Point of View

Getting on the bus toward a sustainable future

February 20, 2013 

Our bus to the Forward on Climate Rally on Sunday was more like a bandwagon. The mood was festive: We were part of a parade toward Washington, where buses from at least 30 states brought marchers for what was being billed as the largest climate rally in U.S. history.

This is a powerful metaphor for the environmental movement: How do we invite others to get on the bus toward a sustainable future?

The latest League of Conservation Voters poll finds that nearly all of us (93 percent of those polled) believe that Americans have a moral obligation to leave a healthy planet to future generations. We are already on the bus, so to speak, for clean air and water for ourselves and for our grandchildren.

So how do we translate this moral obligation to real change, collectively inspired and supported, without alienating those who might not want to jump on the environmentalist bandwagon?

I recently assigned my students at Duke an essay to answer the question: “Are you an environmentalist?” Some of their answers were predictable, citing recycling and organic food. Others said they didn’t want to be associated with radical environmentalists because they believe in “rational institutional change.”

For me, being an environmentalist means living in a world of contradictions, where every intention highlights tension, where every action has some measurable consequence and where our moral obligation calls us to extend our consideration beyond ourselves.

An environmentalist’s intention is to value other people and to value a well-functioning Earth. Some value these for economic reasons, others for spiritual reasons. Different reasons, same intention: to ensure a healthy planet for ourselves and for others. According to the poll, most Americans share this intention.

Our moral obligation, though, requires us to see that our good intentions and important actions coalesce into a movement. We need to have conversations with others about carbon taxes and climate policy, about divestment and diversity. We need to ask questions of our retirement fund managers and demand engagement from our politicians.

This obligation moves environmentalism from being about buying the right stuff and toward making the systems function better.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of change that needs to occur to ensure a healthy planet for future generations, let us be bolstered by the busloads of people who have already confirmed this moral obligation.

These folks on my bus – the ones who were knitting, sipping kombucha or snoring on their mama’s shoulders – may already be on the bandwagon. But there are many others who are with us in spirit, who may have spent their Sundays readying their gardens for spring or celebrating the divine in church.

Right now, we environmentalists are busy focusing our wrath on the fossil fuel industry, but let’s not overlook the overwhelming moral commitment to a healthy planet that we share with almost everyone else in this country. Let’s not let our anger and demands blind us to the real opportunity to shift the conversation toward the future.

While we were marching toward the White House, my 8-year-old daughter explained that what we need to do is to reach out and tell other people about how to do more to help the planet.

Let’s not miss the bus on this.

Rebecca Vidra teaches environmental ethics at Duke University.

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