Do We Need to Shift Gears Post-Election?

Posted by on Nov 11, 2014

West Texas, heading toward the Davis Mountains on a 2011 bicycle trip through the Southwest. Photo: Alex Wilson

In West Texas, heading toward the Davis Mountains in April, 2011 on a bicycle trip through the Southwest. Photo: Alex Wilson

I’m as frustrated as anyone—indeed incredulous—that the man most likely to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is the Senate’s most outspoken denier of climate change. He has looked to the likes of Michael Crichton, author of the rabidly anti-environmentalist novel State of Fear, for scientific testimony in past Senate hearings on climate change, and he has vowed to investigate climate scientists, hoping to uncover biases or in other way discredit their hard work.

But it’s become increasingly clear to me that we environmentalists need to try something different in advancing our agenda. Is it possible, I wonder, to build bridges instead of walls?

Resilience can appeal to Red States

One of the main reasons I launched the Resilience Design Institute in 2012 was to get more people working toward solutions that will help to protect the environment. By couching our sustainability strategies as resilience strategies, rather than environmental or sustainability or climate-change-mitigation strategies, we can build bridges across the political divide in this country.

Even if a Kansas wheat farmer doesn’t believe in climate change—and most of them don’t—that farmer probably wants to keep his family safe in the face of whatever unpredictable storms or events may occur. I’m guessing that those wheat farmers in Kansas or the corn and soybean farmers in Iowa already have a better understanding than most of the rest of us about the vagaries of climate. They know that the weather is getting more unpredictable, with more frequent or longer droughts and more intense precipitation events when they rain does fall.

They don’t believe that climate change is the cause of those weather perturbations—or at least they don’t believe that it is human-caused climate change—but you can be sure that they think a lot about what they need to be doing to protect their livelihood and their families from those sorts of weather events. They are also, I would guess, independent-minded folks who want to be able to take care of themselves.

So, I believe that with the right messaging, we can interest these conservatives in a resilient design agenda.

Resilient design strategies keep Republicans safer too

Many of the resilient design strategies we’re promoting are common-sense measures that will keep us safe during power outages or interruptions in heating or transportation fuel. Highly insulated building envelopes will keep houses from getting too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer in the event of blackouts or heating fuel supply interruptions. Pedestrian-friendly communities will function better if, for some reason, shortages of gasoline or an inability to pump gasoline occur.

These same measures also help to mitigate climate change (whether or not you believe it’s happening) by reducing energy consumption in heating and cooling our homes. If our communities are safer and more convenient for bicycling and walking, more of us may be inspired to leave our cars home—and that will be good not only for the environment, but also our health.

And if we carry out measures to minimize flood damage from the next coastal storm surge or inland river-valley flooding, we might not have to spend as much on repairs from damage due to flooding. Rebuilding and remodeling homes is not only expensive, but it carries significant environmental burdens, including greenhouse gas emissions.

Sunrise an hour out of Hillsboro, New Mexico in April 2011. Photo Alex Wilson

Sunrise an hour out of Hillsboro, New Mexico in April 2011. Photo Alex Wilson

Looking to range management for a model of cooperation

As I think about the need to reach across the aisle and appeal to the full spectrum of political beliefs, I’m heartened by what’s been going on (in some areas) with progressive range management and other agricultural practices.

I just finished reading the new book, The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale Press, 2014), and I was inspired by some of the stories of cooperation between factions that have historically been at odds. Ranchers in the Mountain States and farmers in the Midwest, for example, are working with environmentalists to advance land management practices that not only improve yields, reduce operating costs, and reduce the impacts of drought, but also sequester carbon in the soil.

I’ll leave the details of these agricultural practices to a future blog, but what stuck me most strongly was the fact that common ground can be found. New coalitions have formed that are re-writing the usual assumptions about environmental conflicts and an inability to compromise.

Through the book, I learned of the Quivira Coalition, which is a wonderful example of this cooperation. The organizatin’s journal, renamed Resilience in 2010, is packed with information about strategies for building soil health and more responsible range management practices—measures that not only help the environment but that also benefit the ranchers or farmers.

Moving forward on the climate change crisis

Watching the election returns in 2014, it’s clear that—for at least a while—progress on environmental policy isn’t going to come from Washington.

Rather than sitting back and waiting for the pendulum to swing back to the left, I think we need to find more examples of environmental gains that can be achieved in ways that deliver other benefits—in other words, that appeal not just to the left, but across the political spectrum.

I believe that even the most entrenched climate change deniers of the Republican Party and Tea Party will eventually come around to believing the science of climate change—just as even religious leaders eventually came around to believing that the Earth was round. But we can’t afford to wait for that to happen.

We need to work on solutions that more people can buy into. That’s why I’m focused on resilience.


Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. Alex,
    I love both this message and the fact that you illustrated it with pictures from Texas and NM (great shots, btw).
    Here in Texas, that approach of “never mind climate change…let’s deal with this crazy weather!” is what we’ve been trying to promote for a while. The horrendous drought we had state-wide in 2011 really focused attention on water, both on reducing use and recycling. We are making progress in that area because it is seen as crucial.
    With the intensely hot summers, the power producers have warned of peak demand exceeding capacity, and have instigated “use power at night” subsidies…not as good as “don’t use power” but it’s a start.
    Your message is a good one, and probably the best way forward toward real progress, given our reality.

  2. Alex,

    You are on the right track. Your old friend Amory Lovins has been articulate over the years in finding common ground between various political (and other) persuasions with initiatives in renewable energy. There is a history there of both rhetoric and practice. Also, Bob Altemeyer, social psychologist, has studied the authoritarian personality (which comprises a follower type and leader type), which is associated mostly with the conservative mentality, and describes how to seek and establish common ground with that mentality in the last chapter of his book The Authoritarians. Here is a link to the book. The PDF is free:

  3. Thank you perseverance in the environmental issues and for stating the challenges so eloquently.



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