The creeping green mainstream

I was called for jury duty a few weeks ago. The weekend before, I spoke with a friend who’s a prosecutor about what in her mind makes a good juror. I wasn’t looking for the magic words to get myself bounced from the pool, but rather was curious about what she looks for in jury selection. She told me the standard stuff – a prospective juror shouldn’t have a lot of baggage related to the case and all that. But then she added this: “If I didn’t know you, I’d probably kick you out because I’d assume you were too touchy-feely based on your job.”

My job, for the record, is as an environmental advocate. And, sure enough, after filling out the form and answering questions about my occupation, I got ousted from the jury pool.

Apparently, the rap on folks like me is that we’re a bunch of tender-hearted softies. I suppose it’s better than the stereotype that we’re all crazy and extreme. But the thought that I might have been passed over because of my work hurt a little.

Sure, there are bleeding hearts in our ranks (maybe more than average on the global bleeding-heart scale). But, for the most part, I work with some pretty grounded, reasonable and hard-nosed types — serious professionals who understand the weight of our work and are in it to make a difference. A mentor of mine once described environmental organizing like this: “In this work, when you win, it’s only temporary, but when you lose, you lose for good.” With stakes so high, there isn’t actually that much room for the hand-wringing people assume of us. My jury experience has made me wonder if we in the environmental movement need to work on our image.

Our progressive colleagues in organized labor don’t have this kind of problem. Sure, it’s total bull when they’re referred to as “union thugs.” But have you ever even once heard of “enviro thugs?” For that matter, can you even read the words “enviro” and “thugs” without thinking they’re antithetical? I long to have that kind of swag under the gold dome in our state’s capital — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Part of our image problem stems from the fact that Coloradans take environmental organizers for granted. Just recently, the state rolled out a new marketing campaign, “Colorado: It’s our Nature,” based on the widely held knowledge that our mountains, rivers and open spaces are of such value that they lure people to build their businesses, homes and lives here. Poll after poll, survey after survey, and focus group after focus group tell us that Coloradans highly value clean air and water. Yet, at the voting booth, we know that voters are not always making their choices based on candidates’ environmental stances, but rather on their positions on education, health care and taxes.

Beyond the state’s new marketing campaign, what are we actually doing to protect our “brand”? How long can we expect our greatest assets to last without taking more action protecting our public lands from vigilantism, our water from contamination, our air from pollution and our land from pillage? How do we as a state justify marketing our nature while issuing fracking and drilling permits at breakneck pace? It’s no mistake that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s crew of marketers left drilling rigs and compressor stations out of the slick video that unveiled the new ad campaign.

How in good conscience can Colorado stand by our new brand without doubling down on efforts to protect what we’re marketing?

We, the people doing the real work defending Colorado’s nature, may look like a bunch of softies. But make no mistake: our Birkenstock-wearing, tofu-eating, bus-riding and yoga-practicing ways are no sign of passivity. We are not the fringe. The truth is, we’re gaining in numbers, growing more strategic through the work of groups like Conservation Colorado and hardening our resolve to win what our state can’t afford to lose. If we stay on this track, I’m hoping that in a few years when I get my next jury summons I won’t be tossed from the pool based on an assumption that my heart bleeds more than anyone else’s, or on a stereotype that my work is rooted simply in radical ideology.

Hopefully, by then, the lawyers picking our jurors, the voters casting their ballots and the officials we elect to make policy and pass laws will come to understand that environmentalism is, in fact, Colorado’s moral majority. After all, as our new state slogan reminds us, it’s “our nature.”

[ Image by Rakka ]