Letter from the Editor - Issue 13

By Mark Spellun

A new organization called ecoAmerica recently completed a survey about our environmental values. In a world in which it seems that there are at least two sides to everything, ecoAmerica found that 93 percent of Americans like to be outdoors, and over 80 percent of us worry about the environment in general. But how are those concerns being translated into action? Environmental problems are complex; it can be difficult for people to find the link between cause and effect. For instance, only 63 percent of Americans believe cars contribute to global warming.

This partially explains our lack of enthusiasm for remedies like a gasoline tax. According to ecoAmerica, only about 15 percent of the American public understands the causes of global warming. Still, many people do try to make better choices based on how they see the world. According to the Hartman Group, 66 percent of
U.S. consumers buy organic products at least occasionally. Many of these people aren’t trying to change the world—they’re just trying to live a little better. Slightly more than one percent of the U.S. population (3.5 to 4 million people) either donates money to environmental groups or signs up as members. People we might call activists—those directly engaged in a progressive or environmental cause—are the smallest group yet, numbering under one million. Consumer activism—reflecting your values in your purchasing decisions—is perhaps today’s dominant form of progressive action, no doubt in part because it’s easy. It doesn’t require much effort— just a little cash (or credit). Yet it still has an effect: Sales of organic products grew by 17 percent in 2005. Consumers are gradually restructuring our economy through their purchases, and no one really argues that this isn’t a good thing. The real question is whether this is enough.

In his essay “The Kids Are Alright” (page 70), Todd Gitlin examines how social protest has evolved since the ’60s. From the highly visible marches of the Civil Rights era to the netroots activism of today, Gitlin, an expert on politics and civic engagement, looks at how each generation has found its own way to respond to the problems of its day.

In “The Imperfect Gift” (page 64), contributing editor Liz Galst scrutinizes some of the potentially misplaced priorities of the major environmental groups. Most of the money donated to environmental organizations today is dedicated to protecting forest and wilderness areas—a laudable goal, for sure, but in a time when global warming threatens every aspect of our existence, is this where we (or they) should be putting most of our resources? Could more funds for grassroots organizations or lobbying groups mobilize greater support for the dramatic changes that many of us believe are necessary?

Conservatives have been incredibly well organized and financed over the past couple of decades. By creating an intellectual center through the funding of think tanks in Washington, and rallying their base on Election Day, a radical minority of extreme conservatives has been able to hold sway over our politics and civic culture.

It’s comforting to think we can all potentially unite around our common goodwill for the environment and concern over its degradation. But that might very well be naïve. It certainly seems like it’s time to reexamine our spending priorities and how we tackle the major issues of our day. We need to get organized.

Issue 25

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