Environmental Groups are Flirting with Extinction

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 8, 2014 1:46 AM


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This April 22, Earth Day turns 44. The green movement is not aging well. Like today's U.S. Republican Party, it has a diversity problem and speaks primarily to a narrow, graying demographic slice of the United States. In 2009, Francis Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said to the New York Times:

Our groups are not as diverse as we’d like, but every one of the major groups has diversity as a top priority.There’s great commitment to making the environmental movement representative of what the country is.

That's debatable. Still, if such a commitment doesn't pan out, environmentalists will surely become an endangered species. As Barry Yeoman wrote in a 2011 article for Audubon magazine:

For the environmental movement to survive, it must cultivate new leaders who mirror the demographics of a nation that’s now 36 percent minority.

In the Audubon piece, Beinecke says:

If we're going to have a constituency 20 or 30 years from now, or even 10, it's critical that we be more inclusive. If we fail to do that, the movement will erode--erode in numbers and erode in political weight.

This diminishing of political influence is already well underway, as Nicholas Lemann observed last year in the New Yorker, in large part because the big green groups operating inside the beltway have "concentrated on the inside game, at the expense of efforts at broad-based organizing." But even if Big Green did change its tactics and also add more black and brown faces in its ranks, its future would still look bleak. Part of the problem is that some of the long established groups like Audubon have an identity crisis that they can't shake. Audubon flirted with diversifying its conservation mission in the 2000s, but has recently pulled back from that effort. (Disclosure: I was an editor at Audubon magazine from 2000-2008, where I had a front seat to the organization's fitful existential crisis.) Audubon isn't the only venerable green group struggling to stay relevant. The Nature Conservancy, one of the most successful conservation organizations, does not appear to have a sustainable membership. As Paul Voosen noted in this article:

The average age of a conservancy member is 65. The average age of a new member is 62. Each year, those numbers creep upward. Only 5 percent of the group's 1 million members are younger than 40. Among the "conservation minded" -- basically, Americans who have tried recycling -- only 8 percent recognize the group. Inspiration doesn't cut it anymore. Love of nature is receding. The '60s aren't coming back.

This is a hard pill for traditional greens to swallow. Nor do they like it when some suggest that environmentalism's core philosophy is outdated. Perhaps the latest results from a Pew survey will move greens to focus on their predicament. Pew found that those born after 1980--known as Millennials--are much less likely to identify with environmentalism than other age groups. The Washington Post's Wonkblog has a nice overview and graphic (below) of the Pew Survey.

Are environmental groups on the verge of extinction? Not exactly. But unless they do something to broaden their appeal, their days are numbered as a meaningful presence in American culture and politics.

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