The Nature of the (Environmental Non-Profit) Beast

The premise of this blog’s title is that I usually choose not to call myself an environmentalist. Among other reasons, I don’t feel that I “deserve” the label, even though I do care about the environment. Another aspect of it, though, is frustration with the dominant environmental “establishment.” With several friends who have chosen to work with and for major environmental non-profits, I may be walking on eggshells here. And in general, I support the goals of these organizations (frequently they are engaged with improving environmental regulation or preventing destructive infrastructure from being permitted).

But Houston, we have a problem.

And most of them are directly tied to the nature of the beast.

Environmentalism cannot be charity for it to work.

These organizations are charities–charities, furthermore, operating on tight budgets, trying to get a lot accomplished without being able to pay the people working for them. It is unsustainable for most people to work in these organizations without rising in the ranks; like in big companies, it’s important to get promoted. At the same time, practically everyone in the organization should be, in theory, aligned with the same goals. So people who like each other and agree with each other are clawing over one another to get to the jobs where they can actually feel that they are making a difference.

Some of the work being done by these organizations is absolutely critical. Big corporations (hello Monsanto!) have huge lobbies to keep regulations working in their interest or to blaze through environmental regulations. To work for health, environmental justice, land preservation, water safety, etc., we need people who are equally powerful or at least equally present to combat the giant dollars at work behind these corporate entities.

However, we environmentalists–sure, I’ll throw myself into the mix for now–need to come up with alternative strategies. This is already happening so I realize that what I’m saying is not a revolutionary idea. But I want to reinforce the notion that there are other ways to be environmentally proactive besides joining large environmental organizations (or going and living as an eco-friendly hermit).

American conservatives like to use economic and jobs-based rhetoric to dissuade the public from environmental sentiment. “Environmentalism” is set up in opposition to necessities like affordable food and fuel and adequate jobs. That’s rhetoric, not reality.

As we destroy the planet, use up our last “easy” fuel sources (easy because we already have the infrastructure to store and distribute them), and back ourselves into the ever-looming corner that is irreversible climate change, we are creating a situation in which all our necessities of life are in peril and we do not have a sustainable way to go forward with our lives.

We need to create jobs repairing things, repurposing things, using what we already manufactured in new and creative ways. We need to educate people about biological systems, about growing food, about staying healthy without excessive pharmaceuticals. We need to figure out how we’re going to deal with the inevitable effects of climate change. There is no “or else.” That is simply what needs to happen.

While the big environmental organizations lock horns with the big corporate machines, the rest of us–and anyone who wants to decamp–need to be building a sustainable future, not battling our unsustainable present. We need to have our eyes open about what that means. We need to be as creative as possible in figuring out ways to get, store, and distribute sustainable energy. We need to be able to toggle between understanding local needs and local economies in micro-regions with the global challenges of climate change and the globalized nature of our technologically-endowed world.

As much as environmental organizations have done to raise awareness of climate issues, they are slow-moving and internally cutthroat. Instead of relying on these organizations, we need to put our energy into positive ways forward, based on our skill sets, not our ability to give annual donations.

If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a builder, build. If you can make anything grow, for heaven’s sake go out there and do it.

And it’s not just for heaven’s sake — it’s for us all. Zombies may be scary, but they’re not real. Climate change is, and it will be apocalyptic–at least for humankind–if we don’t start thinking of it that way, rather than as something we can reverse through tedious bureaucratic measures.

Over and out.

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