One Saturday in 1983 I was out canvassing for Greenpeace. I knocked on the door of a mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts and braced for the worst. I didn’t like the look of this place. Canvass long enough, and you’re able to do an instant visual demographic prediction of who is going to open the door, and how likely you are to get a donation. The indicators that I was going to walk away empty handed? The car in the driveway was a Mercedes rather than a Volvo. No bumperstickers. The dog was doberman rather than retriever. The newspaper tube at the end of the very long driveway, complete with marble lions, was for the Wall Street Journal. And sure enough, within seconds of the door opening my suspicions were confirmed: the owner was a Reagan Republican. Nevertheless, ten minutes later I was walking back up that drive with a check for $100 to help fight acid rain. Not to save forests or out of love of the planet, but because it was ruining the finish on those imported Carrara marble lions at the end of the drive — a point he raised, not me!
A few things strike me about this story. One, the 80s were a simpler time, when an environmental activist organisation could pull support in the US from a wider range of the political spectrum. I also had donations from right-wing conservatives who viewed the stance Greenpeace took against Russian whaling on the high seas as excellent work — because it aligned with their anti-soviet views. From Republican duck hunters who didn’t like chemicals pouring into the local rivers — because it poisoned the food source of their prey. From Daughters of the American Revolution who thought highly of work to save harp seals — because their little faces reminded them of their pet poodles. In every case, the story of why they should support Greenpeace was one which didn’t involve changing their minds, but reinforcing their own values.
These days, the idea of a US Republican of any stripe supporting environmental activism with a Greenpeace brand for any reason seems practically impossible to imagine — the lines have hardened, the tribes have congealed.
The second thing to remark is that that’s a shame. Environmentalism and the survival of the planet’s life support systems really ought to be a cross-cutting issue, regardless of your view on economics or social issues. As environmentalists, we should be actively challenging any confines that limit people’s sense of agency or involvement or welcome or eligibility to our cause. If a right-wing conservative wants to buy an electric car for nationalist reasons of oil independence, that car’s contribution to the reduction in carbon footprint is no less valid than one bought explicitly for the sake of the planet. Action against climate change cannot continue to be a single-party issue, or a differentiator between left and right.
In part one of this series we talked about the backfire effect and how facts that contradict a core belief can actually reinforce that belief. We’ve seen decades now of evidence for this in the failure of climate data to convince the right in the US of the urgent need for climate action. So how do we, as environmentalists, convert all those conservative minds to progressive values?