After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Environmental Coalitions That Get Results

(Posted by Fred Tutman.)

As environmentalists who care about our planet and our society we operate in an increasingly slippery environment in terms of gaining traction for our vision for clean water and strong communities. In tough economic times we are often seen not as champions of the public interest, but as adversaries of the economic system. I think we need a makeover of our tactics if we hope to make a real difference. It is in the area of strategies and tactics we fail most often because frankly, I have yet to meet a single person in my entire life who did not want to see clean waterways. If everybody wants this outcome then how come we are failing at it? I think it is because we can’t seem to get together on how to pull it off. The Bay Scientists and Policymakers are trying to change that.

In my view, environmentalists generally have very mixed results in terms of our past strategies and tactics. There is a common bromide that the problems of the Bay are a crisis of “political will.” So while generally unable to advance our aims through passionate arguments and pleas to our elected officials, we try to build “me too” coalitions through sign-on letters among our friends and supporters. We hope that if we build a loud-enough and big-enough gathering of live bodies in a democratic society, our politicians will renounce others vying for their attention and suddenly realize that regardless of their own personal views or the other pressures brought to bear on them, the will of our environmental “majority” should carry the day.

Doesn’t sound very likely does it?

We want clean water doggone it, we just don’t have enough people demanding it! But the results of these tactical expressions rarely turnout the way we would like, even assuming that politicians are for the most inclined to do what is best for the planet. Aren’t we kidding ourselves? Sign-on letters don’t change policy at all. In fact (I think) such forays only tend to ratify that we don’t really have a groundswell behinds us at all—instead we are grasping for one. Too often, when our loosely knit coalitions fail to have the desired effect, then we retire to grumble among ourselves that at least we fought the good fight even if we failed to make a real difference. Pretty sad really.

But the substance of a coalition that does not waste its time is not agreement on outcomes but agreements on the game plan to get there. I don’t think we need to have consensus on all issues—only on the tactics and the end game. There is a veritable Crayola box of colors out there on any given issue; the plan is the point. For example, a coalition whose only goal is to make things “better” will generally fail where there is little agreement among the partners on what “better” actually means. On the other hand a coalition committed to winning at least “something” at all costs will nearly always fail where at least some of the ranks are prepared to compromise the ideals of the rest for very incremental concessions that fall way short of a really viable end game. Unmistakably there is a huge bloc of the environmental community willing to take whatever we can get from the power establishment for fear of achieving nothing at all.

So the typical array among environmental power coalitions includes those among us who: (a) share our aims but disagree with our tactics; (b) disagree with our anticipated aims but seek to keep us close for their own purposes; (c) disagree with our priorities but who stay in involved with our efforts hoping that we will adopt their issue(s) eventually and finally (d) those who share our general aims but are afraid that we win too much it will ruin their own existing relationships with power.

If we are serious about cleaning up the Bay we have to be more discerning about the disparity between our tactics a likely outcome of such tactics.

(Stay tuned for part two.)

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