Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

It's not Either/Or—It's All or Nothing

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1995. It's Not Either/Or; It's All or Nothing. Wild Earth. Vol. 5, No. 1. Spring. 42-44. 

By Andy Kerr

It has been noted that the problem with environmentalists “inside the Beltway” is they are inside the Beltway. Although this is very true, it is equally true that the problem with environmentalists outside the Beltway is they are outside the Beltway.

You can often tell where one stands by where one sits. An environmentalist who serves in the capacity of Washington, DC lobbyist doing daily battle with the national (and international) forces of darkness will inevitably have an entirely different perspective on the best courses of action from that of a grassroots activist doing daily trench warfare with the local Forest Service district ranger.

Part of the conflict stems from the great gap between ecological reality and political reality. Unfortunately, in the near term, both are equally real. Although ecological reality is constant while political reality can (and must) be changed, recognition of political reality is generally necessary in order to change it. (In some cases, however, ignoring political reality can be helpful: “We did it because we were too stupid to know we couldn't.”) Even though a prime objective of conservationists is the protection and restoration of biological diversity, we do not tolerate political diversity particularly well.

Much of the stress between “nationals” and “grassroots” boils down to money and strategy. The former is a topic in and of itself and cannot be further addressed here. Suffice it to say that either having or lacking money can make people and organizations very weird.

Regarding strategy, we certainly have diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and views that often cause heavy friction. We are all prejudiced by our own experiences. We can't do much about that except to realize and tolerate it and each endeavor to accumulate many diverse experiences. It also helps to recognize the three relatively distinct ideologies that make up the environmental movement and that translate into different strategies to save the Earth. The following may be useful in understanding these ideologies and placing your environmental colleagues (and yourself) in this context.

The environmental movement is made up of radicals, idealists, and realists. Let's briefly examine each type:

Radicals seek fundamental change of the system. They believe environmental goals cannot be realized without deep socio-economic-political changes, and thus tend to be anti-corporate. Winning individual short-term battles is less important to them than changing the world in the long term. Many feel that the ends justify the means. The best radicals suppress emotion to implement their strategy.

Idealists are usually altruistic. They view the world from a very moral and/or ethical perspective, with individual responsibility and example paramount. They are emotionally involved and believe the ends never justify the means.

Realists view the world as a poker game--the cards are dealt and you do the best you can with your hand. Their actions focus on the short term. Although they believe the ends can often justify the means, they prefer to work within the system. They can live with trade-offs and do not seek radical change, if for no other reason than they see it as unobtainable.

Some examples may help to clarify these categories. Earth First! was founded by radicals and is now dominated by idealists. The Sierra Club has a membership of idealists and a staff of realists. Greenpeace is idealistic with some radical tendencies but not to the extent of the Sea Shepherd Society.

To stretch the “boat-rocking” analogy, realists want to help steer the boat, however small the change of course; idealists would rather the boat not move at all if it doesn't turn far enough in the right direction; and radicals would just as soon capsize the boat.

Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), confounding friends and enemies alike, has found that it can be most effective by being pragmatic, which for us is usually being idealistic, with increasing forays into the radical and sometimes into the realistic camps.

Take public land logging as an example. Earth First! works to end logging by performing civil disobedience. Greenpeace appeals to our sense of the “right thing to do.” The Wilderness Society fights logging one timber sale at a time. Who's right and who's wrong? They all are both. No one approach to conserve and restore biological diversity will work exclusively. It's not either/or; it's all or nothing.

Many staff members of national environmental groups are angry, ineffective, ignorant, or inefficient in dealing with representatives of the grassroots. The opposite is equally true. (I'm using “grassroots” to mean activists outside the Beltway and not on the staff of a national environmental group, though the term is now so loaded with multiple meanings as to be almost meaningless [and worthy of an article unto itself].)

Realists and radicals need to understand and use the existing ideological diversity to their own, and therefore the movement's, advantage. (Idealists are a slightly different matter, because they view the world in a way that makes toleration of differing views problematic.) Both realists who adhere to Tip O'Neil's philosophy and radicals who follow Saul Alinsky should have no problem being tolerant because it advances their cause.

Below are eight suggestions for grassroots activists and national environmental staff on how to use each other to everyone's (and most important, the environment's) advantage:

1. Assume each other's integrity.

Grassroots: Just because they choose to work in an inhuman habitat doesn't mean that DC environmental lobbyists are inhuman. Whether or not they love or hate it (or some of each), it's where they've personally decided they can be most effective for the environment. While the strategies they've chosen may vary greatly from yours, you might find that your goals are very similar if you both got down and drunk.

Nationals: Many grassroots activists began when they started seeing clearcuts in their backyards. While they're trying to save the world, or at least their part of it, most detest “politics” and see themselves as sullied for having to participate in it. Remember, you were once as politically pure.

2. Acknowledge each other's reality.

Grassroots: DC is the world of the realistic. Politics is the art of the possible. Essentially every environmental group with a serious presence in DC is of the “realistic” camp. Yes, Greenpeace (idealistic) has a big office there, but they don't have much impact directly lobbying Congress or the Administration. Don't expect a “realistic” group to do something “radical.”

Nationals: When you are inside the Beltway, it's easy to get caught up in policy and lose sight of the ecological damage occurring daily. What is a major gain in Washington, DC may result in little improvement on the ground. Don't expect a grassroots activist to be overjoyed that you beat back an attempt to increase the Forest Service road budget. And remember that it's often those who ignore political reality who succeed in changing it.

3. Agree to disagree.

Grassroots and Nationals: The realistic, idealistic, and radical wings of the environmental movement don't have the luxury of being ideological enemies. The Earth has real enemies that we must fight together. This requires tolerance on all sides. We need to stop considering it a personal affront when other groups pursue strategies different from our own.

4. Trade places.

Grassroots: DC is not the ecological center of the world, but it is the political center of the world, upon which the ecological world lives or dies. That may not be right or good but, for the time being, it's a fact. If you don't like what is going on in DC, go there yourself. You'll get a better appreciation of the living hell it is for national environmental defenders; and DC environmental lobbyists will get a better understanding of the environment you are particularly interested in saving and what a living hell it is “out there.” People always fight harder and more effectively for something they know. Help them get to know you and your part of the Earth.

Nationals: Go out into the field. Do it on your own time if you can't do it on company time. See the problems first hand. You will fight better and stronger for the places you know. You'll get a better appreciation of the living hell it is for grassroots environmental defenders. You'll develop a relationship with your grassroots counterparts that you couldn't in DC. Inviting local activists to DC and making resources available for them is perhaps the single best way to educate grassroots activists on the political realities you face daily.

5. Use each other's power.

Grassroots: Although one can never be powerful enough in Washington, DC, the national environmental groups have more power than you do. As long as DC decisions can affect ecological realities on your ground, realists believe someone has to play that game. DC lobbyists want to help if they possibly can, but sometimes political reality makes that impossible. Don't take it personally or get mad at the DC lobbyist who tells you the system won't help. Change the system, so it can help. But don't try to change the system by changing national environmental groups directly. Instead, change the political reality that makes the national groups behave the way they do. Don't just tell them they are wrong; prove them wrong. In the meantime, use their power. It is the big nationals who can deliver the votes when your bill gets to the floor, or can help kill a bad bill. They have the contacts with national media, with politicians and their staffs. They have access. And, if approached properly, they are willing to help you, if they can.

Nationals: Recognize and appreciate the grassroots “bad cops” to your “good cop” routine. Don't feel threatened by grassroots positions that go beyond what your group is able to advocate. Remember that the presence of a strong, vibrant grassroots movement makes your job easier by changing political reality and shifting the “middle” of the debate. The stronger the demands of the grassroots, the farther your organization can go as well, while still appearing “reasonable.”

6. Use each other's knowledge and resources.

Grassroots: Would you visit a foreign country and not seek advice from the natives? If you feel it's important enough to be in DC, you ought to seek advice from the locals. They know the political landscape, and you need to know your enemy to beat your enemy. Washington, DC groups, for the most part, like to have visitors from outside the Beltway. They appreciate the help and, in return, can usually provide a place to work and some free copies, free long-distance calls, etc.

Nationals: Grassroots know the issues and have the passion. Help them have an impact in Washington, DC by using this passion to lobby Congress or the White House. Helping a grassroots activist get a meeting can be more effective than meeting the politician yourself—to the politicos they are folks from home, not just more lobbyists. And they can be better than most interns, even if you can't fire them!

7. Use your charm more than the power of your lungs and/or position.

Grassroots: As that great environmentalist Che Guevara said, “You can get more with a kind word and a gun, than just a kind word.” But grassroots activists don't usually have a gun that works on national environmental groups. Grassroots don't control the nationals' budgets, their boards of directors, or the political environment in which they work. Hardly anyone likes to be yelled at, and DC lobbyists are as human as anyone else. Don't tempt them to conclude that there are plenty of other, equally important issues to work on that don't involve such unpleasantness.

Nationals: Never abuse your position and knowledge to thwart a grassroots activist. Remember, you're working for the same thing. Recognize that while you have more power within the system, only they can create the power to ultimately change the system. Encourage local and regional activists to be as strong and uncompromising as they can and let them know that even if your organization doesn't sign on to their proposals, you're glad their proposals exist.

8. Focus on the real fight.

Grassroots and Nationals: As that great environmentalist (and even greater realist) Winston Churchill said, “The only thing worse than fighting with your allies is fighting without them.”

Andy Kerr is Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council (Yeon Building, Suite 1050, 522 SW Fifth Avenue, Portland, OR 97204). In his 18 years with ONRC, he has often spent one week in four in Washington, DC (enough to justify being bicellular, with phone numbers in Portland and the nation's capital), giving him a unique perspective on the environmental movement, and not simply from 39,000 feet over Iowa. He is part of a death pact against ever moving inside the Beltway.