Thursday, February 17, 2005

Toward a history of the environmental movement
I'm sure that histories of the environmental movement exist. I haven't read any, but I can predict what they are or will be. Two narratives are possible according to the most current styles of historiography. The first is a political narrative. This would be a history of popular movements, influential groups, and significant legislation. It might be told a colorful saga of powerful personalities. The second narrative would be an intellectual history. This is a tale of influential publications, magazines, books, and theses. Both narratives are valid; they tell the tale of a lineage. They tell the tale of the evolution of a an new idea, growing from a notion into a popular value. One uses personalities as the vector of transmission; the other uses publications. I'm willing to bet both leave a significant piece of the story out.

My clever wife and I are part of the first generation to grow up with the environment, or nature, as a permanent part of our political socialization. Prior to the sixties, the environment was rarely a part of political discourse. After the sixties, it is inescapable. Different positions are possible, but the issue is inescapable. You must take sides.

Our awareness of the environment did not come from political or philosophical movements. It did not come from reading great works of nature writing. Neither of knew where the national parks and forests came from or who Rachel Carlson was until we were already committed tree-huggers.

We were brought to the environment by popular culture. When we talk about the environment, four influences stand out: the movie "Bambi," Smokey the Bear, the anti-litter campaign, and the near extinction of the buffalo and bald eagle. Bambi and Smokey personalized nature. The anti-litter campaign showed us graphically how widespread human influence on nature was. The thought that two big animals so important to the American mythos might disappear made the consequences a matter of national pride for us.

That's not the whole story. There were other important influences; I have a whole narrative that involves the interstate highway system. You don't want to hear it. We are the generation that saw the change from conservation to environmentalism. Those simple messages are the ones that worked on us.

There is a lesson here for the Democratic Party on how to construct messages. Effective messages need to be simple, they need to connect at a gut level, they need to fit into a narrative, and they need bears. Remember that.

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