Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Blowing Fumes
As people who know me know, I am an avid hiker with a great appreciation for the outdoors. I pay attention to environmental issues but would not call myself an environmentalist, certainly not in the sense that contributors to the Sierra Club consider themselves as. In fact, a few months ago some door to door solicitors for the Sierra Club stopped by my house to sign me up as a member. They tried to get me angry at Bush and Cheney for destroying the environment. They tried to scare me about ANWR and what Bush was going to do with it. I politely asked them how much money from contributing members actually went towards the environmental care programs they boasted about and what budget went to pay for lobbyists, lawyers, and paper-wasting direct mail membership drive activities. Caught flat-footed, they hemmed and hawed about how difficult it is to fight against the Bush machine, which of course necessitates such activities.

I politely shooed them away and declined to become a Sierra Club member. I find that it is better to "Think Globally and Act Locally" (a sentiment I am sure they endorse) by sending a yearly contribution to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. There, I am reasonably certain that my money will go towards environmental practices I endorse. And the money stays local where I will gain the most benefit. Also, I enjoy the bi-partisan approach that the Society takes on environmental issues -working with Republicans (since they pretty much have to) in order to get things done. All in all, a very win win situation that people in NH can be proud of.

Which brings me back to the Sierra Club and the senseless partisan spinning. The problem with them, and most big-name environmental organizations in general, is the caustic attack they wage against those they deem as enemies: namely businesses, ranchers, and practically all Republicans. These environmental organizations approach the issues as though they are the ones who love the environment and no one else. Which means if you are outside their circle then you must be a polluter. This narrative helps when it comes time for pledge drives. They energize their base (to use the current jargon) with scary headlines and doomsday scenarios. Needless to say, not all are taken in by this behavior though the press very often acts as a mouthpiece for these groups. Gregg Easterbrook of the left-leaning The New Republic is a good source regarding environmental issues because he's evenhanded and criticizes bad environmentalism and bad reporting of environmentalism when it occurs. Indeed, John Kerry already makes great hay out of painting Bush as terrible on the environment, but as the Easterbrook article suggests, the truth just isn't so.

As Glenn Reynolds has argued on several occasions, advocacy groups after awhile tend to be concerned with their own survival as an organization once their initial advocacy produces benefits and diminishing returns sets in. Indeed, these organizations have to express greater volumes of overheated rhetoric in order to maintain the flow of membership dollars from the faithful. An example he gives to describe this effect concerns the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD was all the rage in the 80's when drunk driving death statistics were alarming. Since their initial advocacy, prompting then President Reagan to raise the drinking age to 21, teen drunk driving deaths have declined dramatically. However, rather than declare victory and disband, MADD continues to advocate for stricter standards: lower legal impairment limits, expanded sobriety checkpoints at roadsides, etc. MADD, as a powerful organization, endeavors to remain powerful, even though its efforts at additional advocacy will only produce marginal returns at best. In effect, more laws are passed for less gain. But to the MADD membership who continue to contribute, the problem of drunk driving has not been addressed enough.

Like MADD, the Sierra Club has to manufacturer crisis at every turn in order to remain viable. Since the 70's, our land is cleaner, our water purer, and our skies less polluted. For that, the Sierra Club does indeed deserve our congratulations. However, all the big gains that could be made in environmental cleanup and protection have already been realized. Further efforts may be more costly than beneficial. These are decisions that may or may not need to be made. Indeed, it is important to have a debate on these issues. That is why screaming advocacy that the Sierra Club specializes in is no longer helpful. Other groups have solutions to offer, and other measures can produce benefits with fewer costs. Some problems may be overstated and some understated. The point is not to ignore threats to the environment, but to tackle them in a way that is not polarized. Towards that end, it would help if the major media handled themselves more responsibly by curtailing the reporting of overheated doomsaying from environmentalists and instead provide greater balanced coverage of these issues


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