

Bringing back the grassroots. Although we're talking about a different type of grassroots, the time when local, grassroots efforts were thrown into the bargain bin in favor of sweeping federal policy is over - hopefully.
Author: Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel

Hot on the heals of River Network’s Warming Watersheds; Water and Energy track at Winter Training 2010 – where leaders from an array of local and national environmental groups met to strategize around building grassroots momentum for addressing climate change through the water-energy nexus - the Washington Post ran an article about how the major environmental groups are shifting their focus away from Washington D.C. back to the grassroots. What took them so long to get the memo?

There’s no doubt that the November election was a hard blow to the environmental movement. As I wrote in the November edition of River Network’s Saving Water, Saving Energy e-newsletter:

Nearly a month has passed since the results from this year's election came in. Although the prospects of passing national climate legislation any time soon look bleak, to say the least, there are still ample opportunities to address our water, energy and climate challenges at the state and local level.

Backed up with interviews from leaders of some of the worlds largest environmental NGO’s, the Washington Post article – aptly titled Environmental community shifts focus away from Washington with 'think local' strategies - seems to describe an environmental movement going through a midlife crisis of sorts. After a decade of devoting a lion’s share of resources to playing with the big boys in Washington, many groups are turning back to the grassroots to build the local support needed to address our looming environmental challenges:

As 2010 comes to a close, U.S. environmentalists are engaged in their most profound bout of soul-searching in more than a decade. Their top policy priority - imposing a nationwide cap on carbon emissions - has foundered in the face of competing concerns about jobs. Many of their political allies on both the state and federal level have been ousted. And the Obama administration has just signaled it could retreat on a couple of key air-quality rules.

Hence a shift of focus away from the toxic partisanship of Washington back to the grass roots and the shared values that gave the movement its initial momentum more than 40 years ago.

"Certainly I think we have figured out we need to find a way to really listen harder and connect with people all over America, especially in rural America," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "I don't think we've done a particularly good job of that."

The change casts a sudden pall over environmentalists' top-down approach.

"The tragedy is that they spent the last 10 years on this and not anything else," said Clean Air Task Force Executive Director Armond Cohen, whose group has pursued an array of alternative strategies aimed at curbing climate change and air pollution.

Now, instead of spending millions of dollars seeking to win over wavering lawmakers on the Hill, green groups are ramping up their operations outside D.C., focusing on public utilities commissions that sign off on new power plants and state ballot initiatives that could potentially funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to conservation efforts.

As the only national organization whose mission is to empower and unite people and communities to protect and restore rivers and watersheds, River Network has never turned away from the grassroots. Indeed, River Network wouldn’t exist without our network of over 600 grassroots Partner organizations working on the ground to protect our rivers and watersheds. We’ve always believed that meaningful change happens from the bottom up, which is why here at River Network we devote all of our efforts to building the capacity of grassroots groups and equipping them with the resources they need to lead effective campaigns.

I’ll end this post with an excerpt from the WaPo article featuring Bill McKibben, one of my favorite, and I believe pragmatic, voices in the environmental movement:

350.org founder Bill McKibben, who has been trying to foster a global grass-roots movement, wrote in an e-mail he sees it as the only way to overcome traditional opponents who are far better positioned in Washington: "Since we're never going to compete with Exxon in money," he wrote, "we better find another currency, and to me bodies, spirit, creativity are probably our best bet."

Hat-tip to Steve Fleischli from NRDC

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