The Death of Environmentalism – Reflection 1
In 2004 Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, well-known environmental pollsters and political strategists in the DC environmental lobbying circles, released a much discussed essay called The Death of Environmentalism, which argued that the current direction and strategy of mainstream environmental NGOs, especially in the US, and in particular concerning issues of climate change and energy policy, had run into a dead end. Government strategies like cap and trade, the Kyoto Protocols and carbon emission reduction were futile efforts that failed to harness the power of the market and human technological innovation. Big environmental groups like Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund had lost public support, according to the authors, due to their anti-growth, anti-development, doomsday environmentalism. Environmental writers like Jarred Diamond and Paul Ehrlich, with their population scare tactics and ecological collapse doom and gloom, were only adding fuel to the proverbial fire. Environmentalism had become so negative and singular in focus, Nordhaus and Schellenberger argued, that people were fed up and, crucially, giving up on environmental politics.
In 2007, Nordhaus and Schellenberger released an updated version of these views in Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Environment to Environmentalists.
Environmentalism, rather than overwhelming its opponents, ran aground on its own contradictions. A politics based on a suspicion of modernity and development could offer no answers for the nearly seven billion people around the world eager for both. Western environmentalists who moralized against the excesses of materialism found few followers among a global population more interested in achieving comfort and prosperity, or even among their own countrymen, who, unsurprisingly, found more anxiety in their $4-per-gallon gasoline and shrinking 401(k)’s than in rising sea levels and drowning polar bears. And the consensus among climate scientists over the catastrophic implications of rising carbon emissions ran headlong into the sobering consensus among energy experts that the technologies necessary to stabilize global carbon emissions were far from deployable on a meaningful scale or at a commercially viable cost. (Nordhaus and Schellenberger 2007: v)
The overwhelming response from the environmental community was, not surprisingly, openly hostile. While not hostile, the Dissent magazine article by John Meyer on the Schellenberger and Nordhaus thesis, Does Environmentalism Have a Future, is as good a place as any to think about this project? Meyer opens his piece with the following framing of the debate:
There is a paradox at the heart of contemporary American environmentalism. On the one hand, its organizations are generally larger, stronger, better funded, and more knowledgeable than ever before. Membership has grown in recent years; there are now more than eight million dues-paying members of the major national organizations-and many more in local and statewide organizations-compared to about two million in 1980. Moreover, polls consistently show very high levels of public support for environmental protection, levels that would be the envy of many progressive movements.
As Meyer points out, there are certainly parts of the Schellenberger and Nordhaus argument that have merit, in particular the claim about the moribund nature of contemporary environmental NGO’s. But his take away conclusion is as important, as it points our the danger in a critique like the one in The Death of Environmentalism.
Indeed, there is not only irony but danger in offering such a public jeremiad against jeremiads. For one thing, it runs the risk of bolstering the claims of anti-environmentalists, who are keen to characterize the movement as elitist. For another, it may undermine the initiatives among organizations in recent years that move them, not insignificantly, in the direction that these critics urge us to go.
Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Werbach argue that environmentalism’s failing is too deeply rooted to be resolved by this sort of internal reform. They suggest that the limits on the centrality of environmental concerns to political action lie not in what environmental organizations do, but in what they are. It is in this sense that environmentalism is “dead.” This is a powerful and important claim. Still, we have good reason to be cautious. For although some leaders are willing to acknowledge that their organizations are deeply inadequate to the challenges we face, the alternative will require something different from-and harder than-replacing personnel or reframing agendas.
The progressive politics that our critics suggest as a new project does not now exist in American politics-and may never have existed. Properly understood, their goal is not merely the remaking of environmentalism, but the remaking of the social formation in which a new “environmentalism” (or whatever it may be called) could participate. It is a vision of transcending the fragmentation of interest-group politics, but decidedly not of subsuming diverse concerns and identities. The latter, after all, would be as likely to foster invisibility as centrality for environmental concerns. This new project is nothing less than the reimagination and reconstruction of the democratic left itself. While I applaud Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Werbach for the courage to point us toward this vital goal, neither they-nor we-ought to underestimate its magnitude or its challenges.
I would push the critique of Schellenberger and Nordhaus a step further and suggest that it is not only dangerous in its support for anti-environmentalist agendas, but much more importantly, it is in many cases flat out wrong. The world of environmental politics that Schellenberger and Nordhaus talk about is so far removed from the reality of grassroots environmental politics that at times their arguments are at best straw men, and at worst, outright lies and deception. So much so that I ended up spending an entire class deconstructing their Break Through book into hundreds of pages using either deception or denial. And this is just one text!
In particular, their treatment of the environmental justice movement and their discussion of Chico Mendes and Brazilian politics is atrocious, and shows an absolute lack of any critical race theory, intersectionality or social justice background. But it’s clear that neither of the authors knows–or cares–about issues like structural oppression or white supremacy. Instead, like many others, they are content to quote Martin Luther King Jr. while philosophizing about the death of a movement that, from where I sit in the environmental grassroots, looks nothing like the political world they claim is environmentalism today. But then again, coming from two enviro lobbyists and pollsters who spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in high brow wine sipping, should we really be all that surprised?
Don’t believe me, check out the current work that the two are doing now in their Breakthrough Institute. It’s hard to know where to even engage with some of these arguments. And just for those who might think, well, this is old news, what are they up to now, take a look at their latest piece from the September/October issues of Orion Magazine, called Evolve:A case for modernization as the road to salvation. For more of their stuff, take a look at these two videos, part of their latest project through the Breakthrough Institute.
Michael Schellenberger on Modernizing Liberalism
Ted Nordhaus on Modernizing Liberalism
Until next time…