March 26, 2015

An Easy Solution to America’s Democracy Problem

Bette Midler joins other volunteers at a MillionTrees New York City event in Brooklyn.

As foundations and nonprofits puzzle over the best ways to persuade more Americans to vote and otherwise get involved in civic issues, they are spending lots of money on a range of hunches and solutions.

It turns out the answer might be a lot simpler than anybody imagined: Getting people to plant trees, take care of a watershed, volunteer at an urban farm, protest climate change, or undertake other environmental activities could be the secret to getting them engaged in a range of more mainstream political and civic actions. The need for a solution is great.

The 2014 elections sent a major warning sign of an increasingly worrisome erosion in democratic participation. After all, voter turnout was the lowest since World War II.

The disturbing rate of participation led grant makers and others to pour money into projects that focus on whether our increasingly connected and urbanized world is the real problem in voting and participation. Much of the concern for nonprofits is whether the technology tools that have allowed them to reach so many people are actually part of the problem. As it has become so easy for people just to click on a link to sign a petition or donate money, perhaps they think they don’t have to show up anywhere to make a difference — even the voting booth.

Technology may be behind much of the problem. But as colleagues and I wondered about what could change that behavior, we decided to look at another growing area of philanthropic investment: the organizations that are encouraging volunteers to make their cities and communities greener and more sustainable. Is it possible that those projects were doing more to help spur democratic involvement than anyone imagined?

They might indeed. Our research has found that people who participate in environmental activities are, statistically, significantly more civically engaged than the general population.

People from across the political spectrum who spend their free time volunteering to take care of trees, watersheds, and gardens in communities around the United States are significantly more likely to attend a public, town, community board, or school meeting; sign petitions; participate in a protest; engage in political discussion on the Internet; give speeches; and vote than the general American population (as well as their fellow community members). In other words, these Americans are not bowling alone, they are digging together.

In our new book, Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy, my co-authors and I dig deeper into this relationship, presenting findings from a two-year study of more than 700 volunteers who got involved in MillionTreesNYC.

Later this year, the project will plant its millionth tree and fulfill the goals set forth by the public-private partnership between the former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and the New York Restoration Project. Beyond making the city greener and more resilient to floods from storm events like Hurricane Sandy, MillionTrees NYC has provided a gateway for New Yorkers to get more involved environmentally, as well as to become more engaged citizens overall.

To draw our conclusions, we not only looked at the civic engagement of volunteers on the day they planted trees, but we followed up with them a year later to find out whether these volunteers were already a more civically engaged portion of the population, or if planting trees played a role in encouraging them to be more active citizens. As it turns out, planting trees with other New Yorkers provides a gateway for civic-minded residents to do more.

In fact, after voting and attending religious activities, the volunteers reported that environmental stewardship was their most common first step to civic engagement. Driven by the desire to give something back to the city and to pass on an ethic of stewardship to the next generation, these New Yorkers saw environmental stewardship and civic engagement as deeply intertwined.

In other words, participating in conservation activities was a kind of civic engagement, not a separate act of environmentalism.

Given these findings, grant makers and nonprofits need to start devoting attention to the ways that environmental activities channel participants into other actions that benefit their communities and our democracy.

One question that still needs answering is whether the connection between environmental engagement and democratic participation holds true for other causes. For example, does volunteering at a soup kitchen, school fundraising effort, or mentorship program also channel people into other civic activities? Or is it there something unique about literally getting your hands dirty, working to care for the environment, that is special and encourages connections that permeate society?

An even tougher question to answer, but one that is crucially important to understand, is whether the connections we found are true for everyone, regardless of their race, class, and gender. Even though my research has focused on people in communities that are home to diverse populations, environmental participants tend to be exactly whom you might expect: They are whiter, more highly educated, and more female than the general population and the communities in which they volunteer.

Thus, we need to invest money and time in understanding whether planting trees and digging in gardens have the same effect for everyone. Will getting people of color to plant trees or clean up their neighborhood parks have the same impact as it does on whites, or would other activities and causes be a stronger motivator?

Such a project would also provide opportunities to answer additional questions about how environmental participation might yield social benefits beyond civic and political engagement. Do people who participate in environmental activities also spend less time online? Do they eat healthier?

Across the United States (and around the world), numerous city and community efforts are underway to plant trees, protect watersheds, and make communities greener. The environmental benefit of efforts like these is already well known, but it is time to devote attention to the ways they also contribute to the strength and vitality of democracy.

Dana R. Fisher is professor of sociology and director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. She is the author, with Erika Svendsen and James Connolly, of "Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy" (Routledge Press 2015).