Shades of Green

More than two-thirds of Americans call themselves environmentalists. Their rank includes every serious presidential candidate, a growing list of corporate executives, some of the country's most extreme radicals, and ordinary people from just about every region, class, and ethnic group. Even allowing for some hypocrisy, finding consensus so tightly overlaid on division is reason for a closer look.

In fact, there are several environmentalisms in this country, and there have been for a long time. They are extensions of some of the most persistent strands of American thought and political culture. They stand for different and sometimes conflicting policy agendas, and their guiding concerns are often quite widely divergent. Recently, though, they have begun to contemplate a set of issues that promises to transform each of them—and to expand environmental politics from its traditional concern with a limited number of wild places and species to a broader commitment to the environment as the place where we all live, all the time.

The oldest and most familiar version of environmental concern might be called romantic environmentalism. Still a guiding spirit of the Sierra Club and the soul of the Wilderness Society and many regional groups, this environmentalism arises from love of beautiful landscapes: the highest mountains, deepest canyons, and most ancient forests. As a movement, it began in the late nineteenth century when America's wealthy discovered outdoor recreation and, inspired by writers like Sierra Club founder John Muir, developed a reverence for untamed places. For these American romantics, encounters with the wild promised to restore bodies and spirits worn down by civilized life. Today's romantic environmentalists blend this ambition with a delight in whales, wolves, and distant rain forests. More than any other environmentalists, they—still disproportionately white and prosperous—feel a spiritual attachment to natural places.

Muir's environmentalism contains the idea that our true selves await us in the wild. Another type, managerial environmentalism, puts the wild at our service. This approach is a direct descendant of the Progressive era's hopeful reformism, specifically of Teddy Roosevelt's forestry policies; it makes its basic task the fitting together of ecology and economy to advance human ends. Pragmatic, market oriented, but respectful of public institutions, managerial environmentalists design trading schemes for pollution permits at the Natural Resources Defense Council, head up programs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to collaborate with businesses in developing clean technologies, and envision global environmental standards advancing alongside free trade accords. In their wild-eyed moments, they imagine a high-tech economy that follows nature in producing no waste or, like The New Republic's senior editor Gregg Easterbrook, genetic engineering that will turn carnivores into grass eaters and bring lion and lamb together at last. Although it began among policy makers, this managerial attitude is gaining ground in the optimistic culture of Silicon Valley and has many adherents younger than 35.

The environmental justice movement is another thing entirely. Only an idea a decade ago, this effort to address the relationships among race, poverty, and environmental harm has come to rapid prominence. Grass-roots projects in inner cities and industrial areas around the country have drawn attention to urban air pollution, lead paint, transfer stations for municipal garbage and hazardous waste, and other environmental dangers that cluster in poor and minority neighborhoods. Eight years ago, romantic environmentalism was virtually the only movement that engaged students on college campuses; now young activists are equally likely to talk about connections between the environment and social justice or, on an international scale, the environment and human rights.

Environmental justice follows the tradition of social inclusion and concern for equity that had its last great triumphs during the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. Some of its landmark moments are court cases ruling that federal projects can be challenged when they concentrate environmental harm in minority areas, which have begun to extend the principles of civil rights to environmental policy.

The environmental justice movement also reflects the populist streak that emerges in American politics wherever an isolated community finds itself up against big and anonymous institutions. Activists and community members tend to mistrust big business and government alike. The constituency of the environmental justice movement often perceives the gap between the prosperous and the poor, between whites and minorities, between mainstream culture and their own communities, as much more basic than the difference between the EPA and Monsanto. All outsiders are on the other side of that gap—an impression that has been reinforced where some local Sierra Club chapters have ignored community health issues and have endorsed proposals to put waste dumps in poor neighborhoods rather than in pristine valleys.

Environmental justice advocates have little patience for romantic environmentalism, and their culture of perpetual embattlement is worlds away from managerial optimism. When "environmentalists" of such different experiences and sensibilities address the same issue, it is no surprise that misunderstanding and acrimony sometimes result. This tension was evident two years ago when the Sierra Club came close to endorsing strict controls on immigration to slow development and resource use in this country. The organization's justice-oriented members were outraged, as they had been over the waste-siting disputes a few years earlier. For the pure romantics, the concerns about poor communities and international equity didn't seem "environmental" at all. Meanwhile, the impassioned dispute was all rather alien to the measured rationality of the managerial environmentalists' plans for efficient resource use.

But our several environmentalisms are learning from their interactions, and it is possible that the lessons will be good for them all. Romantic environmentalism has long withheld itself from cities, suburbs, and factories, sometimes following Muir in treating these as fallen places where nothing beautiful will grow. The other environmentalisms have challenged this idea by insisting that "the environment" means the space where we live and work, that the built environment of Manhattan and the industrial environment of the lower Mississippi matter as much as the ecosystem of Yellowstone.

The change brings environmental concern home to cities and neighborhoods, where people live. This domesticated environmentalism is crystallized in the debates about sprawl, "smart growth," and the design of communities. It is powered by the recognition that the way we now pursue the things we seem to want—space, light, some trees, a little peace and quiet—can leave us feeling overcrowded and isolated, spending too much time in our cars, living and working in spaces that do not inspire our affection. Communities that decide to make walking or bicycling easy, develop dense housing in return for set-asides of open space, and foster neighborhoods where living, working, and shopping all happen on the same block, are addressing an environmental problem with an environmental solution. This is an environmentalism that urges not just setting aside a piece of wilderness for occasional visits but changing the way we live every day—the way we spend our money, build our homes, and move from place to place.

Attention to these domesticated environmental concerns thus corrects a huge blind spot in romantic environmentalism's sometimes exclusive commitment to wilderness. It can also help to bridge a basic gap in the policy proposals of managerial environmentalism. Those proposals concentrate on technological innovation: taxing greenhouse gases, devising permit systems for pollution, and otherwise inventing better devices for living as we already do. The paradox that dogs the managers is that because their policy proposals generally cost money to ordinary people, big industry, or both, they stand little chance without a ground swell of popular support; yet they are just the thing to induce a fit of napping in the average citizen, whose visceral concern for the environment does not carry over into an interest in the tax code. Policies that foster, say, responsible logging, farming for stewardship, or sustainable grazing on public lands have more appeal when they come not as insights of microeconomic analysis and resource management but as part of a proposal that the work we do in nature is more appealing and honorable when it respects nature's requirements. Most of us care little about supply and demand curves, but a fair amount about where we live and how we work. Because it is close to the grain of everyday experience, the language of livable communities and environmentally responsible work can make environmental policy-designers more politically effective.

As for the environmental justice movement, it fits here as the Alabama bus boycotts fit into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It fights against particular, sometimes quite outrageous, injustices. Its work is right and necessary but not usually connected with a broader agenda for sustaining dignified communities. Yet such an agenda needs not just constituents who are suburbanites upset by sprawl, but the people who suffer most from poor policies on toxics, land use, and transportation: the urban and rural poor. Moreover, a systematic response to the systematic problems those communities face is the only just way to end their thousands of brushfire struggles.

So one possible result of the present trends in environmental politics is a broader, more effective environmental movement. Such a movement might propose that we should need neither to withdraw our innermost selves to the woods nor to experience our neighborhoods as a species of oppression. It would make the human environment a complete and honored portion of environmental politics. Pursuing such goals would require romantics to bring some of their aspirations home from the wilderness, policy specialists to get their hands dirty in a political culture that does not yield to economists' graphs, and environmental justice activists to find reason to turn their populist anger to projects on common ground. None of our several environmentalisms will go away, and none should, but they are all better off with the recognition that the environment is very much a political, cultural, and human affair.

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