Igniting a Conservation Crusade

NWF   |   July 28, 2006

One of America’s best known environmental historians is an old friend from my home town of Pittsburgh.  Dr. Sam Hays is the former Dean of History at Pitt University and author of several books on the history of conservation in America.

I mention Sam because he wrote this thoughtful observation in his book Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, "The conservation movement has contributed more than its share to the political drama of the twentieth century" Sam lists various historic moments and provides great insight, "cast in the framework of a moral struggle between the ‘virtuous people’ and the evil ‘interests,’ these events have provided issues tailor-made to arouse the public to a fighting pitch, and they continue to inspire the historian to recount a tale of noble and stirring enterprise. This crusading quality of the conservation movement has given it an enviable reputation as a defender of spiritual values and national character."

We need to get back to "the crusading quality of the conservation movement," that Sam wrote about if we want to "arouse the public to a fighting pitch" on global warming. Skyscrapers are not built from the sky down, neither can the conservation movement be renewed from Washington. After twenty-five years of top-down advocacy with critical decisions being prescribed in various staff gatherings, the greatest challenge the environmental cause now faces is the prospect of giving the movement back the grassroots volunteers while we reach out with open arms to new constituencies and new voices.

Conservation leaders must empower and assist "virtuous people" all across America to get the facts and to act boldly while we leaders learn to let go and allow the movement to grow organically across America. Ironically, a true movement does not happen until we completely lose control. By definition any political or social movement is an up-welling of voices so large and diverse that it threatens and eventually overthrows status quo and the keepers of status quo.

Letting go is difficult thing to do because it forces us all to be more "enablers of others."  To do that, we need to think of ourselves as "servants of the cause" not as "command and control" leaders. While the risks are many, the rewards can be great. Unleashing the true power of our base, we might enable Americans from every sector to step up, demand that we stop global warming and save the planet for our children.

The world is in too much trouble for incrementalism of the past. Until common people take uncommon steps to demand dramatic energy policy changes, the world much like Greenland’s glaciers will continue to slide toward a tipping point. National Wildlife Federation’s strategic plan commits to this institution to serving as a movement-building organization to reconnect people to nature and to each other to protect wildlife and their fragile habitats and most immediately to stop global warming.

Please take a leadership role in your community!  The world can not wait.

Published: July 28, 2006