Sunday, April 29, 2007

News From My Backyard: Idaho's Green Shift

Perhaps the nation's most conservative state shares in nation's green shift.

[From the Idaho Statesman:]

Idaho has turned green this Earth Day, but not just because it's spring.

The most conservative state in the union is a part of a remarkable cultural shift toward environmental values.


Consider:

  • Al Gore attracts 10,000 people to his slide show on global warming at Taco Bell Arena in January.

  • Bill Moyers highlights Boise's evangelical Vineyard Fellowship for its environmental message and acts in the PBS special "Is God Green?" last fall.

  • Former Gov. Jim Risch gets a standing ovation from a largely Republican crowd when he announces in Twin Falls last year that Idaho plans to opt out of a mercury pollution trading program, keeping coal-fired power plants out of the state.

  • Two years ago, national environmental groups and academics were wringing their hands over an essay, "Is Environmentalism Dead?"

    But today Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the cover of Newsweek as a green hero. Companies like Wal-Mart are racing to earn the green label and investors are spending billions on alternative energy companies.

    Suddenly, green is cool.

    "There's no doubt what concentrated people's minds, were the reports on climate change," said Boise native Karl Brooks, a professor of environmental history at the University of Kansas. "It cut through a lot of chatter."

    It's about choices

    Environmentalism has not been as prominent in American culture since the first Earth Day in 1970, Brooks said. That one-day, nationwide event focused two decades of concern over extensive pollution triggered by the post-war boom.

    The laws that provide the foundation of environmental protection in the U.S. — the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — were all passed by Congress and signed by Republican President Richard Nixon in the day's wake.

    But environmentalism became tied closely with the counterculture, hippies, organic foods, and demonstrations, said Doug StanWiens, a history teacher at Timberline High School.

    The new environmental culture he sees growing in popularity with his students is very different.

    They didn't have to stand in line to buy gas as Baby Boomers did in the 1970s. The experience of the Depression is now two generations back, not a reality for their parents.

    "It's not about scarcity or sacrifice," StanWiens said. "The kids haven't seen that. It's about choices."

    Timberline senior Sarah Uehling took a class on environmental science on a whim. But she got so into it that she helped convince her parents to take courses in voluntary simplicity.

    "I never realized until this class how much one person can make a difference," she said.

    Conflicts with industry

    For most of the past 30 years, the major way for environmental activists to make a difference was in Congress, state capitals and the courts. They often came in conflict with industries and the communities that depended on them.

    Moore Information of Portland, Ore., in a poll released April 12, found 60 percent of Americans think environmental groups are too extreme.

    Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson uses Moore for his own polling, and he's seen the numbers.

    "When you're picking the people you invite into your home for dinner you would not pick an environmentalist," he said, paraphrasing the polls. "They're stereotyped as whining, shrill, they won't eat the food, they stuff themselves with the vegetables and tell you to turn down the thermostat."

    Companies and political opponents worked hard to develop that stereotype, Johnson said. But there was some truth to it.

    The new environmental culture is not just generated by environmentalists. It's organic, like StanWien's students who are making new choices.

    Getting more concerned

    Despite their views on environmental groups, Americans have become even stronger environmental advocates in the past two years, the Moore poll showed.

    Forty-nine percent are more concerned about protecting the environment compared to 40 percent who said protecting jobs was more important.

    In 2005, the numbers reversed, with 54 percent more worried about protecting jobs to 30 percent for protecting the environment.

    StanWiens said many of his students don't see jobs and environment as competing interests. He was at a career fair with students recently and many of the business jobs were environmentally related.

    "Increasingly it's jobs and environment," StanWiens said.

    Expression of values

    The environment nationwide and locally has improved because of the environmental laws passed more than 35 years ago, said Betty Munis, executive director of the Idaho Forest Products Commission, which sponsors an environmental education curriculum used in Idaho schools. People express their environmental values now by buying local and using sustainable materials.

    "I think the average person has been taking environmentalism out of the hands of advocates and incorporating it into their lives," Munis said.

    [A hat tip to Sightline/Tidepool]

    [Image credit: Idaho State University]

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