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The Importance of Polarization

The Afterlife Of Environmentalism

... in assessing the obstacles to a progressive majority, the environmental movement would seem to be an odd place to begin. Unlike organized labor, for instance, the membership rolls of the big national environmental organizations have grown -- at least fourfold over the past 25 years. The result is bigger budgets and staff, plus more in-house expertise. New statewide and local organizations have also emerged during this period. Environmentalism has a further advantage: Unlike the reproductive-rights movement, for instance, it does not polarize public opinion. Despite some fluctuation, polls consistently show high levels of support for environmental protection -- levels that would be the envy of many progressive movements. So what’s the problem?

For one thing, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus make clear, the same polls that identify high levels of public support for environmental protection also reveal that support to be shallow. Americans care about “the environment,” but when faced with competing demands on their time, money, and attention, they don’t appear to care all that much.

It's interesting that Meyer lists the broad, unpolarized support for environmentalism as a strength of the movement. In light of his general claim -- with which I agree -- that progressive politics suffer from the lack of a cohesive worldview, I would say it's a weakness.

The most politically potent beliefs are those that are the symbolic centers of one's identity. The case of abortion is a good example -- being Christian and conservative is synonymous with being pro-life (in the minds of both pro-lifers and pro-choicers). Likewise, feminism and liberalism are considered equivalent to a pro-choice stance. But issues only become the center of one's identity when there is a sharp contrast with an alternative identity.

Environmentalism is, for most people, an anti-identity*. People don't define themselves as being environmentalists, but rather as not being environmental extremists. They adopt a stance of common-sense centrism in contrast to the identity-forming ideologies of "radical environmentalists" and (to a lesser extent) ruthless polluters. Both of those contrast groups are so wildly caricatured as to have few actual representatives outside of ELF and 19th-century robber barons, thus allowing everyone to feel like they occupy a neutral middle ground.

Broad consensus is a nice goal, but if it happens too soon, it can sap the will to change institutional and cultural structures. A phase of polarization is necessary to motivate change.

*In perhaps somewhat the same way as, for example, "white" is treated as a non-race.


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