January 26, 2010
Return of the Prodigal Son
Last Thursday, I headed over to the Commonwealth Club to hear Adam Werbach talk about "The Birth of Blue." The speech marked a return of sorts for Adam and for me. Back in 2004, on the heels of "The Death of Environmentalism," I sat in the very same room and listened to Adam give a speech titled, "Is Environmentalism Dead?" that embraced the Death of Environmentalism thesis and promised to return to offer a way forward for those who were committed to building a sustainable world but were frustrated at the lack of progress environmentalists had made in actually doing so.The fall and winter of 2004 and 2005 were a heady, confusing, and intense time for Adam, Michael, and me. The Death of Environmentalism had been intended for a small group of environmental funders and insiders. But in the wake of President Bush's reelection, it had gone viral, and was being downloaded and debated by environmentalists and progressives all over the world. Adam's speech took the debate and the controversy to a new level. While Michael and I were relative unknowns outside of insider environmental circles, Adam had been the face of a new generation of environmentalists for almost a decade. For Adam, who had been handpicked to lead a youthful renaissance at the Sierra Club, to offer an autopsy of environmentalism, was a public relations disaster for an environmental movement already reeling after four years of Bush Administration anti-environmental policy.
The reaction was predictably harsh and swift. Environmentalism's golden boy was vilified, and Adam, arguably more so than Michael or I, suffered from the consequences of our incautious apostasy. He, along with Michael, left the board of the Apollo Alliance, which the three of us had co-founded. And the board of the non-profit that he founded and ran, the Common Assets Defense Fund, asked him to leave as well.
In the many months that followed Adam struggled with what to do next. Michael and I had introduced him to the social values research that we were doing and the long trend that our Canadian colleagues at Environics had been tracking wherein Americans over the previous decade had been moving away from inner-directed fulfillment values and towards outer-directed, materialistic, status oriented values. The three of us, along with our colleague, Peter Teague, at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, became obsessed with what it would take to reverse that trend. Any serious and sustainable effort to build an ecologically oriented political majority in the U.S., it seemed to us, would have, in the long term, to help Americans to feel secure economically and socially, in control of their lives, and within reach of their aspirations.
But Adam noticed something else in the data we were looking at, and it came over time to profoundly inform what he would do next. The values shift that we were looking at had major implications for American politics, but it wasn't essentially political. Indeed politics is something that simply does not occupy much bandwidth in the average American's mind. So if we really wanted to have an impact on the politics and world views of Americans, we needed to start by reaching them through the activities and aspirations that were occupying their minds and their energy. This became something of a mantra for Adam, to the point that it sometimes became annoying. "Yeah," we would say, "but we still have lots of opportunity to reach Americans through politics. And it's what we know. So why don't we start there?"
But Adam wasn't fazed and spent the next several years trying to figure out how to get out of "political work" and into something that might reach Americans at a more visceral level. He started a film club for progressives. He was going to write a book. He signed on as a consultant for an effort to have a global online conversation among leading global thinkers. It was frustrating for some of us because it seemed at times as if Adam were grasping at straws -- constantly looking for the next big thing. And for me it was frustrating because Adam seemed to have a lot of ideas about how to change values without really having a very good understanding of how values were shaped and what it typically took to change them. In these months I encouraged Adam to take a deep dive into the literature on values and how they were formed and influenced. And to his credit he did. It was during this time that he started talking about the importance of practices in forming identity and shaping our values and world views.
Even so, when Adam told me he was going to take on WalMart as a client and help their associates develop personal sustainability practices, I was skeptical. It was sort of unimaginable that one of the largest corporations in the world would allow Adam to do such a thing with its employees. And I have to confess that when I thought about how we would begin to engage Americans in a very different way about what mattered in their lives I didn't exactly have low wage WalMart employees in mind as the place where we would start. But start there he did and in retrospect the whole thing seems like a stroke of genius.
What Adam discovered in his research, and has implemented in his work with WalMart, is that practices, or what he calls "nano-practices," instantiate identity. When any of us decide, in a disciplined and regular way, to change our behavior, that act shifts our idea of who we are in ways that are more substantial than simply expressing an opinion about the world. Moreover, when the practice is connected to something larger than yourself, to the idea of doing something for the planet or humanity or your country or your community, the larger aspiration reinforces the commitment to the practice and the practice reinforces the aspiration as central to ones identity. It is for this reason that virtually all successful religions are "practiced."
Moreover the practice itself can be rather modest and still have the same effect, hence nano-practices. Many literal minded environmentalists have lately attacked many of the nano-practices that Adam has described as absurd and meaningless -- what's the point of getting some poor WalMart employee to go on a diet for the environment they ask, the planet is dying and dieting won't save it, especially if it is done at the behest of corporations that are part of the problem. But Adam is after something entirely different. By making a simple and sustainable experience of sustainability -- say eating less and walking to work a couple of days a week -- work in real peoples lives, Adam is wagering that they will bring a commitment to a larger idea of sustainability to other parts of their lives -- to their workplace, to their consumption, and ultimately to their politics.
Will it work? Will Blue become more, so much more, than the new Green? I don't know, but it is an audacious proposition and I couldn't be more honored to have been there at the start, to be there today, and to do whatever I can to help Adam make the dream that is Blue a reality.