Shedding Transaction for Transformation. Building Climate Constituency With Categorical Imperative.
Meighen Speiser is a Member of the Board of Directors at ecoAmerica.
I have always refused to self-identify as an environmentalist. An activist? Not me. Something about those labels didn’t set well. They conjured up images of people, actions, and methods of forging progress that were fueled with anger and protest.
As a social scientist, however, I know that social change requires activism. We need the environmentalists, the activists, and others to ensure we create and maintain a society and world that is livable, equitable, just, peaceful, verdant, and more. They sound alarms, throw flags in the air, shed light on the wrongs, inspire others to join the fight, and advocate for solutions. We owe societal progress to the loud, brave, indomitable activists that have come before and are living amongst us.
We are living in an age and American society that requires a new form of activism. Populism is ascending. People want to be part of a community and to be heard and respected. They need pathways for engagement that are truly inclusive and appeal to their values. They want actions that instill agency and lead to visible outcomes. Most of all, in our busy world where attention and dollars are stretched thin, they need to be empowered to engage through enduring partnership.
So, why do advocacy organizations keep treating inspired and passionate people as if they were simply means to their ends?
I have participated in many conversations with advocacy groups in which our expressed goal was to identify ways to galvanize constituency for climate solutions. In every conversation I heard, “we need faith leaders,” “we need moms,” “we need Latinos.” These proclamations were followed with well-meaning pursuits to engage these important groups in attempts to move solutions forward, such as to pass renewable energy standards in a swing state, to advocate for the Clean Power Plan, or to get the right candidate elected in a key district. These efforts tended toward short-term, one-sided relationships. For six weeks to six months, key constituencies would be the darlings of advocacy groups, asked to speak out on the issue, promote the solution of the advocacy organization, and put their leadership forward to inspire others to follow suit. But once the campaign was done, so was the partnership. Transaction complete.
We have a moral and existential imperative to affect timely climate solutions at scale. This requires we not only honor the Paris Agreement, but do so in the wake of a new administration that is quickly filling up with climate deniers who have vowed to “tear it up.” It is going to take a larger, more empowered and resolved number of Americans to bring climate solutions across the finish line.
But, we will not be able to bring about effective climate solutions if we continue with transactional engagement of key constituencies.
Have you ever met anyone who wanted to be treated like a puppet? (“No, you’re the puppet!”)
Do we need people of faith, moms, Latinos, and many other groups to win on climate? Absolutely. But we need to partner with them in ways that are principled and respectful. Truly successful solutions must not only prevent and repair damage to our climate, but also be inclusive of and benefit the great diversity of Americans.
Expanding the climate movement requires that we approach engagement through transformational partnership. This means two-way, supportive relationships. It means longer, even multi-year, partnerships with mutually-benefiting and defined roles, actions, and outcomes. It means ensuring resources, both intellectual and financial, are appropriately distributed. It means new people are invited into climate discussions, the design of solutions, and the development and execution of plans for climate advocacy. It means we need to support authentic leadership from within new constituencies to ensure that leadership is of the people, for the people, and by the people. And, it means we need to stop treating people as others, and start including them as us.
I am proud to be part of a group that has been building transformational partnerships for climate solutions for nearly 10 years. You might not have heard about ecoAmerica, but that is by design. We focus on building climate leadership, expanding who cares about climate change, why, and how they lead on solutions. We partner with large national organizations that connect with Americans in their daily lives (in faith, health, higher education, communities, and communities of color), and we collaborate with them to empower their leadership on climate, through their own voice, in ways that honor their values and cultural norms or mission. We help them build their own authentic platforms for enduring climate leadership.
This is not a plea for more funding, or to toot the horn of ecoAmerica (however, more funding would help, and I am very proud of the work we do). It is, however, a plea for more organizations to join us in building transformational partnerships. Let’s create a new wave of egalitarian advocacy. Let’s check our egos at the door, put many more seats around our tables, and break wide open the climate conversation to invite co-ownership and agency on solutions.
Will I now call myself an environmentalist or activist? Does it matter (or, honestly, why would you care)? The answer is yes, count me in as a proud climate activist with transformational partnership as my method. And, yes, it does matter. If I can come to the realization that climate activism comes in many shapes, colors, and actions, and be inspired to take up the mantle and fight, so can many more millions of you. Join me. Join us.
“Always treat people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end.” – Immanuel Kant from his Categorical Imperative