Yet only two months into a new administration’s tenure, we find ourselves with a new reality previously never before encountered by a millennial generation of environmentalists. After living in the comfort provided by having the highest office in the land vying for environmental reform, many of us find ourselves shocked, if not unprepared, for an executive branch that is doing just the opposite. Recent budget proposals from the White House show deep cuts intended for the Environmental Protection Agency with other bills floating around that call for the eradication of the agency all together. Talk is already circling about the new President’s intentions of unraveling both the Clean Power Plan and efficiency regulations for cars and trucks–both items forged under the watch of our former Commander-in-Chief. For the T-minus three years and ten months that we have under President Trump, environmental efforts must explore new tactics that take advantage of both our free-market economy and tiered system of government.
Vote With Your Wallet
Money talks. And while one could take this to mean which non-profits you support or which candidates you contribute to (both viable tools for helping to promote progress) I am actually talking about neither of those. I’m talking about how you spend your money day to day; the food you eat, the products you use, the clothes you wear, the hotels you stay at.
At the end of the Great Recession the United States found itself at a point of great opportunity. With the economy in dire straights and businesses struggling to manage in leaner times after so many years of flush business, Americans had the ability to choose what kinds of businesses would define the new economy and how business of the future would respond to the environment. In some cases this bore fruit. A survey from Green America, EcoVentures International and Association for Enterprise Opportunity found that in numerous cases sales of sustainable versions in products from food, to building materials to energy production all increased more than their traditional counterparts. Back in 2012, McGraw Hill noted that despite the fact that the construction industry contracted severely in the recession, the green building stayed flat, ultimately increasing as a share of overall construction market from 8% in 2008 to 17% in 2012.
We’ve now arrived at another key moment where supporting values through the free market is paramount to sustaining environmental stewardship. The new administration claims that its direction revolves around economic expansion, but any expansion that occurs is going to be on the backs of consumer choices.
Power to the States
While President Obama’s White House could be counted on as, at the very least, a quiet proponent of environmental measures, President Trump has already taken steps to weaken both regulation and enforcement. With the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as the Director of the EPA–a man with a history of ardent efforts against the environment and the agency he now leads–our strongest tool for enforcement at the national level may be severely blunted. This does not, however, leave the country powerless to promote progress or maintain localized momentum built over the course of the past eight years.
Some would argue that a notable amount of recent environmental policy and initiatives have originated not from the Congress (obviously) or the White House, but states and their cities. City populations are poised to author both the discussion and the actions taken on our relationship with the natural environment. As architect and professor Vishaan Chakrabarti notes in his book A Country of Cities, while our metropolitan areas represent only 3% of the land in the U.S., they contribute 90% of the country’s GDP and 86.2% of its jobs. Brooks Rainwater recently noted on Business Insider:
“But no matter what unfolds in the coming weeks and months, cities are committed to creating a sustainable future. If the federal government chooses not to lead on environmental and energy issues, American cities will forge a path forward. Solidifying this commitment, over 1000 local officials have signed on to the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement since 2005, acknowledging the threat of climate change. In an even bolder statement, 130 American cities have joined the Compact of Mayors to support the Paris agreement and commit their cities to take action to reduce carbon emissions.”
This also means that the short game is not just about contacting your Senators and Representatives at the Federal level (though definitely do this, over and over again) but your state level elected officials as well. Try to keep your focus on which groups offer you the most ability to influence your surroundings and make your voice heard. If that is with you State Senator, excellent. If it is across the desk of your mayor or selectman, so be it.
Say Yes as Often as You Say No
Voicing opposition to proposals that decrease the health and safety of our citizens or put our planet in more danger than it already is are well founded and certainly necessary, but the pro-environment standard cannot be known as one of only criticism. Just as it is important to speak out against transgression, so too is the recognition of people, companies and organizations who serve as a model for where our society should be headed. When you see an example of progressive change, make it a habit to convey your endorsement. Phone calls, letters, emails or, better yet, handshakes can be the positive feedback that keeps programs, products or initiatives around rather than falling prey to a perceived lack of impact.
Talk to the Other Side
We all like having conversations with like-minded folks, but the truth is that screaming into the green echo chamber is going to have a limited effect on inducing change where we need it the most. Make a practice of seeking out (calm) exchanges with those that may know less about sustainable issues or why they are important. The standing view of this forum is that the majority of inaction on the environment comes as the result of ignorance rather than apathy. Just last week Nina Burleigh on Grist was pointing to a number of House Republicans that were emerging as proponents of climate change action, due in no small part to some of their coastal districts that are already seeing the effects of rising sea levels. First hand knowledge can be a powerful weapon when combined with orderly and construction debate.
Though there have been many mornings over the past 60 days that the morning coffee is paired with disappointing news for our country’s environmental leadership, tomorrow’s leaders can come in all shapes and sizes and from all locations. While President Trump may not yet be the environmental leader that some of us believe he should be, it is not the first time in modern history when Presidents or their EPA administrators were not making ecological health a priority. Our stance can remain the same while our methods shift and evolve to respond to the current political headwinds. They must, because at this point the biosphere cannot afford four years of inaction.