We're All Environmentalists Now

For the environmental community, “The Death of Environmentalism” hit last year with the force of a tsunami, leaving its audience so taken aback by its sweeping, cocksure condemnation of their decades of selfless struggle that they could barely think about it rationally, even when they accepted its basic truth.

On the other hand, among progressives who don't situate their lives primarily in the world of the greens, the essay crept to attention more slowly, rather like global warming itself. Almost a year later, I am still periodically sent a copy, along with a breathless “Have you read this?” note. Not only did I read it, I point out; I tried to call attention to it outside the environmental community back in March, predicting that “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.”

Rereading the essay after a year, it seems even clearer that “The Death of Environmentalism” was less a condemnation of the environmental movement than a call to all progressives to think more like environmentalists -- and for professional environmentalists to think less like Washington lobbyists. The essay's greatest gift was its critique of “policy literalism,” the process by which activists identify a distinct problem, define it as an “environmental” one, seek the proximate cause, propose a solution, and then mobilize their experts, their lobbyists, and their public-relations machines around that solution.

In the most provocative section of their essay, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, proposed that rather than defining the problem of global warming as “too much carbon in the atmosphere,” the problem should be redefined as:

  • the radical right's control of all three branches of the U.S. government;
  • trade policies that undermine environmental protections;
  • our failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision;
  • overpopulation;
  • the influence of money in American politics;
  • our inability to craft legislative proposals that shape the debate around core American values;
  • poverty; and
  • old assumptions about what the problem is and what it isn't

In my response this past spring, I half-mocked this sweeping list, along with a suggestion from another expert quoted in the essay that the only solution for global warming is “real campaign-finance reform,” as if the authors were offering to swap one hard political problem for a less familiar one. (If you've been working on global warming for a decade, campaign-finance reform looks simple and fun, but the reverse is also true.)

But in retrospect, I think I, too, missed the point. It wasn't to redefine one issue as another. That's just “policy literalism” with a new mask. Rather, it was a call to define all the circumstances that we face in a unitary, systemic way, because in fact they are integrally related. And only by seeing them in that way can we address them coherently as a movement.

* * *

Shellenberger and Nordhaus revealed a death, but it was not that of environmentalism as an idea. Rather, it is interest-group pluralism, the model of liberal advocacy under which all of us over 30 were raised, that is finished. The environmental movement -- much like groups that advocate for health policy or children or gun control or civil liberties or housing or campaign-finance reform -- was created on the assumptions of pluralism: Democratic government, usually in some bipartisan fashion, would take the claims of advocates for individual causes, find balance where they conflicted, and allocate resources based on the power -- electoral, moral, popular, financial, legal, or scientific -- of competing claims. The mission for any individual issue-advocacy group in this game was to develop popular support, media visibility, or political clout to offset the strength of direct opponents. Citizenship meant directing your energies and some money around a particular issue, or perhaps two, that you chose as a priority. If you were moved by the direct-mail appeals of the Sierra Club, you became an environmentalist; if it was NARAL's package that caught your attention, you were a pro-choice voter, and these allegiances defined citizenship for many Americans more strongly than any political party.

Membership organizations are not the only avenue for interest-group pluralism, of course. Much social change has been achieved through litigation or through impartial technical expertise brought to bear on the regulatory or legislative process. These approaches were the main subject of critique in “The Death of Environmentalism,” and these tend also to be single-issue strategies promoted by foundations.

Interest-group pluralism has always had its critics, who note that issues affecting the disorganized and disenfranchised would never be well-represented and that interest-group pluralism, with its incremental victories, could never confront big structural problems and imbalances of power. But for many decades, interest-group pluralism was what we had, and it worked reasonably well as a way for liberals with some share of power to allocate resources. And for particular issues, the environment in particular, interest-group pluralism gave that movement a broad base of support -- from voters who are conservative on other issues and from politicians as far to the right as the first President Bush -- that would not have been possible had environmentalism been defined in broader progressive terms.

But the politics of today's moment, of the situation defined in “The Death of Environmentalism” as “the radical right's control of all three branches of government,” brings interest-group pluralism to its knees. Pluralism is a strategy for making improvements while holding governing power; it is not a strategy to save the world from those with unchecked power. And the radical right understands that it can maintain power by exploiting the weaknesses in interest-group pluralism, delivering to the strongest claimants the incremental achievements they and their lobbyists demand (a pro-industry Medicare prescription-drug program, for example) while undermining the very foundation of those demands -- an active, responsible, fair government. Washington is filled with organizations and lobbyists who consider themselves “public-interest” activists, who celebrate the 4-percent increase they won in appropriations for their pet program or the three new co-sponsors who have signed on to their innovative bill but who remain numb or indifferent to the fact that under current policies, those programs will soon cease to exist entirely.

In many ways, interest-group pluralism resembles the model of neoclassical economics, with its assumption that the choices of individuals and organizations, acting independently, will aggregate into something resembling the general good. And just as environmentalists tend to have a particular recognition of the shortcomings of this laissez-faire economic model -- because, among other things, individual actors ignore the long-term and social costs of their actions -- it is no surprise that the most powerful recognition of the limits of interest-group pluralism should come from within the environmental movement.

* * *

What is the alternative, then? The responsibility does not fall solely on the environmental movement to change its ways and take up issues that it did not previously consider “environmental,” such as the burden of retiree health-care costs on U.S. automakers. It starts with individuals redefining citizenship, so that instead of marking themselves off as “environmentalists” or “children's advocates” or “union” voters, they see the world the way environmentalists do, as an interconnected system in which global economic trends, corruption, ideology and values, political participation, etc. are all related to the fundamental goal of a just and sustainable society.

To do so requires organizations through which people can redefine their role as citizens. These organizations may thrive on the Internet (MoveOn.org and the vast readership connected through blogs like the Daily Kos are good examples) or at the local level, where broad-based, multi-issue progressive organizations like Progressive Maryland are reversing the trend toward direct-mail democracy. Needless to say, our history does not lack for a model of a broad-based, coalitional, multi-issue, permanent force for political change -- it's called a political party. And while environmentalists, like other issue advocates, often depend on friendly Republican allies for incremental progress, they should not lose sight of their interest in a strong and responsive Democratic Party with deep roots in communities and in states.

Existing organizations should begin to do what environmentalists would call “internalizing the externalities,” meaning to make the long-term and social costs part of the equation. In this case, that means acknowledging deeper issues, such as the inability of government to meet changing needs, the threats to constitutional assumptions under which we operate, or the sustainability of a petroleum-based economy, all of which most interest groups would in the past have defined as “not my problem.” These groups need to begin to think in a more political way, not just about elections but about the overall structural changes necessary for them to make durable gains on behalf of those they represent. Alliances among organizations cannot be based simply on logrolling (“I'll support your issue if you support mine”) but on a deeper recognition that “our” issues are interdependent.

The stumbling block, of course, occurs when the issues are not interdependent and where alliances are elusive. An ally on issues of poverty, for example, may not take the “progressive” view on reproductive choice, and it is futile to ostracize that ally from the progressive coalition. Recently, for example, broad coalitions of progressive organizations in Wisconsin and in Maine (including Wisconsin Citizen Action and faith-based organizations in that state, and the Dirigo Alliance in Maine) have engaged in efforts (aided by some national organizations including the Grassroots Policy Project and the Proteus Fund) to think through the common elements of their worldview and learn to live with tactical as well as substantive differences.

There may be other differences within a progressive coalition -- on trade, fiscal policy, or gun rights -- but those disagreements need not be crippling. If we begin to think about the world as environmentalists do, as a complex and nonlinear system in which small interventions can have huge impact for good or for ill, perhaps we can begin to see the method by which progressives of many stripes can begin to act politically, act together, and reverse the current vicious cycle of politics and policy.

Mark Schmitt is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

You may also like