Saving the World: Sometimes It Helps to Be Small

Author Douglas Bevington has worn several hats: he oversees the nonprofit Environment Now’s programs to protect California forests, and he taught courses on social movements at UC Santa Cruz, where he earned his doctorate in sociology. A longtime environmentalist, his latest book is The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear, published by Island Press. In Rebirth, Bevington examines the impact of forest and biodiversity protection groups on environmental policies over the past two decades.

The book serves up three case studies of influential biodiversity protection campaigns—Headwaters, the “zero cut” campaign in national forests, and endangered species litigations by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups. Thorough and readable, the book gives a good picture of where we need to go from here.

I spoke recently to Bevington about the lessons he’s drawn from researching his book.

The Rebirth of Environmentalism focuses on grassroots biodiversity protection groups. How do you define these groups?
Grassroots biodiversity groups are small but bold organizations that protect imperiled wildlife and forests, particularly through vigorous use of litigation. The Center for Biological Diversity is the best known. Other examples in California are the John Muir Project in the Sierra Nevada, the Environmental Protection Information Center in Humboldt County, and Los Padres ForestWatch in Southern California. Other groups can be found in almost every state throughout the US. Despite their small size and limited resources, the grassroots biodiversity groups have had a profound impact on federal environmental protection over the past two decades. They have something important to teach us about effectiveness.

How are these groups different from other environmental organizations?
To understand what makes grassroots biodiversity groups effective, it’s helpful to compare them to two other forms of biodiversity protection advocacy—those employed by national environmental organizations and those by Earth First! In the late 1980s, biodiversity protection advocates in the US faced a dilemma of choosing between two paths for protecting wildlife, each with notable limitations. The first path was represented by the well-known national environmental organizations—such as the National Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense Fund— that relied on the “insider strategy” to try to influence environmental protection. This strategy, commonly used by interest groups in Washington, DC, depended on privileged access to politicians to influence policy. The problem with this strategy was that it regularly led these organizations to avoid taking strong stands on controversial issues when they believed such stands might hurt their access and influence. In other words, they were constrained from advocating for what was truly ecologically necessary.

The second path consisted of Earth First! activists who engaged in direct actions such as sitting in old-growth trees to deter loggers from cutting them down. Because these activists did not rely on an insider strategy, they could be as bold as needed, but their direct-action tactics rarely saved biodiversity on a large scale.

Faced with the limitations of each approach, the founders of grassroots biodiversity groups chose to create a third path. These groups embraced legal tactics while rejecting the constraints of the insider strategy. They were willing to file lawsuits against the federal government for its failure to enforce its own environmental laws in cases the national organizations avoided as potentially controversial. While national organizations would sometimes file litigation, they were often limited by their insider strategy. So when new grassroots groups formed in the late 1980s and 1990s that eschewed that strategy, they discovered that there were many opportunities to enforce existing environmental laws that had not been utilized by the nationals. As a result, we have seen an unprecedented increase in forest and endangered species protection due largely to the work of the grassroots groups. These groups provided an important new path for saving biodiversity that was simultaneously bold and influential, where they could advocate for what was ecologically necessary and also achieve those goals.

In your book, you focus on the past twenty years, from the first President Bush through the Clinton years and into the George W. Bush administration. How have these different administrations influenced the behavior of the grassroots and national environmental organizations?
The national environmental organizations have mostly focused on building access to Democratic politicians. So when there is a Republican president, they are more willing to be critical of the policies of that administration. But when there is a Democrat in the White House, they tend to mute their criticism of flawed policies and will even turn a blind eye when that administration does things that are detrimental to the environment. In contrast, the grassroots groups that do not rely on the insider strategy are more willing to advocate stronger positions in defense of biodiversity regardless of who is in the White House. The distinction between the grassroots and the nationals thus becomes more pronounced during Democratic administrations, such as during the Clinton years. As I chronicle in The Rebirth of Environmentalism, most of the progress in forest and wildlife protection that occurred during that time was a direct result of the enforcement efforts by the grassroots groups, over the resistance of the Clinton administration and the acquiescence of the national organizations. While there can be advantages to having a Democrat as president, those advantages are only realized when there are bold groups willing to push against resistance from that administration to making real changes.

What lessons does that history offer now that Barack Obama is president?
I think it is important to examine the lessons from the Clinton years because we now see similar patterns forming during the Obama years. When the Obama administration has advanced environmental policies that are similar to, or even worse than, the policies under George W. Bush, the national environmental organizations have heaped praise on the president more often than raising concerns. A recent example is the tepid and even celebratory response from many national groups to Obama’s plans to open vast areas to offshore oil drilling. If Bush had tried to propose such a plan, there would have been howls of protest from the nationals. But instead, they focused on praising Obama for the one area that did exclude oil drilling. The main criticisms of the plan came from grassroots groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, which declared, “Today’s announcement is unfortunately all too typical of what we have seen so far from President Obama — promises of change, a year of deliberation, and ultimately, adoption of flawed and outdated Bush policies.” The best hope for substantial environmental protection during the Obama years is going to depend on bold advocacy from the grassroots.

While you have highlighted the differences between the grassroots and the nationals, doesn’t the insider approach of the nationals complement the outsider approach of the grassroots to increase environmental protection?
One of the most remarkable things I found in my research for this book is that national environmental organizations played surprisingly counterproductive roles in the campaigns I examined. I don’t simply mean the nationals were not advocating for the strongest positions. Instead, in all of my case studies, I discovered that, in their political deal-making, national organizations were willing to trade away powerful legal tools that grassroots groups were using to protect forests and wildlife. In other words, the nationals actively undermined effective work by the grassroots. Unfortunately, this trend continues today around global warming, where we see the Center for Biological Diversity seeking to enforce the Clean Air Act as an important tool to regulate greenhouse gas emissions here and now, but many of the national environmental organizations are promoting legislation that would gut the ability of this powerful law to address global warming.

It is often mistakenly assumed that the national environmental organizations were responsible for the great environmental laws from the 1970s that grassroots groups later applied to protect biodiversity. However, as I document in my book, the big national organizations played a surprisingly minor role in the passage of these laws, and in some cases even wound up weakening them. Even without new legislation, the grassroots groups found that they could dramatically increase environmental protection by using the untapped potential within our existing laws. In short, the grassroots groups discovered that the legislative role of the nationals could not only be counterproductive but unnecessary.

You have worked with both grassroots and national groups over the past two decades. Given your concerns about the nationals, how has it been for you to work with them?
While I have spent some time working in DC, my most significant involvement with a national group has been through the Sierra Club, and the Sierra Club is a bit of an anomaly. On one hand, it has a professional staff that generally follows the insider strategy in the manner of other national organizations. But, unlike most nationals, the Sierra Club also has a chapter-level system for participation by its members, and in theory, its members can play a significant role in shaping the club’s policies. In practice, however, members raised concerns that the staff was constraining the club from taking stronger positions. One of the chapters in my book chronicles how grassroots activists within the club tried to apply the latent democratic mechanisms within the organization to improve its national forest protection policies. The grassroots activists were particularly critical of the role played by executive director Carl Pope. Pope has recently stepped down from that role, and the club’s new director, Mike Brune, came from a bolder group called Rainforest Action Network. It will be interesting to see whether Brune can stay true to his roots, which could be very helpful for the club, or whether he gets tangled up in the insider approach.

What lessons would you like members of the public to take from this book, and how are you applying those lessons in your own life?
All too often, money flows into the coffers of big, high-profile national environmental groups whose political deal-making can actually wind up harming biodiversity protection efforts. A key lesson of this book is that individual donors and foundations may accomplish more environmental protection per dollar by focusing their resources on bold grassroots groups. These are the groups that have had the biggest impact over the past two decades, and it is groups like these that will best be able to address the climate crisis we now face.

I work to support them through my role as the forest program director at Environment Now, a grant-making foundation that specifically funds grassroots environmental groups in California. I also serve on the board of directors of the Fund for Wild Nature, which was created to help the public identify and assist bold grassroots biodiversity activism. Members of the public donate to the fund, and then the fund’s all-volunteer board redistributes that money to small groups across the country that are doing amazing work to protect our forests and wildlife. These groups are the unsung heroes of the environmental advocacy movement, and they deserve our support. We can all benefit from the lessons in effectiveness that these groups have to offer.

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