Are Environmentalists Building a Broader Base?

ACORN Ideas and Issues

            Marble Falls      ACORN finished its third regional training in partnership with the Anthropocene Alliance in Cleveland.  We had another great group representing more than a dozen organizations from not only Cleveland, but also Toledo, Youngstown, Bowling Green, and Milwaukee.  Just as we found so far in New Orleans and Atlanta and are likely to find in Philadelphia, Fayetteville – North Carolina, and Port Arthur, Texas, where the next three workshops are scheduled, these are front line groups for the most part who have largely become climate warriors because of conditions in their own communities, rather than something they studied and read in school, saw on the news, or found on YouTube, while scrolling their phones.  They bring a different perspective to the fight.  I wonder if mainstream contemporary environmentalism really recognizes their peril, and what they could bring to building a real movement?

In our workshops, people team up and practice raps.  The issues are not Chicken Little, the sky is falling.  People mention catch basins not being cleaned.  They regularly raise the issue of water that is unsafe to drink and the health hazards involved.  They talk about water mains breaking and leaving people without water and with flooded basements and yards – mains have broken 400 times in the last year in Cleveland, for example.  In the campaign planning exercises on flooding that we monitor, participants talk about what to do about that, but invariably, the cost and availability of property and flood insurance comes up with any who trying to hold onto to a house, as well as with tenants who see the skyrocketing rates being added to the cost of their rent.  These are the kinds of immediate issues people raise.  Of the more than sixty people from over thirty groups in our workshops so far, no one has mentioned global warming or the death of the planet.  All of their focus is on the climate and environmental issues they are facing right now in daily life in their communities.

We’re talking to people about how they can apply ACORN’s community organizing methodology to these issues, and the interest and excitement is palpable.  At the same time, listening to most of these folks and examining the work of their groups, most of the groups have defaulted to service delivery and issue advocacy.  They are on the front lines of climate change, but their communities have been fenced in and isolated, rather allowed to break out, expand their outreach, and build power.  Much of the external support they receive is technical and expert.  Many of them have become the environmental equivalent of jailhouse lawyers, having become subject-matter experts in their crises, along with their neighbors, while still demanding to be heard, but often ignored and starved of resources.

All of which makes this outreach initiative promoted by the Anthropocene Alliance unique, but also makes me wonder if the many of the environmentalists and their organizations aren’t missing how important it is to build a grassroots base among people who are being hurt at the frontline and because of the direct impacts of climate change on their homes and pocketbooks?  Mobilizing the grassroots to be lead and water testers, educators about health impacts, and spokespeople about local crises is important, but is it enough and does it deliver real solutions?

An improved highway or a repaired bridge is an important infrastructure investment and its politically viable, but replacing lead lines and updating piping, water mains, and pumps might build more collective action, even if not as easily a visible win for someone’s next election campaign.  A grassroot, broad-based movement or organization can’t be built without delivering real wins at the local level.  Building a base to win on climate means listening to people and organizations facing these issues in the community and supporting their struggles to win right now, so people have the confidence, experience, and tools to win at larger national and global levels.  That’s what organizing is all about.  Shortcuts are dead ends, even if the headlines are in bold and “likes” pile up on social media.