Are Environmental Groups Really Dying? “Environmental Groups Are Drying Up in the `2010s.” “Green Magazines in the Red. “Environmental Movement Struggling as Clout Fades.” The headlines in the nation’s press read like epitaphs. A Wall Street Journal article observed that, “After years of fighting to save whales and spotted owls, the nation’s big environmental groups are in agony about another dwindling species – their supporters.” Adding to the perception that the greens have lost their muscle was the dismal lack of legislative victories in the last Congress, when the Democrats controlled both houses and the White House. But it’s not just the media offering a grim prognosis. “The environmental movement is in massive decline and is going to need a major overhaul if it wants to stage a comeback,” says Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. A quarter-century past the first Earth Day, is the environmental movement really in its last gasp? Or, in the words of Mark Twain, have reports of its death been greatly exaggerated? One thing is clear: If the movement is ailing, it’s not due to lack of popular support for the issues. Public opinion polls reflect a strong and consistent commitment to the environment. A Times Mirror survey last June found that 79 percent of respondents describe themselves as active (23 percent) or sympathetic (56 percent) environmentalists. More than half thought environmental laws hadn’t gone far enough, with only 16 percent thinking laws had gone too far. Environmental groups were also given high ratings, with 74 percent feeling highly or moderately favorable toward them. Eighty-nine percent of college students named the environment as the top concern facing the nation in 1992, according to The Student Political Organizing Guide, published by Sierra Club Campus Green Vote and Americans for the Environment. This support is reflected in the hefty membership rolls and multi-million-dollar budgets of the nation’s largest environmental organizations. Some, like the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund, are experiencing remarkable growth. Others, like the National Audubon Society and Natural Resources Defense Council, lost support when President Clinton was elected, but are now rebounding. Local groups continue to flourish, with the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste (CCHW) in touch with more than 8,000 community organizations. “Overall, the membership trend was downward,” says Matt MacWilliams, managing partner of MCSSR, a communications consulting firm based in Takoma Park, Maryland, which represents numerous environmental clients. “Not because people were less interested in the environment, but because they thought the problems were being solved when Clinton was elected Since the [congressional] elections, many groups have been picking up membership. Ifs a direct relation to the perceived threat.” “When Republicans are in office, we seem to get stronger, more united and more powerful,” agrees Luis Sepulveda, president of West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice. “Environmental programs get more support.” While the state of the movement may not be as bad as some have said, most would agree that environmentalists need to regain some of their earlier vigor. Critics from both the right and left point to national groups they say are bloated with bureaucracy, overrun with lawyers and far removed from their grassroots base. “The most fundamental problem is the collapse of much of the mainstream environmental movement into an explicitly pro-corporate stance,” says Mann. Not surprisingly, articles in the mainstream press contend that it’s this pro-corporate stance that offers a promising future for environmentalism. For example, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer argued that EDF’s policy of working with McDonald’s and Prudential Insurance on recycling is just the kind of practical, problem-solving approach that the public wants. A conservative analysis, “Restructuring Environmental Big Business,” by the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis, attributes what it calls a public backlash not only to top-heavy bureaucracy but to the movement’s purported exaggeration of environmental dangers and the tendency of most groups to take on such a broad agenda that their mission is lost. “Policy makers and potential donors find it increasingly difficult to tell different organizations apart. Essentially, different environmental groups are offering potential supporters identical products,” according to the report. The report gives high marks to the Nature Conservancy, which has kept its focus on buying land for nature preserves. All this dissection of the movement has led to some soul-searching. “The national groups, including Greenpeace, did become too large in the 1980s and did grow top-heavy,” says Barbara Dudley, executive director of Greenpeace. “The draw to legislative solutions was too seductive and took the large organizations that evolved from a mass movement too far away from their grassroots.” “It’s fair to say the environmental movement is confronting extraordinary change, not just in terms of Newt [Gingrich], but far more fundamental and pervasive,” says Lynn Greenwalt, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Some of the changes are administrative. In an effort to streamline organization, staffs are being cut and publications scaled back. For example, last year, Friends of the Earth pared back the frequency of its newsmagazine from monthly to bimonthly, and NWF is now considering contracting out its mail order business as a way to save money. But other changes are substantive, with a renewed respect and attention being paid to the grassroots. “A lot of the action is at the state level and we’ll be shifting staff and resources there,” says Greenwalt. “The grassroots is not in Washington. There are plenty of people out there willing to work on their own behalf and for the environment and the human future. That means redeploying resources, money or ideas from here to there.” The National Audubon Society, based in New York, is in the midst of a major strategic planning process, involving interviews with hundreds of members, staff and board members from around the country, as well as colleagues, political leaders and foundations. “We tried to glean from them some of their best ideas on how we should organize ourselves for the future,” says Tom Martin, Audubon’s chief operating officer. Like NWF, Audubon plans to shift more attention to the organization’s 500 chapters. “We’re not going to affect Congress through insider lobbying. We have to do it in the home offices [of legislators]. The advocacy will move outside the Beltway,” says Martin. But the very remedy proposed by many pundits for the environmental movement – to become more pragmatic and single-focused – is not likely to emerge from a grassroots strategy. For example, NWF plans to continue expanding its message beyond wildlife to include public health concerns. “It’s impossible to separate human health issues from those that affect other creatures,” says Greenwalt. “A toxin in the Great Lakes may be devastating to fish and ducks, but it’s also not good for people.” As activists make clear in the interviews on the future of environmentalism, beginning on page 5, the trend is increasingly toward building coalitions and making connections between environmental and social justice concerns. “In the long run we’ll win the battle because we’re on the side of average Americans,” says environmental consultant Matt MacWilliams. “The other side has been able to marginalize us as elitist and extremist. So the biggest task is to make the environmental message relevant once again to the mainstream. We need to talk to them in terms of what really matters: the health and safety of their families and their communities.” Whether you call it the mainstream or the grassroots, if national groups follow through on their commitment to communities, the movement could well recapture its former ardor. “Let me reveal a not so obscure secret,” says Greenpeace’s Dudley. “The grassroots environmental groups are a far sight more radical than the national groups.” Local groups faced with a hazardous facility moving in next door are much less willing to compromise than are the Washington representatives of national groups trying to craft a piece of legislation. In addition, the initial anger and fear about a local site often spreads to other issues as well. “The environmental movement caved in on NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement),” says Sue Lynch, executive director of People Against Hazardous Landfill Sites (PAHLS), in Valparaiso, Indiana. “The local groups didn’t. We worked with our local unions and opposed NAFTA. If we cave in, we’re really letting the people down who are counting on us.” In ways that even the best-intentioned national groups are unable to do, grassroots activism gives a movement its edge. As Lois Gibbs, director of Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, points out, “In most communities, people don’t think they can fight City Hall. We give people back a sense of self-worth and empowerment. We help them build up their self-confidence and say yes, you can.” Ultimately it will be this self-empowerment that promises not only a healthy future for the environmental movement, but for democracy as well.