Social Movements and the Environment
Would you break the law to protect the environment? Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old college student did. He went to a Bureau of Land Management auction in Utah where public land was on the block. DeChristopher bid $1.79 million and effectively bought 22,000 acres of land. The problem: he didn’t have $1.79 million (not many college students do).
Supporters sent Tim donations, but he did not raise the $1.79 million. In the end that didn’t matter, since the new Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, decided to invalidate the results of the auction and effectively reclaim the public land for the public.
Sociologists study what makes people decide to get involved in social movements. Why, for instance, are some people willing to risk going to jail, as DeChristopher did, for a cause when others do not decide to take action? Sociologists also examine why certain movements gain traction at some times but not others. What has put the environmental cause on many Americans’ radar?
The environment was a significant point of debate within last year’s presidential race: global warming, clean energy, and our dependence on oil made their way from the margins to the center of discussion.
It certainly wasn’t always this way. Remember when the former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked in 2001 about whether Americans should change our lifestyles to conserve energy? He answered "That's a big no".
I can recall the last big energy crisis when I was a kid in the 1970s. In 1973 an oil crisis began when OPEC embargoed oil delivery to the United States. Gas prices spiked, and Congress enacted the National Maximum Speed Law (remember when highway speed limits were 55 mph?) in order to save gas. Conservation was a big deal, and public service announcements like these reminded us to focus on saving water. Restaurants would dim their lights and only serve water upon request.
Environmental disasters at places like the Three Mile Island nuclear facility and discovery of tons of toxic waste at Love Canal, New York also raised public awareness about protecting the environment.
Then the 1980s happened. Regulations thought to impede business were repealed, and Americans were encouraged to focus on individual success. When I was in high school during the mid 80s, anything that smacked of the 60s or 70s (read: any social cause) was considered lame. A faint mural of something called the ecology club was painted over, and membership dwindled to a few people before it too faded away.
Gas prices declined during this decade, SUVs were invented, and shows like Dallas and Dynasty (both about oil tycoons) celebrated extreme wealth, materialism, and individualism. Environmental disasters seemed a thing of the past (or of the far away--at Chernobyl all the way in the Soviet Union). The environment seemed like a quaint hippie topic, and derogatory terms like “tree hugger” and “eco-terrorist” derided people who sought to protect the environment.
So what factors have led to our contemporary concern about environmental issues? According to resource mobilization theory, social movements are most successful when they manage to garner sufficient resources like money, volunteers, media attention, and perhaps most centrally, legitimacy. Mobilizing other organized groups to collaborate with can also help build coalitions to maximize resources.
But a lot of environmental activists worked very hard before getting widespread recognition. For instance, scientists studied global warming for many years before large proportions of the population and government officials considered it to be an urgent problem. Former Vice President Al Gore gave many speeches on this issue before his documentary An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award. What turned the tide?
One of the best ways to gain widespread support for a social movement is to convince the general public that without change their lives will be impacted for the worse. For example, skyrocketing energy costs mobilized people who might not else be concerned about environmental issues. When our wallets are in danger, we can spring into action very quickly. Couple this tendency with a growing number of high-profile supporters across the ideological spectrum like T. Boone Pickens, who made a good deal of his fortune in oil, and it becomes easier to convince people that the problem is significant and something should be done.
The fact that protecting the environment is now a key political issue still does not explain why people might take significant personal risks to support of a cause. I might recycle, drive a fuel efficient car, and walk instead of drive in my neighborhood, but these actions don’t have a great personal cost. In fact, my city provides special recycling bins that they pick up with the trash, my fuel-efficient car was cheaper than others that get worse mileage, and I like to take walks. So these actions actually benefit me in many ways.
What sociological explanations might help us understand why Tim DeChristopher and others like him are willing to take personal risks to support a cause?