Since the days of the big Keystone protests, it’s become clear that the focus of environmental activism has moved away from trying to pressure the feds and towards making progress at the local level. What has happened nationally — changes to the Clean Air Act and the EPA, quiet climate negotiations with China(why were none of us invited?), and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act— is important, but also inside baseball. There’s not much of the direct engagement between grassroots activists and national policy that happened, say, around the time the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were first passed, in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, local environmentalism has been going like gangbusters. There’s the ongoing tussle between tiny Richmond, Calif., and Chevron, the Community Environmental Defense Council in upstate New York, the Sacred Headwaters in British Columbia, the Lummi and the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Washington state.
But how does a person get involved in local politics, anyway? I must have studied local government in high school, but I don’t remember it. We had student government — the elections were just like the race for prom king and queen, only less competitive. The end result was similar: Winners were expected to smile, not talk too much, and work on their parade wave.
One thing that seems to help is growing up in a political household. Many of the community organizers and politicians I’ve interviewed came from politically involved families; even if they weren’t politicians themselves, they had seen political campaigns roll out. They knew how to organize a boycott, how to figure out who they should be talking to in government, which political clubs they should be getting the endorsements of, and how to get the attention of the media.