Won't You Be My Neighbor?

By: John A. Lanier

Many of environmentalism’s conflicts are unnecessary and ultimately impediments to what we are trying to accomplish. What do we do about resolving those conflicts? I think we would be wise to turn to the example of Mister Rogers.

Last night was movie night. We don’t watch many movies in our home, with the exception of Disney films for our kids on rainy days. We rarely get through them though, since my son always seems to lose interest 30 minutes in. TV shows are our more typical form of entertainment-by-screen.

Chantel and I had been wanting to watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood though, so we finally made some time after our kids were asleep. For anyone not familiar, it’s the 2019 inspired-by-a-true-story film about Mister Rogers. Also, here’s your mild spoiler alert in case you haven’t seen it and want to (though I won’t give much away).
The film explores a friendship that Fred Rogers developed in 1998 with a journalist who was interviewing him. It’s a touching story that examines themes like forgiveness, the relationship between a parent and child, and what truly matters in life. As someone who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, the nostalgia evoked by the film was deep and enjoyable. We can’t recommend it highly enough.
The reason I’m writing about it now though is because of one particular moral in the story. The filmmakers show quite clearly, but without being heavy handed, that Mister Rogers’ lessons are meant for more than just children. Sure, he was a puppeteer and his television show was intended for kids, but the movie’s plot dealt with conflicts between adults. All the same, Mister Rogers’ example of gentleness, attentiveness, thoughtfulness, inclusivity, patience, self-reflection, and unwavering belief in the goodness of people is what resolved those conflicts.
I decided to spend some time in self-reflection after the film ended. I wondered what Mister Rogers’ lessons can teach me as an environmentalist, not just as an adult. I’m still working out that answer in my own head, but I figured I’d try to work it out in writing this post as well.
There’s a surprising amount of conflict in environmentalism as a movement. Most of that conflict is external – between those working to solve an environmental challenge and those outside of the movement who oppose their position. Obvious examples include climate activists against the fossil fuel industry, as well as champions for clean air and water against various polluting industries. There is also quite a bit of internal conflict – among those who identify as environmentalists but who do not have fully-aligned positions. For instance, some environmentalists are vegans and others work with livestock on regenerative agricultural practices.
Some of the inherent conflict is good and necessary. Take the field of environmental law and the myriad nonprofit organizations who file lawsuits to compel compliance with legislation like the Clean Water Act. Their work is adversarial by design. Moreover, when the fossil fuel industry peddles junk science to preserve their financial interests at the expense of a stable climate, I see the merit in an oppositional response.
But not all of the conflicts are like that. Many of them are unnecessary and ultimately impediments to what we are trying to accomplish. What do we do about resolving those conflicts? I think we would be wise to turn to the example of Mister Rogers. We should be self-reflective and patient. We should strive for more inclusivity (where we often fall short) and be attentive to the views of those we include. Gentleness and thoughtfulness can do a world of good to resolve our conflicts. And finally, above all else, we should remember and look for the goodness in people.
Those shouldn’t just be characteristics of environmentalists. They should be the characteristics of environmentalism itself.