Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the National Bestseller Last Child in the Woods

From the Blog

We Need an NRA for Nature

Anne Pearse Hocker, photo © Doug Graham

The other day, I received a note from a good friend, photojournalist Anne Pearse Hocker. In the 1970s, she snuck across a no man’s land into the Wounded Knee encampment, and spent weeks photographing the protest. Those photos are currently in the Smithsonian Museum. A widow, she now lives in a cabin with two dogs, two cats and two hunting falcons.

She loves the wild landscape of the West, is dismayed by new threats to it, and is surprised by a change in her internal landscape.

“Something new is needed,” she wrote. She referenced the Women’s March in Helena: “Here in deep red Montana, over 10,000 people marched in Helena, smashing all records and expectations. The organizers started out hoping for 500. The night before the march they predicted possibly 5,000. Meanwhile, the state’s Central Democratic Committee virtually ignored it. As if it never happened.” She does not believe that her own party understands the growing anger and sense of urgency that she and others like her feel. “Someone or something needs to ride that wind before it gets away.”

It's time to build an NRA for nature — an environmental or conservation force comparable to the nation’s powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association — one capable of striking fear into the heart of, say, any climate-change-denying politician, Republican, Democrat, or Other.

You may or may not like the NRA, but you have to admit that the organization, like the Tea Party, knows how to get its way.

A handful of green groups aspire to that political power, and many have done a good job influencing regulatory policies, but I can’t recall the last time I read about an environmental or conservation group mounting a successful campaign to boot multiple members of Congress from office. Maybe it’s happened, but not often enough. And now the ante is upped. If political candidates aren’t afraid of environmentalism’s political power, what good is environmental activism?

Have we reached a point where environmentalism is less about political power than about moral preening? Or lifestyle choices?

“The last few weeks have rocked the environmental movement. In the wake of the November elections, environmentalists are deeply concerned about the future of the Paris climate accord, the rollback of federal environmental protections, and even the fate of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself,” writes Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the Environmental Voter Project,

He points to an inconvenient truth: as a group, environmentalists are miserable voters. Approximately 20.1 million self-identified environmentalists are registered to vote, he says, but in the 2014 mid-term elections, only 4.2 million of them voted. In the 2012 presidential election barely 10 million environmentalists voted.

Meanwhile, in 2014, NRA-backed candidates won over 91 percent of Congressional races in which they endorsed a candidate — even though 90 percent of Americans supported background checks for gun owners, even in the wake of the killing of 26 people, mostly schoolchildren, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (After Sandy Hook, the NRA claimed its membership actually surged.)

Why is it that the NRA can have its way with Congress but environmentalists and conservationists are so often on the defensive?

One explanation is that, for many Americans, the environment – especially when it comes to climate change – is an abstraction.

This is true in part because so many indoor kids or their parents never have the chance to fall in love with nature. It’s also true because of the most common language of environmentalism, oddly both opaque and apocalyptic. By contrast, the NRA’s focus is as hard and tangible as gunmetal. Guns and gun ownership are more deeply embedded in the national character than environmentalism, which is newer on the scene. Gun owners are more focused on individual self-defense than on a generalized threat of gun violence. And gun ownership is protected as a Constitutional right (interpretations will vary).

Consequently, to many Americans gun ownership is not only tangible, but a deeply personal and emotional issue – and that is the way the NRA frames it.

The NRA doesn’t have a lock on emotion; it’s how they aim it. Most Americans, of all political persuasions, were deeply upset by Sandy Hook and other massacres. Yet, after Sandy Hook, legislation requiring background checks once again failed to pass the Senate. Marketing, campaign spending, overwhelming lobbying power, a powerful industry, and political fear ruled the day.

The kind of emotion that the NRA taps is different from the episodic mass tragedies of gun violence. Those tragedies are like thunderstorms, violent for a spell and then a memory; but the NRA’s rain is slow, relentless, never ceasing.

It’s time to learn from the NRA, even if the lessons are uncomfortable.

Let's start by expanding on a familiar concept. Most thinking people understand the NRA’s power. Consequently, they would get the idea of an NRA for nature. That frame is clear, concise, and potent. An NRA for nature (insert proper name and acronym here) could take form as a new membership organization, massive expansion of an existing organization, a tight network of multiple groups, or a shared campaign launched by all of the above. 

Money will be an issue. Nonprofits tend to compete for support from the same funders, and therefore tend to see each other as competitors. Trump’s election will undoubtedly grow the number of individual donations, but government money for environmental causes will likely shrink. Also, 501(c)(3) nonprofits are limited in what they can do politically. Public education is allowed; lobbying for specific bills and campaigning for candidates is restricted. "Social welfare" organizations like the NRA are classified as 501(c)(4), and allowed to lobby. The tradeoff: donations are not deductible. That doesn't discourage loyal members from sending checks. To NRA members, it's not about the deduction, it's about the principle.

Since 2014, green political action committees (PACs) and super PACs, which aren’t as beholden to limits on fundraising or spending are on the upswing. Billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action has spent millions on political races. Other players include the Sierra Club’s Independent Action, the League of Conservation Voters' super PAC, the Environment America Action Fund, Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee and Crowdpac, which uses crowdfunding.

Green super PACS may someday have superpowers, but not yet. They failed to make much of a dent in the 2016 elections. (Although the outcomes might have been even worse without their participation.)

Republicans not only won the White House, but kept their majorities in Congress. Republicans now dominate 32 state legislatures and 33 governors’ mansions, accounting for roughly 80 percent of the U.S. population. Unlike in the past, when conservatives were some of the highest-profile conservation leaders, most Republicans resist environmentalism. (Not all: this week a group of Republicans led by former Secretary of State James Baker called for a tax on carbon to fight climate change.)

But the night is still young.

One can at least imagine a coordinated campaign for more philanthropy, more individual donors, a network of industries and deep-pocketed individuals — especially from the high-tech world — to support 501(c)(3) groups that educate and grow the social base, and an even more aggressive effort to increase contributions to the 501(c)(4) organizations that lobby and work for the election of political candidates. Add to that a permanent, relentless voter mobilization drive. If it reaches scale, that three-pronged campaign, while not identical in form, could be a green equivalent of the NRA. 

Along with more political action, we need a broader constituency to support good candidates, one with greater diversity of religion, race, ethnicity and economics.

Guns and the Second Amendment are powerful symbols to rally around. But so are urban gardens, natural schoolyards, parks, clean air and water, wilderness, and the human right that every child has to the psychological, physical and spiritual gifts of nature. And, of course, the tenuousness of our tenure on the planet – a more abstract issue, but as real as rain.

Our greatest barrier is despair. For years, Americans have been trapped in a dystopian trance, a passive assumption of a post-apocalyptic future. We need a balancing set of images, ones that depict a future that is not only energy-efficient, but nature-rich, with cities and countryside that serve as engines of biodiversity and health.

Making that tangible to voters won’t happen overnight, but it’s possible — especially if we don’t write off Republicans or rural America (as some progressives have suggested) or big chunks of the population who do care about nature but prefer snowplows to skis, bird hunting to bird watching.

The children and nature movement may point the way. It brings together conservatives and liberals and people from all walks of life. We don’t have to agree on everything to care about our children’s connection to the natural world. We want something better for them.

Plank by plank, we can build a bigger boat. Anne of Montana sees the potential. In a state not known for protest marches, the women’s march “blew the doors off,” she says. “It surprised everyone. A subsequent rally for public lands a week later garnered about 1,000 people in Helena, with many conservative sportsmen's groups participating, and the governor spoke. It was twice the size of a similar public lands rally in 2015.” The crowd probably included NRA members, who care about land and water and air, too. 

“Although I have guns and use them, I do not belong to the NRA,” says Anne. “But I do respect their marketing and passion.”

To Anne’s surprise, she’s beginning to feel some optimism about Montana, about the nation, and about her own role. She may be numb to statistics about melting ice caps, but she can feel the land. “I am one of the angry ones,” she says. Something new is rising in her. It’s tagged to emotion, not numbers, not logic alone. “I believe the usual models of the progressive movement are no longer working. Just my opinion. Facts are only mildly interesting to someone who is emotionally on fire."

She’s looking for ways to turn her fire into light.

______________________

Note: One avenue of immediate action is the People's Climate Change March on April 29th, recommended by Bob Perkowitz of ecoAmerica (see Bob's comment below). And some good news from Montana, showing that people who care about nature can still flex considerable muscle. Now to make this a nationwide trend. 

Richard Louv is the author of "The Nature Principle,"Last Child in the Woods," and other books about the human-nature connection. Among his other roles, he is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and a board director of ecoAmerica, a nonprofit building a broader base of support for climate change action.

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Comments

Bam! I am carving out a unique niche at a very large cancer center by building programs based on the health and sustainability of not only our parks and gardens, but of the people that use them. My role as a facilities manager encompasses at least half of these NRA descriptions. I am so relieved to read this post and feel validated now. Many thanks Richard!. Definitely going to reference to this article.

I am encouraged by this energy to tackle old problems with a new (to us) perspective. We always fight for what we love, but sometimes we need a new approach. 
And if anyone is curious, that wonderful hawk was my apprentice bird for falconry, and after hunting together for a few seasons I released her back to the wild, near where she and I had hunted together. She subsequently nested on our property and raised several successful broods. Spending time with her and seeing how hard she worked to have a successful hunt inspired me to fight for the world she needs to thrive.

Good article and a worthy cause. I agree in principle. But I’m afraid I believe that much of the power of the NRA and the Tea Party and whoever the hell is in charge now (white supremacists?) are fueled mostly by male rage.

Male rage will not fuel the environmental movement for a number of reasons at present and only in the future under the most dire of conditions.

For one: Environmental activists are not, on average or at large, people prone to rage. Nor are they predominantly male; this is a virtue in my book, but it suggests a handicap in power and influence, and on the whole, an inadequate quantity of aggression to counter any of these largely male “warrior societies” that seem to be the intended model.

Two: People with a love of nature are, again on the whole, better people. No other way to put that. But it suggests also a lack of the essential tool kit of raging male groups: their willingness to lie, bully, yell, hit, shoot, sneer, intimidate, incarcerate, litigate, etc, etc, that are all despicable human impulses but effective weapons.

Third: Nature-lovers may be numerous, but we are loners. We are not joiners, typically. We do not share the mob instinct.

The pipeline protests represent possible exceptions to this theory, but on the other hand, they might also represent the beginnings of the one dire scenario under which nature-lovers might purposefully unite into a political force: existential crisis.

The reservation residents fighting pipelines are literally protecting their drinking water. It is an existential crisis, inevitable sooner or later. Fight or die, is ultimately the choice they face. However, their many non-native supporters are joining in solidarity or for their own reasons, including such abstractions as antiestablishmentarianism.

Male rage works because it stems from its own sort of existential crisis: the fear of lost status and power represented by strong, smart, willful women. Moreso the fear of their rejection by same. At its worst, it is also a racist agenda with similar origin in fear of (imagined) lost status.

In that sense, the NRA and Tea Party already have their power source, and that’s why their model works. It is not, in any significant part, their 501c4 status.

Good stuff.  Thank you.

A great piece, and proud to see my stepmother speaking out!

It is useful to remember here that for the first century of its existance, the NRA was much like the environmental movement, a somewhat peripheral group of enthusiasts interested in education. It is only in the last generation that an organization founded to teach gun safety and marksmanship morphed into a fundraising machine focused on the ruthless pursuit of paranoid political goals, largely due to the will of a small number of people who hijacked the leadership. They still teach safety and marksmanship at the grass roots level, and use this to recruit members and funding, but the national leadership is more and more distant from the organization’s roots and even its own membership (George Bush the First famously resigned from the NRA over what he perceived as its anti-social goals and suspect methodology).

There are two lessons here. The first is that seemingly peripheral groups of enthusiasts can aspire to political influence, but the second lesson is cautionary. What the NRA has become has corroded the soul of what was once an idealistic and admirable movement, and in gaining national power has lost the trust of the majority of Americans.

I do not see this effort as a way to become like the NRA or Tea Party, but to extract from the beast the tools that resonated with enough voters that they won the Triple Crown of US politics. I also worry about moral posturing. I don’t believe that will win any converts, and without them we won’t get past the hand-wringing stage. Let me repeat one of Richard’s lines that really resonated with me: “Have we reached a point where environmentalism is less about political power than about moral preening? Or lifestyle choices?”
Power is always potentially dangerous when our baser instincts prevail, but it is the name of the game in our society. So how do we gather it and yet keep our moral compass? Continue with what hasn’t worked and hope for the best, or re-tool?

I don’t agree with your assessment that existing conservation PACs/c4s “failed to make a dent” in 2016.  The reelection of Governor Steve Bullock in Montana, the election of Governor Roy Cooper in NC, the election of Senator Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada - these were all elections in which conservation issues were pivotal.  That wasn’t accidental, it was largely through the efforts state conservation voter leagues to identify, influence, and turn out conservation voters in those races.  And each of those leaders now recognize the importance taking action to deliver on the conservation issues that secured their election.

At the same time, I do agree with you that we could have even greater impact with messaging that is more tied to outdoor experiences and nature, rather than just traditional/abstract green concerns.  Arguably, that was exactly what happened in Montana with Governor Bullock’s re-election.  That race was very tangibly - and decisively- about land, water, and access to the outdoors.  A broader, more concrete nature-basd message would surely mobilize even more voters in other races around the nation.  I also agree with you that it would have greater bipartisan appeal.  (Again here, look at both Bullock and Cooper - they won re-election despite the top of the ticket going to the opposite party).

I also would suggest that another lesson of 2016 is that our best opportunity for long-term sustainable victory is to focus our efforts to build a broader conservation-political force at the state level.  Let’s repeat the win we had here in Montana in other states, reclaim important offices, rebuild our political bench, and set our issues up to be decisive at the national level in 2020 and 2024.

Thanks for all you do!

Hi Rich,

You have both the solution and the obstacle here.  There is only one ‘gun’ organization in America, and they have the money, the passionate issue, the money, and the single-minded clear strategy and tactics.

There are many different enviro groups… big ones.  They collaborate in different ways, but as you say, mainly compete.  They would look at any dollar to a new/big organization as a threat to them, and oppose it vs. support it. 

So the key is how you do this… and I think the answer is the People’s Cliamte March group.  They’ve gathered 100 organizing partners, and over 250 additional supporting organizations for the Peoples March on April 29…. numbers that will surely grow.  They have the mindset, and the reach… all they need is another plank or two in their platform. 

I’m sure there are other options, but from my perch now, that seems the best.

Bob, great comment. Actually, there are some 20 gun organizations, some of size, though the NRA is by far the largest and most powerful. The People’s Climate March group is a great suggestion. Here’s a link to it for folks who want to get involved with it: https://peoplesclimate.org  In addition, I continue to believe that environmentalism, needed more than ever, must find more effective ways to move the culture and the political world.

Much of the success of the NRA is due to its large coffers. Many gun manufacturers, businesses that sell guns, and other gun related businesses give money to the NRA. Lots of money. We do need to vote in unison, and sadly we need to spend money on lobbying and getting out the vote. The NRA spends money to promote guns every day of every year, and spends money lobbying and publicizing if legislators vote the interests of the NRA or not, and getting that out to their members. Maybe businesses involved with nature and the outdoors would contribute to the nature or environmental group, too. Just an idea. Sport manufacturers in Utah are talking about moving out of state.

Great article Richard.


Yes a bigger voice is needed, one like the NRA would be great.

Never did I see this march spoken of on any CBS ABC or NBC affiliate networks. They have a hard time chronicling anything that might be perceived leaning to the right.

I agree with Bob Perkowitz( the answer is the People’s Climate March group)

Hello Mr. Louv,

I just wanted to say thank you for all of the amazing work that you do! I am currently taking a Tourism and Outdoor Leadership course at Oregon State University titled ‘Nature and the Human Experience’ and have been assigned a research project on a scholar of my choosing. I have chosen to present some of your work on Nature Deficit Disorder and wondering if you might be able to answer a few questions as far as where you received your formal education, any grant-based research you’ve conducted and anything else you might like me to shed some light on. I would sure appreciate any help you can give! I would be happy to record my facilitation and send you if you would like.
Again, I think your work is incredible and I cannot wait to share it with others! Please feel free to reach out in any way you see fit. I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you,
Matt Armstead

Good post. Unfortunately, the NRA is powerful because we are such a gun-happy nation. There are too much money and business to be made from wars and guns. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. We have to change our attitudes as a society. Just look at how the Scandinavians do it. I think they have it figured out.

Adonis

https://www.alwasyswanderlust.com

I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!

I do agree with you that we could have even greater impact with messaging that is more tied to outdoor experiences and nature, rather than just traditional/abstract green concerns.  Arguably, that was exactly what happened in Montana with Governor Bullock’s re-election.  That race was very tangibly - and decisively- about land, water, and access to the outdoors.  A broader, more concrete nature-basd message would surely mobilize even more voters in other races around the nation.  I also agree with you that it would have greater bipartisan appeal.  (Again here, look at both Bullock and Cooper - they won re-election despite the top of the ticket going to the opposite party. http://hoatuoishop.net/

Thank you so much Richard for this insightful article. I worked on an Indian reservation for about a year and I appreciated their love of nature. While I was there I learned about beauty and peace. We all need to get close to nature to renew our souls. We all need to protect our beautiful oceans and forests. Loving and caring for nature puts a big smile on my face.

Great article. I completely agreement with the fact that guns are tangible and that global warming is an abstraction. Most people believe that climate change is real, but they refuse to believe that it will happen in their lifetime which is a major misconception. Also, the NRA is very old organization founded in the late 1800s which has amassed considerable power and a very large conservative base. Job creation (which is a major theme of this past election) in clean energy will be the core to it’s growth and political strength - after all we do live in a capitalist society. The good news is that it’s inevitable for clean energy to take off, however it’s unfortunate to still have climate change deniers placing roadblocks in order to create unnecessary hurdles delaying the process. Environmentalists do tend to be loners or at least not as powerful as the NRA. Individuals can however do their part in easing global warming (http://www.peacefuldumpling.com/mad-trump-won-fight-global-warming-40-ways) and shaping the future for tomorrow. The fact is that US politicians will soon have to side with green technology as that will be the key for economic growth and most importantly job creation.

Great article from a great and thoughtful writer! My comment is in response to Mr. Mullenix’s interesting thoughts above. As a nature lover, I can become as enraged as any NRA member, albeit while keeping my head so I don’t lose sight of the intelligent options. And I’m not alone. I believe there are other examples such as radical environmental groups from the past like “Earth First,” etc. So rage can be felt and utilized by us as well as anyone, if that’s what it takes to save what we love and believe in.

But perhaps the most important requirement is not rage, so much as it is solidarity; getting all of us together and united for the same cause. As was also pointed out, too many of us don’t vote. That has to change. There are enough of us across the diverse range of outdoor enthusiasts to make a political difference. With solidarity, a shared purpose & future vision, nothing will stop us!

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