I have long had a sinking feeling about the deteriorating condition of the human and natural world. Nonetheless, I have an uplifting
feeling something hopeful is happening. Conflicting feelings for sure. Some will say I am in denial. Some will think me incurably
optimistic -- even delusional. Yet others may think I am onto something.
Judge for yourself.
I want to talk about the power of hope. I want to touch on fundamental themes circling the outer edges holding hope together: All
serving to explain why I am optimistic about our environmental future. I hasten to provide perspective for my optimism.
Gaia is in great trouble. Everywhere are festering wounds caused by carelessness, ignorance, greed and myopia. I appreciate
however, that much destruction results from meeting real and culture-driven human needs – an important consideration in this
conversation. The enormity of environmental damage done is immeasurable. Yet, despite continuing environmental degradation,
the rate and extent of loss could be greater. The primary reason they are not is due to the energetic engagement of dedicated,
caring, resolute and informed individual activists like you and your forebears.
The truth is, the environmental condition of Earth is grave, but not as calamitous as could be. Certainly we can do more and do better
to slow the rate and extent of destruction. We can always do more and do better to conserve, preserve and restore the ecological
health of our home. (David Brower’s vision of CPR for the planet.) I am optimistic in part because I detect growing numbers of people
joining the ranks of activists rallying to answer Nature’s cry for help. I am also encouraged by the current self-examination among
environmentalist that I’ll touch on briefly later.
I am confident we will do better. But will we do enough in time to prevent complete ecological collapse and the demise of Nature
as we know her? How can we do more and do better? These are themes I have been strumming on for more than three decades --
an evolution in learning and doing I build on today.
In addition to Pandora’s mythical folly (succumbing to curiosity’s siren call) allowing mankind’s blessings to escape and be lost, she
closed the lid in time to save for us the power of hope. Some dismiss hope as a cruel trickster: A beguiling emotion that sooths us
with a false sense of security by masking stark, harsh reality. I see it differently and accept it as friend. Certainly, hope does not
always bring us the outcome we wish for. But that is not the point. Rather, hope empowers us to marshal inner forces of strength to
persevere in our quest for an outcome we want. Hope inspires resolve, fuels effort and marks the far and near horizon of expec-
tations we desire to achieve. As such, it greatly influences imagination, attitude and will. Unlike faith, hope is not rooted primarily
in belief. But like faith, hope is a powerful force for change, especially when, in the present context, it enhances our vision of the
environmental future we want to achieve.
Recently I asked friends to spontaneously envision hope. The responses were fascinating: A small child looking skyward with arms
held wide; an explosion of colors across desert sands in early spring; a white dog named Kibou; and
in darkest night
our spirit bends.
Whatever role hope plays in individual lives, it is an emotion we do well to nourish in our hearts and dreams: Certainly a beacon in
Visioning our environmental future
Activists on the front lines of environmental struggle need a coherent and compelling vision of the environmental future we want for
people and Nature. We need it to serve as guidance for where we want to go. Vision shapes the message needed to marshal public
support and recruit colleagues to the cause and empower leadership. It is essential in ground truthing the calibration of our ethical
“Vision” is not an easy concept to wrap the mind around. It obviously involves insight and foresight. But “vision” is more than for-
ward looking. It is a way of thinking and a way of doing. Certainly, a relatively clear and compelling vision will influence how one
thinks about and pursues environmental advocacy. To have meaning in the real world, vision must be internalized and effectively
communicated. In contemporary terms, “virtual vision” does not work. It cannot simply be an image on a flat screen or programmed
into the brain. Nor can it be reduced to sound bites or catchy rhetoric. It must be something one believes in with heart and mind.
When one makes a personal commitment to achieve it, vision is the bridge between ideals and action. It is a most powerful driver
of our commitment to the well-being of the planet.
Vision is the picture we paint, in concept and words, of the environmental future we want for our world. It is ideal and real. It is a
source of inspiration and a frame of reference. It borders purpose and offers context for our goals and objectives. It is the horizon
of hope on which we set our sights and toward which we direct life’s journey. It holds our dreams and has the magical quality of
becoming what we strive for. It embraces a future with potential as proud legacy. We cannot do more and do better without it.
Environmental activism occurs on many levels – global, multi-national, national, state, regional, and local. Our vision can be broad
or narrow in terms of topical, geographic, or social reach. It can be place based, such as is embodied in the California Coastal Plan
of 1975, or goal oriented like achieving clean air and water. Whatever the scope of vision, depending on the particular environ-
mental cause or organization that crafted it, the vision must address important human needs if it is to get traction with a wider
audience than the choir.
This is why the California Coastal Act embraced social as well as ecological issues such as providing affordable housing, maximiz-
ing public coastal access opportunities for all people, safeguarding private property rights, protecting community character and
livelihood (i.e., fisheries and agriculture), and transparency and public involvement in decision-making. The Coastal Act is the
“people’s law” because the people initiated it and continuing strong public support has beaten back repeated attempts to weaken
it. This support would be lacking had the vision that inspired it not embraced important societal values of the general public.
My vision for the environmental future of Earth is quite simple:
I see a time when all people join in concerted action, combining individual responsibility and enterprise to conserve, preserve and
restore environmental values of human and natural communities to benefit generations of all life.
My guess is everyone here has his or her own idea of what a vision for the environmental future of the planet or a special part of
it should include. The point is that every movement, cause, or organization with an environmental agenda should express and
identify itself through its own vision that also encompasses important human needs. It is not enough to have a “mission statement”.
Describing what an organization or movement does is not the same as telling what it stands for. In the end, I think people are more
likely to be drawn to a cause and stay with it when they know and identify with the values it represents.
“Environment” means Nature and People
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “environment” as: “The conditions under which any person or thing lives or is developed; the
sum-total of influences which modify and determine the development of life or character.”
The political right has intentionally created the impression that environmentalists have defined the term in a way that leaves people
out of the equation or relegates humans to secondary status. Environmentalists and environmentalism have been effectively
demonized by the right as misanthropic and as standing against the aspirant values prevalent in our culture.
I recently saw a quote in which Ayn Rand once characterized the ultimate motivation of environmentalists as being “hatred for
achievement, for reason, for man, for life.” This is patent non-sense and demagoguery, but somehow this distorted thinking has
wormed its way into popular perception, and we know well that perception often assumes the mantle of reality. As offensive as
this characterization may be, it is a mistake to simply dismiss it. Instead, we need to listen closely to what is being said and learn.
I admit having identified in the distant past more with ecological concerns when thinking of environmental activism. However, I,
and I suspect most others similarly oriented, did so because we saw wild Nature being destroyed and most threatened by ignorance
and greed and not because we don’t care for the wellbeing of people. On the contrary, most of us have deep roots in progressive
movements and causes: Human, civil, women’s, gay and lesbian rights, environmental justice, fair trade, democracy, and valuing
People are an integral part of the environment. So are their wants and needs. Environmental activists must affirmatively express
their thinking through actions to reflect this fact if we hope to harness wider support for conservation of Nature by influencing
popular thinking and behavior. Many environmental organizations are doing this and have been doing so for some time. However,
and notwithstanding the profound humanist ethics derived from deep ecology and environmental justice thinking in the environ-
mental movement today, the way environmentalists express themselves on the street has not been sufficiently credible to resonate
with the broader public.
Can “Environmentalism” really die?
This is not the venue to engage in argument over the merits of this debate. However, a brief teaser to stimulate thinking is in order.
A provocative paper by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (The Death of Environmentalism-- Life in a Post-Environmental World)
last October, and a compelling speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco by Adam Werbach (Is Environmentalism Dead?),
raised poignant questions about the effectiveness and continuing relevance of mainstream national environmental organizations.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus seem to sum up their view as follows: “We have become convinced that modern environmentalism,
with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so something new can live.” Werbach
agrees: “The sooner we acknowledge its death, the sooner we can give birth to something more powerful and relevant.”
Early this year, Carl Pope, in a spirited defense and counter-point sums up his view: “Environmentalism is part of a broader progres-
sive movement, which the right has invested enormously in undercutting for the past thirty years. As part of that broader movement,
we do have some work to do – but dying does not seem a particularly helpful form of that work.”
Environmentalism is dead, Werbach asserts, “in no small part because it could never match the right’s power to narrate a compelling
vision of America’s future.” He notes that liberals have defined themselves against a backdrop of problems that cause divisions in
society rather than defining “ourselves according to the values that unite us, such as shared prosperity, progress, interdependence,
fairness, ecological restoration and equality.”
The death of environmentalism, these authors suggest, is the result of narrow, technocratic, outdated thinking about values and
strategies and, more importantly, a failure to identify with the worries, wants and needs of the vast majority of people hooked
into an aspiration and consumption-oriented culture. While environmentalists worry about global warming, ecological destruction
and habitat fragmentation, “common people” worry about jobs, education for their children, health care costs, and whether the
American dream has left them behind.
There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. Suffice to say, important things are being said by both sides in this debate. Everyone
concerned about the environmental future of the biosphere needs to listen mindfully. I have long maintained that mainstream
environmental advocacy groups have become too comfortable and entrenched in dated thinking about values and strategies. The
politics of accommodation and making nice in the halls of power have alienated grassroots activists, while some sidewalk activism
has been disowned by established groups as too extreme. We should be working with each other, not against ourselves.
I do not have ready answers. I do know that never in the history of this country has there been gathered such a frighteningly
powerful conspiracy of environmentally destructive forces. This force is embodied in an energized, politically potent religious
right; a smart, ideologically driven free enterprise, anti-government cabal of industry funded jingoists and political strategists;
and an amoral, enormously wealthy corporate oligarchy that practically runs government at all levels.
I have never felt more strongly the need in this country to stand strong against the forces of environmental predation that are
despoiling natural and human communities. Nature needs every advocate and activist willing to come to her defense in whatever
way he or she can. What difference does the defender’s appellation make? None in my view.
My roots are in community activism. I consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal and a progressive. We need not stop
referring to ourselves in these terms. What we are called is not important. What we stand for, what values we bring to the table and
what actions we take in furtherance of those values is. At the same time, it is essential that activists reach beyond traditional
constituencies to embrace people with common basic human wants and needs - people who strive for personal achievement, security,
sound health, a higher standard of living, and a good quality of life.
Values rooted in common ground are freedom, opportunity and prosperity. Environmental and social activists do well weaving these
values into the covenant of their union in cause. When joined to those defining the particular mission of the group, these overarch-
ing values will resonate with the public and generate wider support. Then, of course, we have to walk the talk.
Stovepipe activism -- not stovepipe thinking
Even a reasonably intelligent person of high energy can only do so much. Effective engagement in any cause requires becoming
informed about and trying to understand an array of complex issues. Most people do many things in their daily lives, joining in
struggle for a cause usually being only one. Some people are better at multi-tasking and compartmentalizing than others.
However, there are practical limitations to the information a brain can absorb. There are also limits to the emotional investment
a person can afford. Activism and especially sustained activism in environmental and social causes is not without costs and
requires great inner strength. Mustering the energy, effort, and resolve to engage and stick with a cause calls for enormous com-
mitment – a rarity in the lives of busy people trying to make ends meet.
Working well with those joined in common cause is challenging in its own right. Working well with others across causes, is even
more formidable. Both require good people skills -- patience, empathy, humility, humor, understanding, tolerance, ability to
communicate, a thick skin, respect for others’ views, honesty, and liking people. Not everyone brings all these skills to the mission.
That is all right so long as someone in the group fills in.
A point I am making is that it may not be possible, as a matter of human nature and practical limitations, to accomplish what
Werbach, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are suggesting. Nonetheless, their opinions are compelling and we need to take them
seriously. I recognize they zero in on major, mainstream national environmental groups, but environmentalism is much more than
the enviro nationals. They should heed their own advice and not ignore local activism alive and growing across the country, and the
globe. It will be instructive to see how they implement their ideas.
People choose to support environmental and social causes in varying ways. Constructive engagement, no matter the form it takes,
should always be welcomed, whether it is as front-line activist, anonymous donor, member in an organization, or volunteer writing
letters and phone-banking. Everyone is needed. No one should be criticized for his or her choice of engagement. We should
welcome spirited debate over different ideas and respect individual decisions. The thing we must not do is put others down because
we don’t like their choices. Environmental despoilers love to see us eating our own (I call this the Kronos syndrome). The greatest
threat to the integrity of human and natural communities is ignorance and apathy. That is why we need to encourage everyone
to get involved and engage.
People also choose their causes for different reasons. Some focus on local community issues because that is where they feel most
comfortable engaging and where they think they can make the greatest difference. Others opt for regional or statewide causes. Yet
others choose national and global issues. Each activist has personal reasons for the choices he or she makes. Every cause joined is,
in its own right, important to someone. The fact one cause or subject area, like human caused global warming, is more threatening
by orders of magnitude does not mean the others are unimportant. Individual losses add up. Mother Earth needs warriors on every
front where human greed and ignorance are draining her lifeblood. The contributions of all activists at every level should be honored,
respected and applauded.
Expecting people to be willing and capable of doing more than any one person can reasonably do is unrealistic and unfair. I am
interested in many causes but only have enough time, energy and personal financial resources to actively engage in a limited few.
My experience is not unique, and what applies to individuals can apply to groups as well, especially small ones.
Stovepipe activism is understandable and should not be discouraged. Stovepipe thinking is another matter. An individual taking
responsibility to engage a single cause is a good thing, certainly better than not being involved at all. At the same time, involve-
ment in one cause should not preclude thinking about and being empathetic toward and supportive of others engaged in struggle
with a different cause, whether dealing with human rights or rights of Nature. In organizational terms, the difference might be
that of hierarchical versus networked thinking and doing.
Environmental organizations and programs are doing more networking and coalition building than ever before. This is an evolu-
tionary outcome of grassroots citizen activism everywhere. Alliances, collaborations, networks, and coalition building are not
only imperative from a political perspective, it is the right thing to do. The Sierra Club should and is reaching out to labor
organizations because, in reality, there is more that unites them than divides. A shared vision of building an environmentally
friendly infrastructure for non-carbon based energy is good for the environment and the aspirations of workers in the labor
movement. Restoring and preserving barrier reefs, like those in Asia destroyed by pollution, that protect against storm and wave
surge is good for people, the local economy, and Nature.
Individuals must make choices and not take for granted their right to do so: Stand up. Speak out. Take responsibility. Take action.
We need remind ourselves that while we may not agree with some choices other activists make, at the end of the day we sleep on
common ground. Certainly it is our responsibility to criticize what others say and do when we disagree, but it undermines our
common cause to attack them personally. Doing the latter does nothing good. Doing the former is how we learn and grow
An engine of values that moves us
Thinking about the myriad threats facing people and the Earth, I often find myself teetering on the ragged edge of utter despair.
Then I think of the young and not yet born, and pull back. It is unthinkable to give in or give up. Doing so is the moral equivalent of
condemning passion, beauty, human dignity, wonder and blessings of being alive to untimely death. Just as I cannot conceive giving
up, I cannot think f engagement in struggle without hope and optimism in my heart. If the heart is in it, the mind will follow.
What to do confronted by seemingly insurmountable odds? Each of us will answer in our own way. There are many lessons learned
from years of activism. The most important is the power and imperative of core values that calibrate one’s inner moral and ethical
compass. Core values determine what one stands for as an individual. They define who you are as a person. Similarly, core values
define a politician, an organization and a movement. In these times it is difficult to know what politicians and organizations really
stand for because core values seem to be in short supply, or, at best, are opportunistic.
People in the public square put up with opportunistic values of their leaders because they have no choice. Given a choice, when it
comes to core values, people would opt for principle over political expediency. No matter the cynicism abroad today, I think most
people respect core values firmly held that are life-affirming and not for sale. Core values clearly expressed and harnessed to a
vision that people can identify with, are the makings of a wider and deeper basis of support.
I strongly agree with Adam Werbach that what environmentalism (or progressivism as he now calls it) needs is a clear, compelling
visionfor the future that is in harmony with the basic wants and needs of working people everywhere. I also agree people want to
be for something rather than simply being against something else. People want to feel good about their future and where the country
is going. The politics of fear, whether of terrorism or pollution, does motivate people, but they would rather wrap their choices
around something positive that furthers their personal aspirations and values. Here too, I agree fully with Werbach: “Saving [people
and Nature] depends not on our ability to shock but rather to inspire.”
It is important to understand the difference between core values that form the ethical base on which missions are built and strategies
designed to achieve the mission. Vision is the overarching frame of reference that tells us where we are going. Values define what we
stand for. The mission describes what we do. Strategies are the ways and means we use to further the mission and will differ
significantly, depending on the cause being pursued. (Strategies to reverse human caused global warming will be materially different
from those used to save an old growth forest or a coastal wetland.) It is important to know and understand the differences between
these concepts. While mission and strategies can and should be adaptable depending on changed circumstances, values ought not
be compromised as a matter of principle. Too often movements and organizations (not to mention individuals) undermine their own
credibility by being opportunistic about their values. Strategies, on the other hand, need to be opportunistic.
I will not bore you with a listing of values I think are imperatives. You have your own understanding of what they should be. However,
there are some fundamental themes and principles I think important to bring to our work.
First: A clear, positive and compelling vision that inspires.
Second: A clear expression and understanding of fundamental values that define what the group or movement stands for – what it
believes and the principles that guide it in its mission to achieve the vision.
Third: Look for and build on common ground. Look for that which unites. Build bridges not ditches that divide.
Fourth: Value, encourage and embrace diversity of culture and ideas.
Fifth: Acknowledge and incorporate an appreciation for basic wants and needs of working people, recognizing the common bonds
that bind us to shared values embedded in freedom, democracy, equality, justice, opportunity, prosperity and a good quality of life.
Sixth: Commit to protecting fundamental rights of people and Nature: Human rights; civil rights; a right to clean water and air;
rights to a healthy ecosystem; private property and public rights; and rights of Nature.
Seventh: Commit to conserving, preserving and restoring human and natural communities for the benefit of current and future
generations. Our concern should embrace the well-being of both communities. And we must recognize that while individual
aspirations and achievement are to be respected and encouraged it is also true that individual well-being derives from the health and
vitality of community as home and source of livelihood and spiritual renewal.
Eighth: Be clear about mission and strategies. Recognize and adopt adaptive management as it relates to the ways and means used
to further the mission.
Ninth: Recognize that individuals and groups can only do so much and that there are myriad causes, environmental and social, at
many levels that need many advocates to make a difference. Mutual support and respect, collaboration, and networking are the
tide that lifts all boats.
Citizen activism in pursuit of common cause, while not easy, is imperative to promote the wellbeing of people and Nature. Indeed,
I see it as moral imperative. Activism means engaging in conflict -- never a pleasant prospect. When the wellbeing of the planet and
people is at stake, conflict is a small price to pay for trying to make a difference. Environmental activists must be mindful and
respectful of the human dimensions of the struggle while pursuing conservation of ecological values. We must frame issues in ways
that encompass the basic aspirations of people. The rub comes when protecting a place or ecosystem runs afoul of the wants of some
people. If differing needs and desires cannot be reconciled, activists must stand strong against the demands of the few for benefit
of the many, including those not yet born.
Ours is a labor of love and compassion, at once noble and ennobling. It is work always in progress: Nature is never finally saved, only
always being saved. The forces of exploitation and destruction, whether of family owned businesses and farms or Nature, never rest.
They are relentless, driven by greed and indifference to the needs of others. Environmental activists, progressive thinkers and doers,
can be proud of our good works and the legacy we have earned. We need not be ashamed because we have not saved people and the
planet. The fact we are trying and making a difference is what matters. Accomplishments are frequently what cannot be seen or
measured -- destruction that did not happen. Like reward for effort, achievement is often only appreciated by an inner sense.
Environmentalism is not dead because its advocates will not let it die. It is also a much deeper and diverse movement than anyone can
know. That is not to say fundamental reexamination and change in the way environmentalists pursue their cause is not in order,
because it is. We must adapt and evolve as a citizen activist movement. The same can be said of every liberal movement in the
In my view, it matters little what we call ourselves so long as there is clarity about what we stand for, what values we hold dear, and
how we pursue our vision.
It is essential that environmental activists think about their cause more broadly and embrace concerns for the rights and aspirations
of working people, whether immigrants, workers in manufacturing or the service industry, laborers in the field, workers in small
businesses and family farmers, or non-corporate entrepreneurs. We must also link, again in any way we can, to the cause of those
seeking to escape the curse of poverty and oppression. While the primary focus may be on an environmental issue, activists do well
to also think about how their cause can align with preservation of family farms, locally owned businesses, and activities that add
value at the community level. We must remain resolute in our struggle against an Earth-destroying economy that is fueled by the
mindless greed of corporations, ignorance, and the pusillanimity of politicians. For some activists this will not be easy. For others
it is what they do already.
Gaia is in dire straits. So are workers and ordinary people yearning for a good life. Environmental and social causes need activist
champions. The enormity of threats facing human and natural communities of life on the planet is almost incomprehensible,
certainly more than a person can cope with. That is why we have to take it in doable steps. We must not loose sight of the forest
for the trees, but neither can we loose sight of trees for the forest. The challenges are enormous, but so is the reserve of human
ingenuity and enterprise to do what we must to improve our lot. Alone we can do some things. Together there is little we cannot do.
Those who choose environmental activism as avocation hold in their care a precious trust. I sincerely believe most people applaud
activists who bring vision, resolve, knowledge, and a principled moral compass to the task. Knowing this and the nature of our work,
should empower us to hold at bay the cynicism and resignation that inevitably gnaws at all of us from time to time.
Because our work is so much about rewards and values not easily held in hand, we must search within ourselves for satisfaction and
resolve to keep on doing what we do. Inspired and self-driven by our vision of a better environmental future for our country and the
planet, each of us must keep alive our dreams and stoke the fires of passion that drive us to make a difference.
American character has been identified with love of freedom, rugged individualism, risk taking, enterprise, and exploitation of the
Earth’s bounty for human profit. I see as a positive new manifestation of American character the joining of enterprise with
responsibility for the conservation and restoration of Nature’s bounty. What better expression of our character as a people than
commitment to conserving, preserving and restoring environmental values of human and natural communities for the benefit of all
This is the vision that inspires hope in me. It can happen if we but listen mindfully to voices in the silence of the land and of those
not yet born. Our embrace of this vision will surely lift life into the light shining just the other side of hope.
Thank you for being here and doing what you do.
| VISIONING HOPE:
SERVING PEOPLE AND NATURE
By Peter Douglas
Friends of the Sea Otter, et al
(February 25, 2005)
|The Environmental Relief Center - Home Page
Wildflowers of the Pribilof Islands
Peter M. Douglas is Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission.
Mr. Douglas is the third executive director in the Commission’s history. He was appointed in July 1985 after having served as Chief
Deputy Director since 1977. Mr. Douglas co-authored Proposition 20 (The California Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972), a
successful citizens’ initiative that established the California Coastal Commission. As a consultant to the Legislature, he was a principal
author of the 1976 Coastal Act that made permanent California’s coastal management program. He also participated in drafting the
first regulations implementing the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.
Born in Berlin, Germany, Mr. Douglas immigrated to the United States in 1950. He earned a law degree from UCLA in 1969, with an
undergraduate degree in psychology. Mr. Douglas has been a guest lecturer, presented University of California extension programs,
written numerous articles dealing with coastal management, land rights, and environmental stewardship. He has provided technical
assistance on coastal management issues to other countries and serves on the China-U.S. panel on integrated coastal management.
He is a member of the first NOAA Science Advisory Board and previously served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on
Science and Policy for the Coastal Ocean. A former local school board member, he also co-founded and chaired two successful
non-profit community organizations. In 1984, he led a successful grassroots campaign to enact a special parcel tax to support
Mr. Douglas was the first recipient of the national Julius A. Stratton "Champion of the Coast" award for leadership in coastal
management at Coastal Zone ‘95, an international, biennial symposium on coastal zone management.