Where Does the Environmental Movement Go From Here?

By Pete Maysmith

A hardy group of protesters gather for the Women’s March in Durango, Colorado.

It’s been three months since the election, and over that time we’ve gotten more insight into how President Trump intends to lead. For our planet and future generations, it’s not good news. He nominated a climate change denier who has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 13 times to lead the EPA, decided that the CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the world should be in charge of our foreign policy, and has moved to silence federal employees about our public lands and climate change.

Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how the environmental movement can continue to make progress while defending what we’ve gained, knowing there are dozens more attacks soon coming at us.

I’ve been brushing up on my history to figure out where Conservation Colorado — and our larger movement — should go from here. One insight that has struck me deeply is from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ in-depth story about President Obama, published in The Atlantic. When Coates asked Obama whether a Trump victory diminished his optimism, Coates wrote:

…that his general optimism about the shape of American history remained unchanged. “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line,” [Obama] said. “It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”


It struck me that the same has always been true for the environmental movement. It has zigged and zagged through times of major wins and permanent successes (such as the passage of major environmental laws in the 1970s) and times when we’ve had to fight tooth and nail just to defend earlier victories (like the presidency of George W. Bush, whose policies, as one environmentalist put it, introduced a “pervasive rot” into the federal government that has taken years to clean up).

Although we’re in for more hard times, like President Obama I remain hopeful. Having said that, hope is not a strategy. We need more. We need to examine old ways of thinking and look for new ideas. Now is the time to be nimble and expansive — let’s keep what works and make sure we adapt and grow as a community.

Conservation Colorado staff, friends, and family at marches across the country (from left: Durango; Pete and family in Washington D.C.; and Denver).

What does this mean, exactly?

1. We need to double down on grassroots organizing.

My deep belief that people are with us and endorse our progressive vision of the future has not been tempered, even in the slightest. There is plenty of evidence that shows this is true. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by nearly three million votes or the outpouring of civic engagement we’ve seen in rallies, calls to senate offices and much more in the last few weeks, people believe in the right to a healthy environment and want clean air, clean water, and safe places to live and raise their children.

We must organize more in order to reach more people. This is especially important when talking to the people who are most affected by pollution and environmental problems; namely, low-income and minority populations. These same communities are often disenfranchised and have historically been neglected in policy making decisions. We need to do a better job of listening before jumping to policy solutions. We also need to put more organizational time, people, and money into these communities. And I’d hope we put real muscle into the solutions they ask for.

2. We must talk about things differently.

I hold Saul Alinsky, the father of modern community organizing, in very high regard, and he wrote: “To get anywhere you’ve got to know how to communicate.” Isn’t that the truth in the new American order!

Trump connected with Americans who feel left behind on a visceral, almost tribal level. We cannot just blame things on individual candidates or ad hoc issues. The bottom line is that we aren’t talking about issues in a way that connect with rural Coloradans often enough.

I also believe we rely too much on policy and statistics versus emotional, gut-level reactions. For example, Hillary Clinton had a multi-step plan to assist coal country, while Donald Trump’s plan was to “bring back jobs.” Trump won coal country.

We must talk about the environment in a way that connects with people. As President Obama said about Saul Alinsky, “[he] understated the degree to which people’s hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people’s self-interest.” We must embrace this.

3. We must try new and creative strategies and tactics.

Now is the time for creativity. People are marching in the streets and overwhelming politicians’ phone lines. That is wonderful and exciting. We need to foster and build on that momentum. We should think of all of the tactics at our disposal, whether that is engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, showing up at senators’ offices, hiring more lawyers, working in different venues, partnering with different groups, or being more multidisciplinary in our coalition efforts.

I’m still questioning, listening, and working to figure out how we will move forward, stronger and more unified than ever, to fight for our environment and our communities. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe this won’t be separate from other movements, and that our strength lies in the ways different movements overlap. Protecting the environment goes hand-in-hand with other battles that will be happening, like opposing the border wall idea that hurts the communities and families we work with while also destroying fragile habitats and ecosystems in the American southwest.

The future I see for Colorado is full of possibility. We have a motivated community that is ready to stand up for the right to clean air and water, public lands, and climate action. We’re ready to fight tooth-and-nail for the things that matter most — and our environment is one of them.

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