Can enviro groups find shared language and values?

A few months back I did some work for a client interested in building a broadly based community around sustainability. A stated concern was the desire to build a coalition that spanned all political groups in the US. The general goal of saving our environment shouldn’t be a concern only for progressives; however, there was a strong suspicion that non-progressive groups would resist any form of the word “sustainability,” perceiving it as some kind of “liberal code” signifying any number of things they were opposed to.

The environmental movement has, of course, been progressively driven, and it has evolved a vocabulary that probably correlates with other progressive political concerns. That is, when you find someone who talks a lot about sustainability and uses the language surrounding enviro issues, there’s a decent chance that person leans “left” politically. However, there are other environmental movements emerging across the country that are not allied with the political left. In doing my research for my client, then, I spent some time evaluating not only the traditional Green movement, but also environmental evangelicals and crunchy conservatives.

There’s a strong ideological basis for both movements in the US. Read one way, the Bible casts all of creation as a resource to be exploited, but a more enlightened reading makes clear the importance of stewardship – yes, the natural order is a resource, but Judeo-Christianity commands its adherents to care for the Earth and all things in it. Crunchy conservatism (of a non-theological variety) makes sense, as well, especially if you consider the importance of things like land and water rights in the West.

So the constituencies are there. How to unite them, especially when there’s so much they don’t agree on?

It seemed that a good initial step would be to examine that “code” issue. To what extent are these groups using compatible vocabularies? Are there shared words that suggest shared values that can be leveraged in coalition and community building? If not, is it going to be possible to construct a vocabulary that draws all parties together without alienating any?

To try and understand this issue better I ran some rough and dirty, very preliminary content analysis on three sites: the Yahoo! Green resource, and a Green GOP site. Using TextSTAT I performed a raw word count on the three sites to see what terms appeared most often. After doing considerable reading of the sites to get a sense for the ideological contexts I then distilled the raw word lists into a more helpful theme list, grouping like terms so that they better reflected the values expressed by the sites. What I found was interesting, if not all that surprising, given the purposes of the various groups.

Here are the most commonly occurring raw terms.

What’s instantly noticeable is the degree to which the respective sites cast the conversation in terms that directly flow from their stated purposes. No surprise there at all. However, imagine that your task is to find common ground language. Note the near-total exclusivity between the Green and Evangelical language, for instance. Not only does Creation Care not use the language of sustainability, they (we suspect deliberately) don’t even use the term “green.” By the same token, the Yahoo! site’s vocabulary is meticulously secular. The Green GOP site strongly relies on language that suggests the degree to which they see environmentalism as highly politicized. Interestingly, though, their language has more in common with the “left/Green” site than it does with the evangelicals, who we’d expect would be far closer allies, politically speaking.

At a glance, then, we might conclude that these groups share some ultimate goals, but the words and concepts motivating their concerns have little in common.

Next let’s have a look at the thematic groupings.

In comparing the Green and Evangelical groups, the only immediately obvious similarities have to do with the language of teamwork and nature. Both groups employ plenty of “we’re in this together” language, although how the teams are composed might bear some examination. The “we” used by the evangelicals is thoroughly and deeply contextualized within a religious/church assumption, whereas the we in the Yahoo! site is broader – everyone is invited. This is not the language of a group that views itself in explicitly political terms (or perhaps the political assumptions are so deeply embedded, given the established progressive nature of the enviro movement, that they don’t even bear voicing?) The ways in which nature elements are framed differ in the same way, although here the differences may matter less. A vast majority of Americans are Christians, so even if they’re left-green the idea that evangelical enviros see nature in more explicitly divine terms isn’t likely to pose any real stumbling blocks.

Perhaps these distinctions owe something to the character of movements and counter-movements. Since the left “owns” the environmental issue, it’s perhaps incumbent on newcomers to define themselves more aggressively in terms of their differences. In any case, attempts to forge stronger nonpartisan alliances have to address these dynamics if they expect to be successful.

The good news is that the ranks of people who care about the environment are growing. The bad news is that they seem to growing around separate, exclusionary values instead of shared ones.

There’s plenty of work to be done, and the sooner we all find ways of talking with each other, the better. Of course, constructing and socializing vocabularies to unite people who disagree deeply is an incredibly complex undertaking, but perhaps realizing these differences is a helpful starting point.

6 replies »

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  2. Very, very interesting, Dr. Slammy. I’ve thought about this situation too; unfortunately, i don’t have any brilliant ideas. My thought process has ended in the “chicken/egg” conundrum. The political divides in this country separate the population on the one issue that has the power to draw them together. Does the issue have the power to heal the political divides, or must the divides be healed before the issue can be addressed?

    I like the phrase “environmental conservativism” (though i dislike “isms”). Unfortunately, our common connotation of “conservative” has nothing to do with its root word…on either side of the ideological divide.

    We could attempt to appeal to common sense, but that would require first rebuilding common sense among the US population. Similarly, we could appeal to future generations; however, we’ve descended to such a vainglorious level of “me, me, me” that such an approach would also require rebuilding fundamental thought processes.

    “Stewardship” is perhaps the best available option, along with an attempt to retake the word “conserve” (but not the pinko, dirty word “conservation”) from the Limbaughs of the planet. The long-term fiscal savings inherent in sustainability is probably another good option, though it is kneecapped by our current pursuit of short-term profit uber alles.

    You’ve got your work cut out for you. My guess is that your best shot is to find a way to get some open-minded people from each group together and let them hash it out. Good luck getting people from all three groups together and keeping it from descending into an acrimonious, accusatory yelling match.

  3. Jack: I suspect it’s a lot longer process even than that. When you start talking about language at this level you’re really talking about very deep, nearly unconscious beliefs about the world. If you can, over time, shift people’s assumptions about how the world works, then the problem begins to look more manageable.

    Or maybe you don’t need this. All major religions think murder is wrong (which isn’t quite the same as saying that all members of those religions get the message, I know). Pagans agree. Christians agree. Buddhists agree. Jews agree. As do most atheists and agnostics. So here you have a lot of people who agree on a goal even though the core reasons underneath those beliefs look different.

    So maybe we don’t have to have all enviros speaking the same language. I don’t know.