Citizen environmental forum provides a ray of hope
For a couple of hours on a Tuesday night in Bloomington sanity reigned. People talked thoughtfully and openly about their desire for a green, sustainable economy. Citizens spoke to other citizens with words both sophisticated and simple. It was the way democracy should be: bottom-up, future-oriented, long-term, civil, and passionate. This citizen forum organized by the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) was an affirming and useful exercise in listening and dialogue.
I’ve become a hardened cynic when it comes to environmental policy making in St. Paul. It’s hard not to be, when you see industries regularly hiring away the folks who regulated them, and witness the deep infiltration of the polluter lobby under the Capitol dome. But for a few hours, I was deeply heartened by the passion of over three hundred people who packed into a room to share their hopes and dreams for Minnesota’s environment.
Of course, sprinkled throughout the room were also a number of lobbyists for causes environmental and anti-environmental, politicians of many parties, anti-wolf hunt advocates who wore their convictions on their shirts, climate activists, and more. Overwhelmingly, this was a thoughtful and articulate crowd. This process could have devolved into a shouting match or been dominated by individual interest groups pushing their agenda. There were folks who clearly came to push a specific issue, but even the folks wearing shirts or buttons declaring their allegiance to a specific environmental cause participated in the process and didn’t hijack it.
The demographics of the room contained worrisome signs. It was an aging crowd, half over the age of 55, three-quarters over 45 years old. Many of the younger participants were activists, but the gap in ages portends a real challenge for environmentalism. We can’t afford to be squeezed in the same demographic vise as opponents of marriage equality, and reaching out to young people is an imperative for those who love nature.
This was also not a hook and bullet crowd, though I spoke to several people whose interest in the forum was their passion for hunting and fishing. When asked what their three favorite outdoor activities were, the three most prevalent answers were walking, hiking, and biking. Only 5% of the respondents included hunting as one of their top three.
The two and a half hour forum was divided into three parts. The first was an overview of the environmental report card produced by the Environmental Quality Board, second, a small group discussion about participants’s vision for environmental policy, and third, a report of the small group discussion back to the larger group.
I recommend looking at the environmental report card, which has interesting and useful information. My biggest criticism of the report card is that it glosses over emerging threats to the environment like proposed sulfide mines, but overall it is informative and well worth your attention.
The small group discussion was fun. I was in a group with a very mixed bag of participants, including a lobbyist for green building and landscaping, very conservative Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover,) a couple of young folks who work for environmental groups, a police officer, a retired grandmother, and a couple who’d spent much of the last year on the road in a VW bus. Participants spoke of their sense of intergenerational responsibility, and tended to focus on individual changes in consumption as opposed to advocating for top-down regulations. However, as one group member noted, there often has to be a benchmark set by the government to drive positive environmental change.
With the exception of Rep. Scott, there was widespread agreement in our group of the threat posed by climate change. Scott said “I am a huge man-made climate change denier.” She deserves credit for coming to the forum, but was clearly outnumbered in this room.
The reporting section of the evening was chock full of excellent ideas. EQB Chair and Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson was excellent as a facilitator and somehow managed to get a report from each of the groups. In the interest of brevity, I’ll share only a few ideas that I thought were particularly insightful. One group suggested the legislature adopt a system of environmental scoring of bills modeled on the process of fiscal scoring. While implementing such a system would be extremely complicated, I love this idea. The same group also pointed out that the process of environmental policy making relies heavily on omnibus bills that make it impossible to understand the positions that individual legislators hold. That’s exactly right, but very unlikely to change.
A theme that was repeated across the room was the connection between money in politics and environmental policy. Group after group talked about the need for campaign finance reform, instant runoff voting, anything that would allow the voice of the people to be heard. And there was widespread agreement that people liked this process and that environmental policy should be made from the bottom up, not from the top down.
I’m sure that my cynicism will be replenished soon enough, but I left feeling elated. It was more than the self-reinforcing feeling that you get from being surrounded by like-minded people. The feeling was that of hope that citizen voices on the environment might get more attention, and that there were political leaders who were listening.
On my way out to the car, I ran into Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and got one more dose of optimism. We talked a bit about how the night went and the prospects for the next session, and she offered this take on the evening. “You know what I heard tonight? We’ve got to be bold.”
I’m sure the glow will wear off soon, but for now, I’m just going to enjoy it.
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