Ever since it debuted at a conference of environmental funders in Hawaii shortly before the election, a report titled “The Death of Environmentalism” has been infuriating the legions of nonprofit professionals who make their living in the “green” world. And it is easy to see why. Starting with the report's cover, embossed with a Chinese ideogram that, according to a tiresome and incorrect management-consulting cliché, is composed of the symbols for danger and opportunity and means “crisis,” it is pompous, contemptuous, vague, New Age-y, contradictory, incomplete, and sometimes obviously wrong.
And yet it may be the most powerful and lasting of the very many “What's wrong with the left?” documents of the George W. Bush era. Written by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who have since earned the nickname “The Reapers,” “The Death of Environmentalism” is a brilliant mess. It charges that “the environmental movement's foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded,” and that “modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis.”
Those who make their living or their avocation in the environmental movement have by now exhausted themselves in debating this premature death warrant. But the essay is still almost unknown outside the circle it was addressed to. And that's too bad, because its insights, along with its flaws, are just as relevant to other causes, if not more so. And we nonenvironmentalists can read it with dispassionately; we have nothing to be defensive about.
“The Death of Environmentalism” is also compelling to those of us outside the green zone because, let's face it, all social movements aspire to the condition of environmentalism. If environmentalism is so deeply flawed, what is the fate of the rest of us who advocate for sane tax policy or labor rights or gun control or campaign-finance reform or media-policy reform? Although it's well-known that the environmental movement has too many chiefs who spend too much time squabbling with one another, we should all have such problems. The environmentalists have big money (the funder confab at which the paper was presented is made up of 250 foundations), they have organizations with millions of members, they have moral credibility, and they have real Republicans on their side. They have swing voters -- middle-class parents and hunters and fishermen who love their open spaces and clean water. They even have political scalps -- take it from former Senator Slade Gorton: You don't want to see your name on the League of Conservation Voters' “Dirty Dozen” list. Among progressive causes, perhaps only reproductive choice has such reach and similar political salience.
(And perhaps it is no accident that the choice movement is going through a similar tortured self-analysis at this moment. An essay by Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice titled “Is There Life After Roe?” which argues that the pro-choice movement needs to be more sensitive to women's complex feelings about the fetus, has raised almost exactly the same kind of reaction within that movement -- furor, followed by the acknowledgement that there is a kernel of truth to it, made easier by Kissling's tone, which is gentler than the Reapers, and the fact that she's earned her stripes in the movement. See also Sarah Blustain's contribution to this debate in The American Prospect.)
So while everyone else wants to make their cause more like the environmentalists', “Death” argues that environmentalists should want their cause to be more like everyone else's. Instead of looking at the issue of global warming as an “environmental” one, The Reapers ask, why not redefine the problem as “poverty,” or “trade policies that undermine environmental protections,” or “the influence of money in American politics”? They ask author Ross Gelbspan about how to advance his solution to global warming, and he replies, “I don't see an answer short of real campaign-finance reform.”
Having spent some of my life working on campaign-finance reform, I'm tempted to offer Gelbspan a swap: He can take that tired, frustrating process issue -- which has little constituency, no direct effects on people's lives, and is full of paradoxes and unintended consequences -- and I'll take up the cause of saving the planet.
But that reaction misses Nordhaus and Schellenberger's big, big point, the one we all need to hear. It is summed up in the term “policy literalism.” They write that “the environmental community's narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. Environmentalists closely scrutinize the policies without giving much thought to the politics that made the policies possible.” Elsewhere they write, “The three-part strategic framework hasn't changed in 40 years: First, define a problem (e.g., global warming) as ‘environmental.' Second, craft a solution … . Third, sell the technical proposal to legislators through a variety of tactics, such as lobbying, third-party allies, research reports, advertising, and public relations.”
And for these two words -- policy literalism -- and for showing just how stale this strategic framework is, we should forgive The Reapers almost all their sins. This strategic framework is not limited to environmentalists; it is the standard approach to change on all issues, even where liberals are on the defensive, such as Social Security. Advocates for each cause put their problems in a box, put together all the information in that box, hire lobbyists, try to recruit allies to join them in the box, produce research, and try to inform a public that is simultaneously being bombarded by a thousand other people trying to inform them about other narrow issues … and lose.
The alternative to policy literalism is what The Reapers call “politics,” but it is not as simple as “kick the bastards out,” although that's part of it. Their vision of politics involves a kind of environmentalist's understanding of the connectedness of everything. They are looking for policies that cross the traditional lines that define issues. Their model is the Apollo Initiative, a labor-environmental alliance that advocates for public investment in clean energy; it would create jobs, reduce global warming, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and reduce sprawl. In another instance, they point out that the greatest burden facing the U.S. auto industry is the cost of retiree health care and pensions, and that if that problem could be solved, the industry might agree to a deal to improve auto mileage standards. Environmentalists limit themselves, they argue, by defining that as a problem in health policy, and thus someone else's business.
The Reapers overstate their claims for the untested Apollo Initiative, and understate the degree to which traditional environmentalists have already accepted it. (Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, who appears to be their main target, is a co-chair of the Apollo Initiative.) And, of course, there's an even bigger question about their proposal for massive public investment: “With what money?” If you want to get beyond policy literalism and find ideas that unite all progressive forces, restoring revenues to the federal government would be a place to start. But that's an abstraction, and a message like Apollo's might provide some of the substance that is needed to restore the case for government.
“The Death of Environmentalism” says too little about two factors that tend to perpetuate policy literalism. The first is membership, and the second is the role of foundations and other funders. The Reapers' vision of the environmental movement is mostly of scientist-dominated policy outfits like Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council, not of the huge memberships of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and Ducks Unlimited. Each of these groups has cultivated a dues-paying constituency around its particular approach and interest. While membership is a great asset, managing membership can be a constraint; the Sierra Club's members, for example, all joined because they consider themselves “environmentalists,” not something else, and those members cannot easily be delivered to the cause of campaign-finance reform or fixing the auto industry's health-cost problems.
Yet the era of mass-membership single-issue groups may be ending. The average age of members in some such groups is higher than the average life expectancy, and that is probably true of some of the environmental groups as well. It has been years since a major single-issue membership group has emerged. The new form of participation, through entities such as MoveOn.org, is more transactional and multi-issue. It is more like what political parties used to be, and perhaps can be again. So in the end, when The Reapers call for a more “political” approach to issues, they need more than just single-issue groups like environmentalists and labor unions agreeing on something. If it's to really work, the nature of the institutions through which citizens participate in public issues will have to change dramatically, perhaps looking more like real political parties (or like something else entirely).
Surprisingly, in that “Death” was commissioned by a foundation and presented at a meeting of foundations, The Reapers also overlook the role of institutional philanthropy in promoting policy literalism. Indeed, the report flatters the movement's funders, crediting the largest -- the Pew Charitable Trusts -- with “getting results” even as they dismiss the entire movement those foundations fund as having “strikingly little to show” for the millions invested, a glaring contradiction that surely justifies Carl Pope's contention that the “not-so-subtle message is ‘fund us instead.'”
But, speaking from experience, foundations bear a good deal of responsibility for the problem of policy literalism. Foundations tend to pick an issue, put together a staff with some expertise on that issue, identify a solution, and fund projects that perhaps model “best practices” for that solution. But that's not an approach that works in the world of George W. Bush and Tom DeLay, where the term “best practices” is not heard frequently. Everything The Reapers say about the environmentalists' “strategic framework” is exactly what large foundations promote. They, too, need to become more political -- not in the partisan sense but in the sense of understanding that the best way to achieve a policy is not necessarily just to focus on that policy. A foundation that wants to improve early-childhood education, for example, needs first to confront the fact that, on current trends, there will be no money for Head Start or similar programs in a dozen years. They can prove that Head Start works, but unless they confront the big picture (that government has been stripped of its capacity to deal with any major problem), their efforts will be futile.
And that is the sense in which everyone needs to read “The Death of Environmentalism.” For all its flaws, it is the clearest call yet for everyone to shed the way of doing business that they learned in the 1970s, which worked fine even in the '80s and '90s but no longer works at all.
Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and was formerly director of policy at the Open Society Institute. He writes a blog on policy and politics, The Decembrist.