Winning can be nearly as hard as losing. Everything changed for the American environmental movement with Barack Obama’s victory. We went overnight from a president who had done nothing but block action on global warming for eight years to a president committed to strong action. And in truth it wasn’t just eight years—since Bill Clinton and the elder Bush talked better games, but had done nothing either, it was as if a switch had been flipped after 20 years. Within days Detroit was on notice to produce high-mileage cars, and the government itself was filling its fleet with hybrids; we had heroes such as Steven Chu running the Department of Energy and Van Jones working as green jobs czar in the White House; there was even talk that Jimmy Carter’s old solar panels, or some modern version, would soon be lighting the Obama bedroom.
It was head-spinning. But it also meant that suddenly environmentalists would have the opportunity, and hence the duty, to make legislation in the real world. After 20 years of railing against the forces of fossil fuel with no real hope of reining them in, there was now actually a chance to do something about it. But that means: Compromise. Compromise is the price of victory—you have to give up the chance to get all you’ve dreamed of for the possibility of getting some of what you need. That’s difficult, because the dreams have kept you going, and there’s something cruel about seeing them reduced at the moment of triumph.
Compromise, on the one hand, can be hard—we’ve all waited for the chance to do something serious about global warming, and any legislation that can clear Congress will be less serious than it should be. Compromise can also be treacherously easy—the bar is so low after the Bush years that any progress at all can be confused for a resounding victory. Compromise can split apart movements—and build big new coalitions.