Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ain't no power like the power of the people

Often in the past when people learn that I'm an environmentalist, they ask me which I think is a better approach to environmental solutions: NGOs or the government?

In college I struggled with this question because I didn't like either option., Instead I would introduce a third: individuals. The entire major I created in college was founded on the idea that individuals are more empowered than they realize to have an affect on the environment, for better or worse. As consumers, I would argue, we are capable of "voting with our dollars" for the kind of world we want to live in-- a sustainable one, or one full of waste, pollution, and toxic chemicals. So instead of counting on the government or on environmental nonprofits to solve all of our problems, I concluded, the most important approach to addressing environmental problems is to convince individual people to make the right choice, in support of a sustainable economy that doesn't degrade the earth. I was confident that this could be done if only people are taught to care about the environment, to link their purchases and other actions to environmental harm, and to believe in the true power of collective action.

Then I graduated from college. I was still passionate about the power of collective action affecting change through many small, individual actions, but I began working for a nonprofit and saw how much could be done by this sector to protect land, water, and resources. Plus, I no longer felt I could go on my "individual action" rant when I wasn't dedicating my day to addressing individual action any more- so more and more, I would answer "NGOs, of course," whenever the question arose- NGO or government?

Then I started graduate school. I'm still working for a nonprofit, mind you, but I'm also taking environmental policy courses in the evenings. At first the effect these classes were having on me was a new answer to the proverbial "what's the solution?" question, and if asked, I would have said, "the government, of course." Because ultimately, the infrastructure of our society, and the regulations that control our economy and so much of our daily lives, from how automobiles are subsidized to how water quality must be reported to consumers, is up to the discretion of our government. These decisions are hugely important, and I began to see that even nonprofits dedicate much of their time and energy trying to convince governmental bodies to act one way or another. Even the organizations that have historically not been very politically involved are growing their advocacy efforts today.

As the semester continued on in my first environmental policy class over the summer, however, my professors began to really emphasize the intentional limitations of the U.S. government's effectiveness -- checks and balances make our government more balanced, yes, but with that balance comes a whole lot of inaction, by design. And so, the cheery optimism I felt for the government's effectiveness at the beginning of the semester began to wear off.

But a new realization arose out of the ashes of my defeated optimism. Part of the reason politics can be so ineffective is because the election cycle can take higher precedence than issues. But where does power lie in elections? You wouldn't always know it, but ultimately it lies with individuals. And even when not concerned with getting re-elected, politicians are faced every day with the mandate to represent their constituents. So if their constituents started demanding new priorities, like the environment, then government actions, in theory, should start mirroring what the public demands.

I know that corporate lobbyists and other influential advocacy groups complicate this situation, but part of the reason that lobbyists are so powerful today is because individuals have largely volunteered to take a backseat in politics in the past, happy to let someone else drive. But that's changing. With the new administration and important legislative decisions being made like health care and climate change, people are beginning stand up a bit more and demand their voices be heard too. Normally it's hard to get a majority in what the public wants, much less a consensus, of course, but involvement is an excellent first step. I think last year's election shows that individuals can certainly prove their effectiveness through collective action, and I'm inspired to believe that collectively we can demand even more change of our government.

So now, if asked the question again, which approach is more effective in producing environmental solutions, I will be returning to the original answer I used to give in college. Yes, the government has an impressive amount of control over how our society is structured, and nonprofits are capable of influencing those decisions, and acting outside of the government to protect natural resources, but ultimately, the government is looking to please its constituents, and nonprofits are looking to gain the support of its members and donors. That means that individual action is the most effective solution, whether it's responsible consumption, support of NGOs, or voting for and lobbying politicians to act in our best interest.