The Afterlife Of Environmentalism

A year ago, two committed activists with serious credentials in the environmental movement released a report proclaiming “the death of environmentalism.” In so doing, they sparked a debate that continues to this day. While some have suggested that both the authors and their accusations emerged from nowhere, they in fact put a spotlight on some recurrent, yet seldom influential, criticisms leveled by minority voices within the movement. If these criticisms are correct (and in large measure I think that they are),the environmental movement, and the progressive left of which it is a part, will need to be remade in ways that go beyond a mere tinkering with policies, personnel, or priorities. This critique demands changes not only in what environmental organizations do but also in what they are.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus released “The Death of Environmentalism” in October 2004 at the annual gathering of environmental grant-makers (the people who allocate the foundation money that keeps most environmental groups afloat). It soon took on a life of its own, thrashing about widely on the Internet and garnering mainstream media attention earlier this year.

The title alone guaranteed attention, and releasing it at the big grant-makers' conference was enough to provoke many environmental leaders. Following the November election, the general malaise among American progressives also opened greater space for heterodox voices.

And yet in assessing the obstacles to a progressive majority, the environmental movement would seem to be an odd place to begin. Unlike organized labor, for instance, the membership rolls of the big national environmental organizations have grown -- at least fourfold over the past 25 years. The result is bigger budgets and staff, plus more in-house expertise. New statewide and local organizations have also emerged during this period. Environmentalism has a further advantage: Unlike the reproductive-rights movement, for instance, it does not polarize public opinion. Despite some fluctuation, polls consistently show high levels of support for environmental protection -- levels that would be the envy of many progressive movements. So what's the problem?

For one thing, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus make clear, the same polls that identify high levels of public support for environmental protection also reveal that support to be shallow. Americans care about “the environment,” but when faced with competing demands on their time, money, and attention, they don't appear to care all that much. For another thing, membership and organizational growth are not tied -- or sometimes seem inversely tied -- to success in advancing an agenda that now includes halting climate change, protecting species diversity, reducing toxic exposure, and other awesome challenges. Indeed, landmark legislative victories such as the National Environmental Policy, the Clean Air and Water acts, and the Endangered Species acts were all accomplished more than a generation ago, at a time when the movement was much less institutionalized. While the shallowness of support for environmentalism is a key problem, it doesn't represent a change from the past. The increasing difficulty in advancing an agenda -- despite growing movement sophistication -- clearly does. It suggests that simply “more” -- more money, more organizing, more experts -- is unlikely to enable the movement to once again win big.

It might seem reassuring if we could pin the blame for this change on George W. Bush, or perhaps on the Republican takeover of Congress in the '90s. This partisan roadblock certainly makes even incremental progress more difficult. Yet the slowing of environmentalist progress predates both. Environmentalists were running into increasingly sophisticated opposition even during the Carter administration. Some has been from forthright opponents of environmentalism -- for example, the “sagebrush rebellion” and later the “wise use” movement, which have fought government regulation and ownership of western lands. Such efforts have sought -- with modest success -- to create a cultural divide, characterizing environmentalists as effete urbanites out of touch with those who actually work for a living. Yet as I noted, they have never successfully polarized public opinion. The more powerful roadblock has come from the growing presence and skill of opponents -- in industry and elsewhere -- who give lip service to environmental aims but maintain that the economic and social costs are too high and use their power to block implementation.

Richard Nixon signed most of the last generation's environmental legislation into law. He didn't do it because of an ardent sympathy for the cause. Instead, he appears to have regarded environmentalism as a nuisance more easily minimized by approving these bills than opposing them. That attitude was only possible to the extent that environmental concerns were regarded as discrete “issues” not deeply intertwined with broader social, economic, and political concerns. Since the late '70s, the well-organized opposition has made this strategy untenable.

Today, we have less reason to be sanguine about the effectiveness of the regulatory approaches central to the legislation of the 1970s. Moreover, many of today's greatest challenges are global, making a national legislative strategy less effective. But most striking -- and ironic -- is the fact that it is not environmentalists but their opponents who have been more successful in maintaining that (to borrow an ecological truism) “everything is connected.” In unpacking these dilemmas, Shellenberger and Nordhaus open up some of the most interesting and provocative topics for discussion.

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Shellenberger and Nordhaus advance two primary criticisms of contemporary environmentalism. The first is that environmentalists are mired in technocratic wonkery. In some cases this approach has worked. For example, by focusing on the chemicals that are a primary cause of ozone depletion, the movement largely succeeded in getting safer substitutes adopted. Yet on many other issues, success can only come from connecting environmentalists' concerns with a vision for the future that can inspire broad and deep commitment among citizens. But organizational leaders and staffers engage in a “policy literalism” that obliges them to focus narrowly on the policy at hand, ignoring or downplaying its integral connection to broader social and economic contexts. Thus, say the authors, environmentalists assume “that to win action on global warming, one must talk about global warming instead of, say, the economy, industrial policy, or health care.”

With this in mind, we can better understand Shellenberger and Nordhaus' accusation that environmentalists act “as though politics didn't matter.” When environmentalists place faith in both scientific and administrative expertise to solve problems, they consign to politics the pressuring of decision-makers to enable professionals to get on with the job. Shellenberger and Nordhaus are not wholly explicit about this in their report, but I think that they want to elevate politics to a far more vital and constructive role -- presenting a vision of the good life and discussing how societies ought to be organized. The alternative would be to read their appeal to politics as a far less elevated call for better spin of environmental initiatives. Only by adopting the former position can they reject “policy literalism” and also refute the charge that they are disingenuous marketeers, proposing merely to put old environmental wine in new bottles.

Of course, the problem is not unique to environmentalism -- and that's the point. In the absence of a compelling progressive political vision, policies promoting labor, universal health care, reproductive rights, investment in education, gay rights, or a host of other concerns are formulated in isolation and crafted to resonate with distinct constituencies. The political calculus will inevitably focus upon whether these policies are adopted and implemented, rather than whether they build public support for a broader vision. The right, the authors argue, has been effective precisely because it has advanced this sort of political vision, while the left appears as a makeshift coalition of particular issues and interests (of which environmentalism is just one).

One defense against this charge is to note that progressive organizations typically do join in coalition with one another to achieve broader objectives. This was evident during the 2004 election. Yet Shellenberger and Nordhaus' criticism runs deeper than this. They argue that these coalitions typically highlight the thinness of any common vision by calling attention to its instrumental character. Each group joins in because its members believe that “their” issues will be advanced and that the message they send to their constituencies reflects this belief. Widespread public concerns thus come to be construed as narrow “special interests.”

There's nothing particularly original about this description. For a generation, political scientists have put forward similar concepts such as “administrative rationalism” and “interest-group liberalism” to discuss it. Yet it provides a salient basis for rethinking progressive politics at this juncture because it calls our attention to the degree of fragmentation among progressive organizations and constituencies at a moment of almost total political blockage.

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The second criticism leveled by Shellenberger and Nordhaus is more specific to environmentalism, although analogies to other movements can be made. Here, they level what, on the face of it, is the counterintuitive claim that “the environmental community's belief that their power derives from defining themselves as defenders of ‘the environment' has prevented us from winning … .” They go on to argue that “environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed ‘thing' -- ‘the environment' -- than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir who nearly a century ago observed, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.'”

Now what could be wrong with defining the movement as “defenders of the environment”? Surely this seems like a popular way of framing the concern; few people, after all, intentionally position themselves as “destroyers of the environment.” Moreover, as Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope put it in a blistering criticism of Shellenberger and Nordhaus, “Without being too precious, the environment is a real thing. There is a global carbon cycle, human interventions are a small if meaningful part of the evolutionary process, Homo sapiens depend upon a complex web of both geochemical and biological processes.”

And yet this point, too, has a history that predates Shellenberger and Nordhaus' salvo. It has been brewing for many years in a variety of activist and academic circles. One source of this critique is from promising new movements that have come into prominence over the past couple of decades. The “environmental justice” organizations that emerged in poor and minority communities (to connect local environmental hazards to broader social injustices) and the “collaborative conservation” groups (which have worked to sustain rural livelihood and restore watersheds in the American West) are in many ways quite disparate. Yet both begin from concerns with livelihood and places close at hand, rather than distant and seemingly abstract concerns. Both have also challenged the role of scientific and policy-making experts and managers, putting greater faith in the role of ordinary citizens to address concerns that are deeply familiar to them. When environmentalism is enmeshed with everyday life and concerns, it is better understood as relational than as protecting a “thing.”

Defining environment as a thing allows it to be perceived as peripheral from everyday life and livelihood. Shellenberger and Nordhaus convincingly argue that this framing helps explain the shallowness of public support. Generating more information, or devising more creative or ambitious public-education campaigns, will do little to increase public salience so long as this perception remains in place.

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It seems understandable and almost inevitable -- even in the face of the undeniable setbacks and frustrations of recent years -- that organizational leaders would be wary of such calls for transformation. Shellenberger and Nordhaus have fed this wariness in the past year by being quick to shoot down -- but slow to build up -- ideas for viable new progressive projects, and by often seeming to tar nearly all members of a very diverse movement with the same broad brush. In adopting this posture, they have appeared dismissive of the very real risks that dramatic change necessarily entails and of many promising, concrete initiatives. They have thus left themselves open to the charge that they are mainly critics who come up short in providing practical strategies to carry out their vision. They often seem stuck in their role as the “bad boys” of environmentalism, as Bill McKibben has put it, promising only that a more complete reconstructive vision will be found in their forthcoming book.

I don't think we need to wait for the book. In part, this is because environmentalism is not as monolithic as Shellenberger and Nordhaus suggest. Their criticisms adhere more firmly to the big national organizations than to a variety of smaller-scale initiatives, often found at the state and local levels. These initiatives hint to an alternative. As I suggested above, the promising efforts are those that break down dichotomies between human communities and the environment while highlighting the question that everyone has the ability to address: What sort of life do we want for our children and our society?

To date, such initiatives, many of which are described elsewhere in this special issue, have primarily confronted local concerns. There is good reason to wonder whether they can be scaled up effectively. Even if they can, however, some will fear that this approach will weaken rather than strengthen environmental advocacy; that it will dilute the focus and persuasiveness of a form of rhetoric dependent for their power upon scary images of limits and crisis.

While they don't present it in their white paper, Shellenberger and Nordhaus do suggest a way to respond to this fear. In public talks they have given over the past year, as well as in a published speech by their colleague Adam Werbach, they describe focus groups facilitated by pollster Nordhaus in Ohio and Pennsylvania. They point to evidence that popular support can deepen if the concerns for global warming are persuasively tied to the everyday concerns of citizens and to their hopes for a better future. By focusing on community investment as a means of promoting clean energy, support for such concerns connects not just with a generalized sympathy for the environment but also resonates with a far more salient concern for the future of families and communities.

If these findings can be consistently replicated (as I suspect they can), Shellenberger and Nordhaus' critical project becomes a reconstructive one. The conversation about environmental concerns becomes integral to economy and society in a way that it rarely is at the present. This is not an effort to change public attitudes. Instead, it is a change intended to bring the progressive agenda into closer contact with public attitudes that are already sympathetic, yet tepid. Only by doing so might the public be mobilized in a way that can effectively counter an increasingly sophisticated opposition.

In sum, two sorts of change are needed. One is to elevate “politics” as a discussion about values and a constructive vision for the future. Another is to reconnect “environment” to the realm of everyday concerns with quality of life and livelihood. By pursuing both these aims, we can build a more powerful movement to promote the well-being of communities and ecosystems together.

John M. Meyer is an associate professor of government and politics at Humboldt State University. He is the author of Political Nature: Environmentalism and the Interpretation of Western Thought and is currently working on a book about the role of environmentalism as social criticism.