The tumult of the last two years brought a good deal of introspection to the Institute’s work. The pandemic not only changed our mode of working but also underscored key issues and divisions that connect with traditional ELI values like the commitment to sound science as a foundation for decisionmaking and the belief in the concept of objective facts based on evidence. These same values of course also connect rather strongly with another animating current these days — the pressing, existential concerns about climate change and the intensifying collapse of species.
The rancid politics, disinformation, and lawlessness leading up to and following our last election cycle collided with other key ELI values like respect for governance systems and the fundamental importance of rule of law. And the issue of race, driven by searing images of murder on our streets and the rise of a brazen and virulent tide of white supremacy, re-riveted our focus on the vital importance of equal protection under the law — also a key ELI value.
The turbulence around us led to a good deal of serious dialogue with our board and our staff, parsing such questions as what it means to be “non-partisan” and “non-activist” — key dimensions of the traditional ELI identity — in such calamitous circumstances. We found ourselves looking anew at ELI’s current vision statement, committing the Institute to the pursuit of a “healthy environment, prosperous economies, and vibrant communities, founded on the rule of law”; and at our mission statement, calling for us to foster “innovative, just, and practical law and policy solutions” to enable leaders “across borders and sectors” to make “environmental, economic, and social progress.” We have discussed the centrality of the environmental piece of this equation and the reality that the only healthy environment is one that is both sustainable and broadly accessible.
There has also been considerable discussion about when ELI should raise its voice in the face of what we see. As reflected by the Board Statement on Race and Environmental Justice and our various press releases and commentary on the Capitol insurrection, the destructive power of disinformation, and the like, we have tried to do this. Some within our community may wish we had said more; others may wish we had said less. But a key teaching from this time is that remaining objective does not mean the same thing as being neutral, especially when fundamental values are at stake. Indeed, in such circumstances, to insist on complete neutrality is to risk ambivalence, or worse, complicity.
On the flip side of this, ELI occupies something of a sacred space within the environmental continuum that all parts of the continuum seem to value, and when and how we express ourselves needs to protect that sacred space. ELI is a big tent that includes the full continuum of actors. Most within our community are engaged in advocacy in various forms. Advocacy is of course hugely important, as it is the primary fire by which the integrity of environmental decisions is tested.
But also important are those who strive to point toward the objective facts and bring understanding that can inform advocacy and policy debate, endeavoring to offer independent assessment, balanced education, and a nonpolitical meeting place where different factions can come to understand each other better and possibly find solutions — together. That’s the role that ELI has occupied through the ages, and it’s a noble role; in my view, every bit as important as more direct forms of advocacy. ELI’s big tent is part of what gives ELI legitimacy as that kind of place.
As most of you know by now, my time as ELI’s president will soon come to a close. I asked the board at the end of last year to start the process of finding a successor so that I can take up more complete residency in Rome, where my wife, Sasha, is working. That process appears to now be fast approaching its conclusion. As it happens, we are also arriving at the endpoint of the time horizon for the ELI Strategic Vision that I put in place in my first year on the job.
Putting together the next chapter of ELI’s strategy will no doubt be one of the first acts of ELI’s next president. Given the troubled waters that we are passing through, I am quite certain that this question of ELI values will feature prominently in that strategic update. And, because the values ELI expresses ideally reflect not just the values of ELI-the-organization, but also values toward which we might hope the entire ELI community would be drawn, I am also confident that your views and perspectives will be sought in that process. Please be ready to roll up your sleeves when the request for input comes!
This blog originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of The Environmental Forum and is republished with permission.