People: MoveOn Maven

Eli Pariser talks about why the environment will matter in the 2006 elections

By Kiera Butler

Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

IN 1998, during the Clinton impeachment, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades (the software developers responsible for After Dark’s famous “flying toasters” screensaver of the mid-nineties) started to urge Americans to censure President Clinton and “move on.” Since then, the group has expanded its mission and emerged as one of the most powerful forces in progressive politics today—and has lobbied enthusiastically for the environment. MoveOn’s latest effort is the Campaign for an Oil-Free Congress, a project aimed at telling the public which politicians accept money from oil companies —good information to have, with the 2006 elections fast approaching. Plenty recently spoke with 25-year-old Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s executive director, about oil addiction, young people in politics, and how swing voters really do care about the environment.

So where, exactly, does the environment rank with voters these days?

I see the crisis of global warming and the need for energy independence as two sides of the same coin. On one side you have the threat, and on the other side you have the opportunity. And together, I think they’re very high on the minds of voters. There’s this idea that Democrats who talk about environmental issues for example are appealing to their base, and that no one else cares about these issues. But in fact, if you look at the polls, not only do Democrats care about these issues, but swing voters do too.

How important will the 2006 elections be for the environment?
They’re really important—we’ve seen in the last four years the consequences of having one party run our country. It means, literally, you have oil companies writing the laws regulating oil companies.

Can you tell us a little more about the Campaign for an Oil-Free Congress?
It’s premised on the idea that President Bush was half right when he said that Americans are addicted to oil. But what’s even more true is that American politicians are addicted to oil money. And that stands in the way of making real progress toward a clean, sustainable, energy-independent future. So we need to embarrass politicians who take hundreds of thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil.

When you say, “embarrass politicians.…”
Yes, they’re hard to embarrass, it’s true! We’ve been running ads that highlight the amounts of money that members of Congress have taken from oil companies and how they’ve then voted in oil companies’ favor. Those ads have been very effective.

A lot of people have been saying that global warming is this big elephant in the room—that because people can’t necessarily see it, they aren’t giving it the attention it deserves.
Al Gore and some others have done an awful lot for the issue, but it’s still going to take some work to make it a presence in everyone’s lives.

When An Inconvenient Truth hit theaters, you launched a campaign to encourage people to see it. Did you think that people needed prompting?
We wanted to make sure our members knew the movie was coming to town and saw it, and we’re just ecstatic about the results. I think it really restarted a national conversation on the issue. Which says much more about the movie and the poignancy of the issue than it does about us, but it’s still very exciting to see that happen.

We heard you’re the child of sixties activists.
That’s been overstated. Basically my parents went to Maine, which is where I live now, and started a school. That was interpreted as activism, and I guess it is in its own way.

Environmentalists in the sixties had a very different agenda—and a different strategy for accomplishing that agenda—from young environmentalists now. How has the movement changed?
I’m 25, so I don’t have a lot of direct experience with the sixties, but one difference is that people these days don’t separate the environment from many other key political issues. People don’t wake up and say, “I care about the environment, but I don’t care about war or what we’re doing for the poor”—well, there are probably a few people like that, but it’s not the majority. The majority of us want to see our country do right and do well in a lot of ways.

What’s the best way to mobilize young people
in the environmental movement today?

I don’t think young people are a different species. And maybe that’s because I still consider myself to be relatively young. But I think what you need to mobilize young people is the same thing you need in order to mobilize anyone: a clear argument that what you’re asking them to do makes a difference and a vision about what that difference is.

Issue 25

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