Environmentalism's EKG

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The environmental movement has suffered death by a thousand agendas. That was the message delivered last fall by environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in a manifesto called “The Death of Environmentalism,” and they have ignited a continuing debate in a community that had always considered itself united.

Bogged down in promoting shortsighted, narrow policy fixes for a miscellany of environmental problems, the movement’s leaders have lost their inspiring vision, contend Shellenberger, the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, and Nordhaus, a pollster with Evans/McDonough. The two base their critique (available at www.thebreakthrough.org) on interviews with two dozen leading environmentalists.

America’s voters have become more conservative—and environmentalists’ tendency to frame their issues in negative, apocalyptic terms just isn’t selling. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus write. “Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an ‘I have a nightmare’ speech instead.”

They conclude that environmentalism has become just another narrow special interest. Now it must forge a new, visionary identity, embrace a wider spectrum of progressive concerns, and expand its notion of what its issues are, looking beyond the traditional “environmental” label to labor, the economy, and health care.

Environmentalists’ lack of—and even distaste for—politicking helped scuttle the Senate’s ratification of the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gases and allowed a deal for higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards to slip through their fingers, Shellenberger and Nordhaus say. Confronting the calamity of global warming, environmental leaders have been woefully ineffective at building political support, believing that the rightness of their cause is all they need, that “selling technical solutions like fluorescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances, and hybrid cars will be sufficient to muster the necessary political strength to overcome the alliance of neoconservative ideologues and industry interests in Washington, D.C.”

American environmental leaders today pattern their tactics after those of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson and other activist pioneers, according to Shellenberger and Nordhaus. They define a narrow problem and then pursue a technical solution. They’re like “generals fighting the last war—in particular the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than 30 years ago.”

That accusation has stung leaders of some of the country’s largest environmental organ­izations. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, whom the authors interviewed for their report, accused the two of “patricide” in a long rebuttal published in Grist (Jan. 13, 2005). He says the two mischaracterize the environmental movement and perceive normal differences in leadership styles, political strategies, etc., “as a matter of generational succession.”

But former Sierra Club national president Adam Werbach aligns himself with the two: “The purpose of describing the environmental movement as dead,” he writes in In These Times (July 11, 2005), “is to allow the space for a new movement to grow—a new movement that does not set arbitrary limitations for what is considered an ‘environmental issue.

Some critics see such a move as perilous. “Since when did the environment become a partisan issue?” asks former Time magazine editor and environmental journalist Charles Alexander in a href="http://www.conbio.org/cip/index.cfm" >Conservation in Practice (July–Sept. 2005). In order to succeed, he writes, environmentalists need to attract wide public support, work with far-sighted corporate leaders, and compromise enough to gain conservative political support for measures such as the Climate Stewardship Act, introduced in the Senate by Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman. To lump the environment together with other causes is to “run the risk of reinforcing the notion that enviros are knee-jerk leftists.”

Others fault Shellenberger and Nordhaus for failing to examine a true cross-section of the environmental movement. In Social Policy (Spring 2005), longtime activist Ludovic Blain says that the report should have been titled “The Death of Elite, White, American Environmentalism,” declaring that its argument for a larger vision of what environmentalism ought to be merely echoes those expressed nearly 15 years ago at a National People of Color Environmental Summit. And Pope, of the Sierra Club, charges that the authors interviewed only environmentalism’s wonks, neglecting its many poets and visionaries, such as Wendell Barry and Terry Tempest Williams.

If environmentalism really is dead, what then? Shellenberger and Nordhaus offer few prescriptions, saying that a new blueprint will emerge from collaboration. Some view this claim as disingenuous, pointing out that the two originally distributed their tract, which snipes at other organizations that compete for grant dollars, at an Environmental Grantmakers Association conference. “The Death of Environmentalism” touts the New Apollo Project, a nascent initiative aimed at freeing the United States from oil dependency and creating new “green” jobs. Both Shellenberger and Nordhaus are leaders of the project.

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